A few years ago, I learned the power of a simple, well-placed question when combined with an honest response. It can quite literally change a life.
As a bank regulator, I ask questions for a living. We query bank leaders – senior management and Board members – about the business to understand and explore its safety and soundness. I know how powerful questions can be. Questions can create an opportunity to get at the root of a problem. What I didn’t realize was how powerful one simple question would be in my own personal life.
A simple question can change a life (and lead to a book!)
It was a simple question that I asked myself one day that led to a mindfulness journey and finding true happiness in life. And then Good Morning, Life! was born. What was the simple question?
“Am I happy?”
Straightforward, right? Here is where I must also emphasize the importance of an honest answer. I know an answer is honest if it feels right in my gut and in my heart. If I can say the answer out loud with confidence then it is likely the truth.
That day I could have easily answered that question with my head rather than my heart. My intellectual answer might have been “Yeah, sure, I’m happy. I have everything I need physically. I have food in my belly, a roof over my head, clothes on my back. And I have a family that loves me.” If I had answered with my head that would have been the end of it. Life would have gone on as usual for me. There would’ve been no reason for me to change anything or ask more questions. Case closed. There would be no Good Morning, Life!
But I slowed down. I gave the question space to linger. It was an honest answer that I was looking for that day.
The answer that came from my heart was a simple, straightforward “I don’t know”.
An honest answer
I bet you’re thinking, What kind of answer is “I don’t know”? That’s not very satisfying!
It’s true, it didn’t feel overly satisfying at the time, but it was the truth and it moved me. It started me on the important journey and gave me the opening to ask more questions, such as:
Who am I, really?
What is my life’s purpose?
Am I where I truly want to be?
It all started with a simple question and an honest, vulnerable answer. It made me think about all the times that I answer questions too quickly and maybe not as honestly as I could have. What I may have missed out on.
Even when I answer basic questions like “What’s your favourite movie?” or “What’s your favourite colour?” I delve into my memory bank and imagination to come up with a quick response. But it’s usually an answer for the sake of having an answer. To be honest, I really don’t have a favourite movie. I love a lot of movies. Music is the same for me, as I enjoy artists from many different genres. Music, movies, even colours, are dependent on my mood and the situation.
I don’t have one answer to these questions, but for some reason the answer, “It depends” doesn’t feel like the answer the questioner is looking for. So I usually come up with an answer to seemingly satisfy the inquirer and my goal of having an answer. “My favourite colour is blue”, I say while thinking, and purple and turquoise. These are simple, perhaps unimportant questions, however, it illustrates that sometimes it takes courage to answer questions honestly.
Courage for honesty and vulnerability
I’ve learned it often takes courage to be honest, and especially to answer “I don’t know” to a question. There can be an invisible pressure from others and/or ourselves to come up with quick answers, perhaps to appear knowledgeable and in control. However, I’ve realized that sometimes the question itself is the most important part of the equation.
If you’ve ever had a session with an executive coach or life coach, you will understand how powerful questions can be. The queries sound simple until you try to answer them:
Where do you see yourself in 3 years?
What do you really want?
If we want a meaningful response it usually takes vulnerability. We may have to face fears or obstacles that have been holding us back. This is how true growth and change take shape.
Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.Brené Brown, Rising Strong
Facing fear and regret
It’s difficult to face fears. It’s much easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing and what we know. What worked for me was thinking about the alternative. I asked myself this question, “What’s scarier, confronting the question of my true happiness now or being on my death bed wondering what my life could have been?” In my experience, regret is one of the worst feelings I’ve known. I can live with making mistakes, especially if I’m doing my best and following my heart, but I don’t want to live with regret.
The starting point – a question
What important question can you ask yourself right now?
Don’t be afraid – ask it. It’s just a question.
And then pause. There’s no rush. Let an honest answer come to you.
Write it down.
Go from there.
To share a favourite question that I have quoted on the whiteboard in my office at work, “If not now, when?”