This is my second post of two concerning the types of questions we ask ourselves. Often, if we’re looking to take our lives – professional, personal, spiritual, physical – to the next level, we need to change the types of questions we ask ourselves. The purpose of this post is to help you take a look at the way you speak to yourself, and to make some changes along the way. In my first post I included five questions you should be asking yourself to broaden your thinking and make you more successful, but in this final post I will give you five more to stop asking yourself because of their limiting influence.
Five Questions to Stop Asking Yourself #1: How can I make so and so do such and such?
I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.
One of the most common misconceptions we have as humans is in our ability to change other people. We somehow think that through punishment, force, reward, or just plain strength of will, we can change other people.
We see this all the time: Women attempt to change boyfriends and husbands, parents try to change their kids, and coworkers try to change each other. But somehow even if we achieve short term success, it’s never long-lasting. Ask any parent who’s tried to force a baby to eat strained peas. Even if you get them into the mouth, they’re coming right back out again.
And that’s why we need to put a cease and desist order on this particular question:
How can I make so and so do such and such?
The simple answer is, you can’t. Maturity – and happiness – come when we realize that the only person we can truly change is ourselves. And when we start focusing our efforts there, things just seem to naturally adjust.
Harriet Lerner, a respected psychologist, has written a series of books on relationships. Her premise is that relationships are dances of sorts, and just as in a mambo or a waltz, if one partner changes how he or she is moving, the other has to adjust. The key to creating a change in the relationship, then, is to look at your own behaviors and actions and change them.
You might be wondering why you have to do all the work. After all, if your spouse would stop drinking or your boss would stop nitpicking or your kids would just act a little more respectful, life would be great. That may be true, but here’s the key: You can’t do anything about their behavior. You can only change your own. And the sooner you face that and accept it, as disappointing and unfair as it may be, the sooner you’ll be on the path to a better relationship.
Acceptance can be tough, so tough, in fact, that it can keep people mired in broken relationships and dead-end jobs for decades. Instead of asking how you can make the other person change, then, you need to ask yourself what you’re willing to do to be happy. The changes required on your behalf may be far less drastic than you think.
Five Questions to Stop Asking Yourself #2: Whose fault is it?
Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.
As Sir Francis says, asking questions is a good thing. But you have to ask the right questions – ones that empower you and open your possibilities. Unfortunately, some questions do just the opposite. Instead of making you think more creatively, they shut down the flow of energy, making you defensive and angry. One such question is this:
Whose fault is it?
This question is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems kind of innocuous at first. After all, once we know at whose feet we can lay the broken valve, the lost account, or the argument at, we can make sure it never happens again.
Perhaps. But laying blame isn’t the important thing: solving the problem is. Playing the blame game causes issues far beyond any benefit:
- It wastes time. While you could be concentrating on fixing the problem, you’re running around trying to make someone else the bad guy.
- It wastes energy. Knowing who is at fault isn’t really necessary; knowing how to fix the problem is. Yes, it can get you off the hook (“I swear, it wasn’t me!”) but it doesn’t fix the issue at hand.
- It wastes relationships. Trying to put the blame on someone else can irreparably damage your relationships. Trust erodes, and people start worrying about covering their rear ends rather than working together.
It’s natural to want to direct negative attention elsewhere, but it isn’t really necessary. In fact, the most powerful people on any team are those who solve problems rather than those who never cause any.
Not only will you cement your role as a valuable team member when you focus on solutions rather than problems, you also gain the trust of your co-workers and colleagues. They become more willing to take risks, to be open, and to help you out because they know you’re going to do the same for them. This makes for a stronger team all around.
If you are working with others who try to focus on blame-laying, call a time-out. Remind them that the important thing in the moment is to solve the problem, and that you can go back later to find out why it happened and who was at fault. But you may very well find that once the problem is solved, no one wants to revisit the issue. Perfect! That keeps the focus on moving forward, rather than on going back.
Five Questions to Stop Asking Yourself #3: What’s Wrong with Me?
There are no right answers to wrong questions.
Ursula K. Le Guin
The problem with some questions is that they’re just plain wrong, right off the bat. They are based on false assumptions, they lead the questioner in a faulty direction, and they end up taking you on a wild goose chase that can lead nowhere good. This is one of those questions:
What’s wrong with me?
At some point in our lives, every one of us, deep in our soul, has felt that we are “less than,” like we just don’t make the grade. We wonder what everyone else has that we don’t, why “they” have it so easy, and what we did wrong to make the gods curse the very day we were born.
Yep, everyone has those moments; some of us are just better at hiding it than others. Even the most successful people on the face of the earth, from Oprah Winfrey to Sidney Poitier to Roger Maris would admit that there were times when they just didn’t know if they could measure up.
While it’s natural to start falling down the well of self-doubt, it serves no purpose. Each time you give in to those demons, you allow yourself to get sucked a little further from your real power. Pretty soon, all you’re doing is sitting on the couch with a bag of potato chips in one hand and the remote in the other, watching hours of “Beverly Hills 90210” reruns and wondering how Shannen Doherty got away with her diva behavior.
Don’t go there. Don’t even take one step in that direction. As soon as you get the “woe is me’s,” freeze. Go and do something productive, preferably to help someone whose position in life is so disadvantaged when compared to yours that you’d feel like a complete ass complaining about your life any longer. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, read to kids on the critical care ward at the hospital, or take a load of old towels to the animal shelter. Get outside yourself and stop worrying about you. Worry about someone else for a change, and see what you can do to make their lot in life a little easier.
We’ve all got things wrong with us, whether it’s an extra-large nose, an extra-large chip on our shoulder, or an extra-large behind. The only difference between those who make it and those who don’t is that some of us stop thinking about their faults and just do it – win the bike race, write the best-seller, start a revolution – anyway.
Five Questions to Stop Asking Yourself #4: How Can I Do This Faster?
We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.
Speed is good. Just ask Mark Cavendish, Usain Bolt, or even Keanu Reeves. But which is worse: Doing the right thing, too slowly, or doing the wrong thing really, really fast? My vote is for the former. That’s why I believe you need to stop asking yourself this question:
How can I do this faster?
Efficiency in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s highly prized by manufacturing line engineers, train conductors, and Swiss bankers. But just doing something faster doesn’t earn you a gold star. In fact, spending resources – even in an efficient manner – on something that doesn’t need to be or shouldn’t be done at all is more wasteful than taking too long to do the right thing. Not only are you directing valuable money, time, and energy in the wrong direction; you’re also falling behind on the things you should be doing.
Think about it this way. You ask your teenage son to get his homework finished. Half an hour later, you check in on him and he says, “No, I didn’t do my homework, but I did a great job killing all the zombies in my computer game! I was really efficient, too – I’ve got a tank and a half of gas left!”
Umm… no. Now, not only is it a half-hour later, the homework still isn’t done and your son has spent 30 minutes doing a wasteful task really, really well.
Here’s when you know efficiency has become an enemy instead of a friend:
- You use efficiency as an avoidance technique to keep from handling the less pleasant, but oh-so-much-more important, tasks. You revamp your website for the upteenth time, moving the sidebar a fraction of an inch to the right. You did it really, really well… but you should have been working on lining up sales calls for next week.
- You fall into comfort zones of things you do very quickly and very well, failing to recognize that it’s the things outside your comfort zone that help move you closer to your goal.
- You keep doing tasks on automatic pilot, even though you could have outsourced them or automated them. After all, it’s a no-brainer to sit and feed the photocopy machine – and you’re working, right?
When you find yourself asking, “How can I do this faster?” stop and ask yourself if you should be doing that task at all. Many times, the answer will be no. Then you can let go and get on with your real work – the work that may not be as efficient, but makes a bigger difference in the long run.
Five Questions to Stop Asking Yourself #5: Do I Really Have to ___?
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.
Inside of all of us is a three-year-old toddler who likes nothing better than to throw a screaming fit every time someone makes him do something he doesn’t want to. It could be skipping dessert, writing the sales presentation, getting to bed at a reasonable hour, or putting the credit card away before buying yet another Eminem CD.
That three-year-old is sulky, whiny, and generally unpleasant, so much so that often we’ll give in just so we don’t have to listen to him whine anymore. While this technique works in the short run, in the long-term you end up suffering. After all, vegetables are good for you while ice cream seven days a week is not; the sales presentation must get done, you do have to get up early for work, and someone’s going to have to pay that credit card bill.
You can tell when you’re giving in to this little tyrant when you start asking yourself:
Do I really have to ____?
When you catch yourself uttering this phrase, it’s time for a reality check. Your rebellious streak is rising faster than the National Debt, and if you don’t keep it in check you’re going to pay the price at some point. After all, (excuse the book check for a moment!), the piper always wants to be paid – now or later.
It’s interesting that one part of our brain knows very well what needs to get done while the other part rejects the whole idea. Without diving too deeply into the psychology of it all, it’s easiest to just admit there’s part of us that really would prefer to sit on the couch and gain 150 pounds’ worth of cheese fries rather than head out for a nice jog around the reservoir. The duality exists, and one way to let your sane side win out is by never letting the little kid have the microphone.
As soon as you start wondering if you really have to go to work, answer that email, create the new web form, it’s time for a smackdown. Instead of giving in to the beast and beginning a cost-benefit analysis of letting your diet slide for another day, stop thinking about it. Remember that you’re dealing with a 3-year-old, and you cannot reason, outwit, or outsmart him. All you can do is refuse to engage. Remind yourself the decision has already been made, and don’t revisit it. Pull the old, “Because I’m the parent, that’s why.” Then send him to bed without any supper and get on with your life.
For true success ask yourself these four questions: Why? Why not? Why not me? Why not now?
As we’ve discussed, questions are powerful tools, but they can steer you off track. It’s critical to examine the questions you ask to see if you’re empowering yourself or limiting your ability to think creatively.
Many of these internal discussions are so automatic, we don’t even realize they’re going on. It’s my hope that this short post will help you by bringing these internal conversations into the light, where you can make a judgment about their usefulness.
Many people spend their lives “living the questions,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it so eloquently. May all your questions be empowering ones.