You might expect this article covers questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is my purpose?” It doesn’t.
Those are better questions for a college philosophy class, or a deep discussion with friends after a few drinks.
The questions I cover here are life-changing because they can change the direction of your decisions on a daily basis. Small changes over time lead to a massively better life down the road.
These questions, and the corresponding answers create a compound effect . They are questions I ask myself constantly, and have also used them with clients over the years.
At first, they’re not easy to answer. In fact, they will probably make you feel uncomfortable. But, over time, they’ll shift the way you see the world, your part in it, and your perception of the power you hold to make your life better and easier.
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Your Daily Dialogue
On my walk to the gym, I often pass by a guy who, based on his behavior, I believe is addicted to meth. On one hand, I feel sorry for the guy. If his issue is meth, that’s pretty hard to break free from. What grabs my attention is the wild, vocal, enthusiastic conversations he has…with himself.
People walking by might see his behavior as weird, but it isn’t much different from anyone else. We all talk to ourselves, just not out loud (well, most of the time it isn’t out loud).
The average person has between 12,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day.
Most of the thoughts are part of an ongoing, one way lecture in their heads…They judge, complain, excuse, blame, and should all over themselves.
Actually, that’s how most conversations play out with other people today, too. Lots talking and telling others what to think. Very few questions and even less listening to the answers…but I digress.
I’ve found one or more of the following questions get me out of the one-way lecture in my head, and into a two-way conversation and solution for whatever situation I’m in.
Question 1: What If I’m Wrong?
The perfect question for checking your ego and controlling your emotions.
This question isn’t an easy one to answer. Before you ask this of someone else, I suggest you wrestle with it yourself first.
The reality is, you’re probably wrong about more of your beliefs than you are right. I am too.
There’s very little in life for which we can have absolute certainty. If people contemplated this question before posting online, their posts and comments would be dramatically different.
So many people seem so certain of their beliefs. If you challenge them or disagree, they unfriend, dislike or even attack you.
When did this happen? When did people become so childish in their thinking that they became convinced the rest of the world needed to see everything the same way they did?
At the time of this writing, the appointing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States was the top news story.
I tuned into some of the story, and also observed how people reacted to both sides of the allegations of sexual misconduct.
If you’re out of the loop, or reading this at a time where the story is part of the history books, you can quickly catch up on this Wikipedia page.
I saw so many emotional outrages on both sides. Personally, I felt I’d be a fool to have an opinion on the matter. Here’s why: I wasn’t there. That’s obvious. But here are some other reasons.
Based on my life experiences, education, media and people I listen to, and my unconscious beliefs, I come into any controversial topic with certain biases.
Those biases cause me to interpret the information I’m exposed to differently than someone else with different experiences, living in a different environment. I could even take my anger and frustration from some past experience and place it on someone here and now that had nothing to do with it.
Those biases have even more influence over me when I’m emotionally-charged.
Then, I get my information about the topic from the media, or other people who share the story through their own biased point of view, based on their their own experiences, education, media and people they listen to, and their unconscious beliefs. Some people’s perspectives are also tainted by the loyalty they have to someone or something, like a company, family member, or political party.
On top of that, Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford came into the controversy with their own biases, recalling events from decades earlier.
It’s possible that one or both of them lied. It’s also possible that they both told the truth, based on their own memories of the past. Those memories have been shaped by their own individual experiences, education, media and people they listen to, and their unconscious beliefs.
The fact is, memories are often wrong.
The good ones are often better than reality was, and the bad memories often paint a picture that’s worse than it actually was.
Here’s an example of how misinformed our memories may be, as told by Marcia K Johnson of Yale University.
When I was a college freshman, during dinner with friends and my parents, I was reminded of an incident from when I was about 5 years old and recounted it:
My family was driving through the central valley in California when we had a flat tire. My father took the tire off the car and hitchhiked up the road to get the tire patched. My mother, brother, sister, and I waited in the hot car. We got very thirsty and finally my sister took a couple of empty pop bottles and walked up the road to a farmhouse. The woman explained there was a drought and she had only a little bottled water left. She set aside a glass of water for her little boy and filled my sister’s pop bottles with the rest. My sister returned to the car, we drank the water, and I remembered feeling guilty that we didn’t save any for my father (Johnson, 1985).
When I finished, my parents laughed. They said we did take a trip during a drought, had a flat, and my father did go get it fixed. The rest of us waited a long time in the car, my sister complained about the heat, but nobody went anywhere for water. Evidently, what I had done at the time was imagine a solution to our problem, simultaneously getting rid of my fussy sister and getting us something to drink. In remembering the incident years later, I confused the products of my perceptual experience with the products of my imagination—I had a failure in reality monitoring, or a false memory (Johnson, 1977, 1988; Johnson & Raye, 1981, 1998).
Johnson MK. Memory and Reality. American Psychologist. 2006
Think about that. She actually believed her sister did something she never did, spoke to someone she never spoke to, and drank water from a soda bottle that never happened!
This isn’t an unusual case, either. Wired magazine published a fascinating article on false memories and crime you might like to read, called False Memories And False Confessions: The Psychology Of Imagined Crimes.
It’s possible that Judge Kavanaugh and/or Christine Blasey Ford don’t remember the situation from decades ago accurately. So, why would someone who wasn’t there be so convinced he or she is right?
I’d be a fool to get angry and ruin friendships over something that I cannot be certain of. Yet this happens all the time in politics, religion (including different religions of the same faith), nutrition…even in debates about iPhones and Androids.
If you want to avoid unnecessary stress, better understand the world around you, avoid creating an ego that’s as fragile as an egg shell, and limit the number of bad decisions you make (like Apple removing the Home button), you have to frequently ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?”
And then be okay with it when you find out your are.
It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.Mark Twain
Question 2: Is It Impossible?
The perfect question for overcoming your excuses.
The first time I stumbled upon the magic of this question was when I was a Senior Director in my previous corporate life.
I had some web and marketing stuff I wanted to get done, as I knew it was important for moving my businesses forward. I was in a meeting, and was feeling frustrated by the pushback and excuses from some of the support teams I worked with.
They didn’t work for me, they worked with me, so I couldn’t pull out an “I’m the boss” card (which I wouldn’t have done even if I could, since that’s a lousy way to lead), and I knew I wouldn’t motivate them to help me by arguing with them.
After listening to several minutes of excuses about what I was asking for, I paused for a moment. Rather than getting more irritated or arguing, I said, “It sounds impossible. Are you saying it’s impossible?”
The room got quiet. And after a few beats, someone said, “Well, no, it isn’t impossible…” “Great!” I said with extra enthusiasm. “What will it take to make it possible?” They figured it out and I ended up getting what I wanted.
And you can too.
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.Arthur Conan Doyle
If you ask someone if something is possible, their brain gets lazy and falls back on the snarky phrase, “Well, anything is possible,” not really believing it.
But when you ask someone if the obstacle they face is impossible to overcome, their brain goes to work. Nobody wants to admit that something is impossible to solve. Most of the time, they come up with multiple solutions.
Almost any obstacle becomes an excuse if you let it. Call it an excuse, obstacle, or a “reason.” It doesn’t matter. Ask yourself if your desired outcome is impossible in light of that excuse. In almost every situation, you’ll find a solution.
I love using this question with health and fitness clients, as well as in our network marketing business.
It’s perfect for excuses like these:
- I don’t have time
- I don’t know what to do
- I don’t know anybody
- I can’t afford it
- I eat out too often
- I don’t know how to cook
- I can’t get to bed early enough
- I have a desk job and can’t get out and walk
- My spouse doesn’t support me
- I have a bad knee/hip/shoulder/finger/ear lobe
Once you admit that it’s possible to overcome your excuse, the next question is, “What do I have to do to make it possible?” And that’s where you must face an uncomfortable question: “Am I willing to do what it takes?”
The real question is not whether it’s possible or not. The real question is whether or not you’re willing to do the work, after you admit that it’s possible.
Read also: 5 Beliefs That Build Suckituptitutde.
Question 3: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?
The perfect question for overcoming your fears.
Your heart was pounding. Your hands were cold and clammy. You probably peed five times in the hour before. You couldn’t help but wonder, “What if I fail?” Then the deciding moment came…you had to parallel park, and you knew one terrifying fact. Hitting that cone could cause immediate failure. And failure would mean telling your friends that you failed. And then the whole school would know and your life would be over.
Not really. But you probably had some sort of story built up in your mind back when you took your driving test. Today, you laugh at it because it seems so silly.
If you’re truly scared of something, sometimes you just need to identify what the worst possible outcome could be.
You’re probably not doing something that could result in your untimely death, so anything short of that will be short-term.
I think of most fears like visiting haunted houses. Some people are absolutely terrified at the idea of going to a haunted house, much less actually going to one. But, let’s say that you do muster up the courage to go to a haunted house, and then ask yourself this question: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Well, the absolute worst possible thing that could happen is that you’d die from terror.
The next worst is that you’d pee and/or poop in your pants because you’re scared.
Actually, come to think of it, the worst thing would be to die and pee and poop in your pants at the haunted house. But the chance of that happen is almost zero. And if you do some Kegel exercises ahead of time, and squeeze your butt cheeks as you walk through the haunted house, you should be able to hold your bladder and avoid pooping in your pants.
So now that you know that won’t happen, what might?
Perhaps, you’ll walk through the haunted house, get surprised a few times, and have some pervert in a mask grab you somewhere he or she shouldn’t.
You’ll exit the haunted house and join your friends, feeling victorious for overcoming your fear, and then have fun sharing stories with one another about the experience.
When we do the stuff we’re afraid of doing, we’ll get surprised by a few things, maybe end up in some uncomfortable situations, and in the end, feel glad we did it.
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you bruise your ego? Endure some embarrassment? Lose a little money or time?
What are you giving up on by not taking that chance?
Just to cover my bases, this question is to be used for the stuff you’re afraid to do but know would be good for you to do. It’s not a question to ask when you’re the 16-year-old who just got his license, and is thinking about doing donuts with his Dad’s pickup truck, thinking his dad won’t find out (sorry Dad).
Question 4: Why Not Now?
The perfect question for getting important stuff done.
One of the most difficult transitions from childhood to adulthood is the transition from a parent holding you accountable to you holding yourself accountable.
Parents have the authority to hold their kids accountable (or, at least we think we do).
Bosses have the authority to hold their employees accountable.
But once you graduate to adulthood, it’s up to you to hold yourself accountable to expectations and deadlines.
You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.Henry Ford
Enter Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
“I need to join a gym.” Give yourself a month to sign up for a gym membership, and it’ll take a month. Give yourself until the end of the day and you can get it done by the end of the day. Decide to do it right now and you could call the gym and sign up online in ten minutes.
“I need to start on my diet.” Tell yourself you can wait until Monday to start your diet, and you’ll binge all weekend and get even fatter, rather than putting your foot down and starting right now.
“I need to start building my business.” Tell yourself you’ll start reaching out to contacts to talk with them about your business after your office is set up, your business cards are printed, and your Better Business Bureau membership has been accepted, and you’ll find a way to put it off for a few more months. Or, you could do it right now.
In The 12 Week Year, Brian Moran and Michael Lennington convincingly argue that most of our one-year goals could be accomplished in just 12 weeks, and most of our tasks with one-week deadlines could get done in a day.
It’s all about the deadline.
We like to bully deadlines. Pick on them; make fun of them; even spit on them sometimes. But what a terrible thing to do. Deadlines are actually our best friends.Jason Fried
See, the benefit of doing now what you could do later is that when you put it off, it’s still on your mind.
It’s still something that needs to get done. So, no matter what else you do while you procrastinate, you’ll never shake the fact that you have something important to do and haven’t gotten it done.
On the other hand, if you can do it now, you not only save yourself the time, but also open space in your mind.
This question is so important if you have your own business.
The reality is, some people perform better as employees than as business owners or entrepreneurs.
A personal trainer who can’t create deadlines and hold him or herself accountable ends up going broke, without enough clients to make ends meat.
Someone who wants to turn their side hustle into a multimillion dollar business flatlines and flounders, because they don’t take action on their most important tasks every day.
It’s also why the wakeup call for some guys to get back in shape isn’t when their beer belly outgrows their belt. It’s when their doctor gives them an idea of how soon they’ll die if they don’t change their ways. It’s about the deadline.
The best part about doing it now is that once it’s done, you can forget about it. You also have more time in your schedule to either do other important things, or relax and celebrate the fact that you got it done.
Question 5: What if I’m the problem?
The perfect question for overcoming victimhood.
If answering the question “What if I’m wrong?” seemed like a tough question to contemplate (but easy to ask someone else), this question pretty much sucks.
In case nobody has told you, you are the problem. So am I.
Nobody likes to admit they are the problem. In fact, today’s trigger-happy, microaggression, victimhood culture turns anything that makes someone uncomfortable into a serious offense. People put meaning into the comments, words, and actions of others that aren’t there, making others out to be the problem rather than first looking at themselves.
They cast blame to take the weight of responsibility off their shoulders. They make others out to be the problems in their own messes. I get tempted into this as well.
While I’m writing the draft of this article, I’m in the middle of moving my website, tomnikkola.com, to a different web host. I started the process a few days ago, expecting it would take a couple of hours to get everything done, and a day until the site was good to go.
That was three days ago, and I’m still in limbo. I can’t edit the site, add a new article or upload a new podcast episode.
I’ve had a few moments of frustration, where I wanted to point the finger at my current host for the errors in my database, and my new host for not responding to my messages fast enough.
I took a short break from writing, and from my frustration with the server situation, to play a few holes of golf on the golf simulator in our building’s community space. After two great shots on the par five, first hole, I had a 40 yard chip shot, which I shanked. I tried it again, and shanked it again, and again, and again.
After about ten shanks, Vanessa called me. She was on her way home from getting her nails done. I answered with my AirPods in my ears and kept hitting. I was determined to shake my shanks.
Unfortunately, trying to talk and fix my swing only made my shank worse. Now I was irritated about the website, frustrated with my golf swing, and doing my best to listen to Vanessa while she spoke to me. And then I started swearing. Not at her, but at myself for my lousy golf game. But that only made things worse because I was swearing with her on the phone, which she didn’t like one bit. Ugh!!
Finally, I picked up by ball, and put my clubs away.
The server situation was my problem, not my current website host, nor my new host. I made the decision to change servers.
The shanks were my problem. I was the one who was swinging the club. It wasn’t the fault of my new Ping irons I purchased a few weeks prior, nor the ball, the turf or the simulator.
And it certainly wasn’t my wife who was the problem, although it could have been easy to take it out on her since she was the only person within ear shot.
I was the problem (and I did apologize to Vanessa a little later).
The point is, we create almost all of the problems we face. And even if we don’t create a problem, our situation might still be the result of our choices.
If we don’t like the way someone treated us, that’s our problem, not theirs. They were just being themselves. If a relationship, business, fitness program, or your career isn’t going the way you’d like it to, your explanation can’t start with pointing the fingers at others. It always has to start with you.
Are you too easily offended? Did you put expectations on someone else you shouldn’t have? Do you expect others to see the world the way you do, so you can get what you want while you live in their world?
Let me share one more personal story with you to reinforce the importance of this question.
I sold Cucto Cutlery in college. I loved it. One evening, I had an appointment with Lucy Miner, just outside of Duluth. I looked at the clock and realized my appointment was in 20 minutes. I assumed it would take 20 minutes to get there and rushed toward the door of my house to head to hers.
I grabbed my sample kit of knives and accessories, and happened to brush my face with my hand. I realized I hadn’t shaved yet that day. “Ugh, I don’t have time,” I thought. I grabbed the door and stopped. I set my stuff down and ran upstairs to shave, knowing I was going to be a little late for my appointment.
I apologized after arriving a little late, one of my pet peeves. After my presentation, I found out Lucy was a big fan of Cutco, having bought her first set about 20 years earlier. She ordered a few new sets as a gift, which turned out to be a huge order (she ordered many more sets during my “career” with Cutco, and became one of my best customers).
As I was wrapping up my stuff, she got her son’s attention. “Jerry,” she said. Do you see Tom’s face, freshly-shaven? If he would have come over here with whiskers like you have right now, I wouldn’t have ordered a thing from him.”
I was dumbfounded. The comment came out of nowhere, and I thought back to my dilemma at my back door, just before driving over.
If Lucy would have given me the boot because of my beard, that wouldn’t have been “her problem,” that would have been mine.
We live in a world with other people. We might not agree with them all the time. We might not always like what they like and we might not agree on topics of culture, dress, language, politics, or religion.
But, if our success depends on other people, it’s our problem if our choices don’t fit with what they want. It isn’t their problem that they don’t fit with what we want.
Grown ups need to let stuff go or they’ll spend their entire lives feeling victimized by stupid stuff.
Before looking to your spouse about your marriage, your boss about your career, your employees about your business, or your nutritionist about your diet not working, start with you.
Honestly answer the question, “Am I the problem?”
Meditate On These Questions For A Month
If you feel a little defensive, that’s okay. Give these questions a try anyway. It’s often difficult to take ownership over our lives, to take 100% responsibility. But that’s also the only way to avoid playing the victim.
Walk through the questions each day for a month, and see how much your thinking changes. Eventually, you’ll roll through these questions in seconds, which will help you make better decisions each day. That’s when the magic really starts to happen.