The Best Question To Ask

I have a little coaching for you on the way you use questions to direct your mind. The first piece of advice is to make sure your questions do not have the word "why" in them.

A woman (Vivian) wrote to me and told me she had trouble sleeping. She had four kids and she was worried some day she would commit suicide. I was telling her about this principle of asking questions, and she tried it the very next night. But the question she pondered all night was, “why do I think I’m destined for suicide?”

Vivian said, “I was up all night answering myself! I thought of answer after answer. The list went on and on, each answer breeding more questions of its own.”

I told her that generally “how” questions work much better than “why” questions. She had been suffering from insomnia for a long time. But the very next night after she learned about the difference between "why" questions and "how" questions, she asked herself, “How can I prevent myself from ending up a suicide?” and she thought of so many good answers so quickly, she relaxed and fell asleep and slept longer than she had in a very long time.

The next day I told her about studies on suicide showing that people with suicidal thoughts who don’t commit suicide had a reason to live. That almost sounds so obvious, it seems almost ridiculous someone had to do an experiment to prove it. The reasons people had varied quite a bit. Some people didn’t kill themselves only because it would be too painful for their sister, or it was against their religion, or they had some purpose they wanted to fulfill. But the difference between those who stayed alive and those who killed themselves was simple: The people who had a reason to live did not kill themselves.

The next day, Vivian was thinking about that study and she realized she really wanted to see her boys grow up. She had four sons, the oldest was 13. She said, “I have thought before that I’m here because they need me, but it felt like an obligation. But I’ve realized I really want to see my sons grow up to be old men.”

That is a powerful realization. I'm sure you can easily grasp the tremendous difference in motivation, determination, and power between an obligation and a genuine, sincere, deeply-felt desire.

So she had a goal, and the thought was on her mind for a few days, when she told me, “I like to watch them and think about them ‘then’ and ‘now’ and now I wonder what they’ll be like when they’re older. It’s a surprise I don’t want to miss. This very thought has been in my mind the past couple of days...’it’s a surprise I don’t want to miss.’ It’s exciting and motivating.”

Do you see what happened? She had a new question she was asking. "I wonder what my kids will be like when they're older?" Her question was purposeful (since she can influence the outcome) and forward-looking. And it directly counters the thought of suicide, doesn’t it? She’ll miss the surprise if she kills herself. It’s a question that can’t be answered now. She has to stay alive to see the answer. Brilliant, really.

She was already asking questions without realizing it. We all are. She started doing it deliberately and stopped asking herself "why" questions and it totally changed the direction and tone of her life.

It can work the same magic for you if you would only start using it. Why not start today? Wait, change that to: "How can you start today?"

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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