Questions are one of the most powerful forces on earth. Look at any creation and you'll find a question—or more likely a whole bunch—behind it. From moving a mountain to going to Mars, from experiencing enlightenment to finding a cure for polio, questions form the path to creation. It's how humans innovate and change.
This is because our brains love questions: it's how we learn, forge new associations, and wire new neural connections. Now look at the creation of your life—how is it being shaped by the questions you ask? What questions are you consistently, perhaps repetitively, asking of yourself? Consider that these questions are shaping your brain, your habits, your actions, and, subsequently, your life.
Are they questions like:
- What would I love to do next?
- How can I get started today?
- What is the next simplest thing to do?
- What might I try next?
- What am I most committed to?
Or do your questions sounds more like:
- How do I know I'm doing enough?
- What will people think?
- Am I good enough?
- Why bother?
- What could I say that hasn't already been said?
- Why is this so hard?
- Why does nothing ever go my way?
Are your questions pretending to be helpful while actually undermining you, as in: What if I succeed and that changes everything? or Why aren't I doing more? or Why do I waste so much time?
These types of questions limit our imagination, causing us to settle for less than we really want without our knowing that more is possible. They reinforce our negativity bias by focusing on what's wrong or could go wrong. They undermine our sense of creative agency, the truth that we always get to choose how we respond to life.
Most tragically, they isolate us through shame, convincing us we need to hide who we are from everyone, especially the people closest to us. We all ask unhelpful questions of ourselves. With a little bit of brain training, we can swap out our draining questions for more generative ones. Think a combo of Buddha and Picasso: mindful and creative, compassionate and disruptive.
1. Start by noticing your current questions and make a list of your greatest hits.
You'll find them easy to discern if you notice when your energy drops, your motivation drains away, and your mood goes south. Almost assuredly, there is a not-so-helpful question lurking behind your mood change. Capture it.
My favorites: Why is this taking so long? and Why is this so hard? Just becoming aware of your current questions will give you so much more choice and freedom.
2. Read over the questions you've gathered.
Ask yourself, What choices are these questions steering me toward? Skip the self-judgment, and instead, be curious. For example, when I ask myself, What choices does the question 'Why is this so hard?' steer me toward? I see the choice to sometimes give up a dream because I'm frustrated that I can't make it happen sooner or with more ease. By seeing where your questions are steering you, you'll know whether you want to keep asking them.
3. To change your questions, try dropping "why" questions.
They tend to lead you into the past, into an endless loop of trying to "figure it out." This also focuses your mind on what's wrong versus what's possible. (Exceptions: "Why did the furnace break down?" or other practical matters.) Instead ask, What can I... or How might I...?
What can I do to prepare for this interview? versus Why do I always get nervous and put off preparing?
How might I eat more veggies? versus Why is it so hard to eat right?
4. Relish the power of asking instead of the drive to find "the" answer.
Wanting "the" answer comes from your reptile brain’s desire to be safe. You have to mindfully cultivate uncertainty by telling yourself, It's good to not know. Something richer and deeper will come as I stay open and curious. Stop confusing deciding with wisdom.
5. Dive deeper and ask from every angle.
Here are questions from a conversation with a couple wanting to retire but not having enough savings:
- What if we invested in high-risk stocks for three years?
- What if we moved to Mexico?
- What if we sold everything and traveled with just backpacks?
- What if we bought a bigger house and my mom moved in with us?
- What if both our moms moved in with us?
- What if we bought a compound with houses for the kids and the moms, with everybody helping?
- What if we didn't retire but retrained in new jobs?
- What if we moved back to mom's farm?
Keep flipping around, asking outrageous questions, especially ones that make you nervous or seem like a waste of time. In this case, the couple realized they didn't want to retire so much as spend more time with family and do work that felt more meaningful.
6. Start your day with a mindful question.
I wrote a whole book of them, The Life Organizer. Examples include:
- How do I want to feel today?
- What would truly nourish me?
- I can tempt more breathing space into my life by…
7. Step back when you feel lost, stuck, or frustrated and check in to hear what questions you are asking yourself.
Are they expansive? Creative? Shame and blame-free? How about simply useful? Imagine your brain is built on an operating system made of questions. That you are rewriting that operating system to work more effectively each and every time you ask questions that expand your possibility and help you remember you are good enough, you can trust yourself, and you can create more of what you want.
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