Understanding Your Primary QuestionOct 13, 2021
The dichotomy of being happy today and yet wanting to do better is something that has fascinated me for years. You read articles or hear teachers say the key to happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you have. This is called being content. You are content when you are satisfied with what you have. While this sounds like great advice, it’s missing a key component. Wouldn’t that mean you can never improve? The other teaching from equally smart people is that you must have dreams, set goals, and then keep working throughout your life to achieve those goals. What makes you happy is not only achieving the goals but the actual process of achieving them. These seem contradictory. Am I supposed to be a hard-charging, goal-achieving machine, or am I supposed to be content, satisfied and grateful for what I have? I believe the answer may be both. This is what it has become for me.
Years ago, I was working with a coach on something called your “primary question”.
The concept is when you were young, you develop a question you ask yourself, over and over, for the rest of your life. You develop it as a child so it’s not a conscious decision. Unfortunately, many times, this question can be debilitating or disempowering. For instance, “Why am I never enough?” or “Why am I not smart enough?” Other times, the question may have been the very thing that helped you to get to the point you are now in your life. Asking “why am I not smart enough” may have led you to get several advanced degrees to prove to yourself and others that you are in fact smart enough.
It’s important to think about your primary question because once you find it, you can potentially eliminate it, replace it, or improve it. At a minimum, you can examine your question and decide if it’s good for you. As I was going through this process myself, I decided that my primary question was “How do I make this better?” It was a question I was literally, always asking. I was asking it of myself, of others, of my situations, my education, my career, etc. I realized that the question had blessed my life in so many ways. I was where I was, and had what I had, and had become who I was, because of this question. I was always looking for a way to make things better and that felt like a good thing. Then my coach asked me if I had figured out my primary question and I said, yes, I had. It is “How do I make this situation even better?” Then I added to look smart “And enjoy the process.”
I was actually quite proud, and a little smug, about my answer. She listened and then asked me what’s wrong with my question? I really couldn’t think of anything. She said, “Well, what does the question assume?” As I thought about it she continued “It assumes it is never good enough, nothing is ever good enough.”
When she said that, she might as well have lifted 2000 pounds off my shoulders and simultaneously hit me in the stomach with a baseball bat. Seriously, never good enough is EXACTLY how I felt all of the time. I had drunk the goal-setting Kool-Aid. I was a goal-setting time management freak and it had served me well my whole life, but now I had just realized why I never felt content. Things were never good enough in any area of my life. I just never took the time to realize how great things were because I was always asking how they could be better. And if they needed to be better, they must not be good enough.
I went to work on my primary question for the next several weeks. I thought hard about it. I read my favorite authors and searched how to improve my primary question and finally arrived at what my primary question is today: “How do I be content and ambitious?” The yin and the yang. I want to be grateful, content and happy for what I have, who I am, whom I have in my life, and what I have accomplished. At the same time, I want to try to become better, have more toys, and be a better person. Both things are ok.
Since I’ve made this my new question, I have learned the real juice is being able to entertain both thoughts simultaneously. If I want to feel more content I need to have two emotions for that to happen. First gratitude, you cannot feel grateful without feeling content. Gratitude makes me present. It grounds me. The second emotion is wonder. I have learned that if I am in a state of wonder, curiosity or excitement, I am more content.
So, ask yourself, what is your primary question?
Dig deep. And once you find it. Ask yourself what’s wrong with it. Then, revise or replace it. Lastly, don’t shy away from wanting to have both yin and yang in your primary question. Just understand that you will need to experience and balance the emotions for each, simultaneously, to be truly content.
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