The one question holding you back from the life you want

A guide to re-framing the the questions that limit us

If there is one question that I never want to hear again, it is this:

“What do you want to do with your life?”

How many times have you been asked that question? As soon as we hit a certain age, we are hounded by those words. Parents, teachers, friends all want to know what we want to do. It’s repeated so often that our lives become defined by it. How you answer that question can determine your social status, your perceived intelligence and your future.

It’s because we misinterpret the question as:

“What do you want to be?”

That is a question embedded deep within the human psyche. Remember as a child saying you want to be a policeman, ballerina, princess or Batman? We’re wired from a very young age with a desire to be someone or something. And as we progress into adolescence and adulthood, we carry that desire with us. Which is why when someone asks us what we want to do, we often respond with what we want to be. For instance, when a school guidance counsellor asks what you want to do, you’d likely say you want to be a lawyer or architect or some other occupation.

It was only very recently that I began to unravel how much this idea of doing something and being someone defines us. Just think of those times when you run into an old friend you haven’t seen for years. They’re almost certainly going to ask, “So what are you doing now?” And you’re almost always going to say, “Oh, I’m a [insert respectable profession here].”

There is a reason for this. By knowing what you do or what you are, others can make snap judgements about your personality and status in society. Even though these judgements are shallow or plain wrong, we like to put people in simple, easy-to-understand boxes. Our profession or our box, supposedly, says a lot about us. And to an extent, that is true. A teacher will often have distinct personality traits that are quite different to those of an engineer. But the more I think about this, the more I think that this question – What do you do? – desperately needs re-framing.

It’s such a narrow way of looking at life. It’s so limiting because it requires us to have a programmable answer. By focussing on what we want to do, our lives become fixed on this idea of what we want to do for a job. But a job is such small part of life. It’s something we do for a few hours a day to earn some money. It doesn’t define us.

This question started creeping into my relationship. My girlfriend and I were going through a period of change and uncertainty and facing a number of serious, life-changing decisions. During this time, she would often ask me, “So what are we going to do?” It sounds reasonable enough, but it became the source of a lot of stress. Why? Again, because it forced us to come up with programmable answers that boiled down to simple ideas. And life is anything but simple.

All of this has led me on a journey to remove this question from my life and replace it with another question. It sounds simple, but it’s dramatically changed the way I look at my life. It’s removed a lot of stress and expectation. And it’s given me the courage to go after what I really want.

Here’s how I did it.

Re-frame the question

Think of what’s most important to you. Depending on where you’re at in life and your personal values, your answer could be quite different to mine.

It could be family. It could be faith. It could be money. It could be a whole lot of things.

For me, the thing that’s most important to me is freedom.

Now freedom is quite an obscure idea, so I had to drill into it. What do I mean by freedom?

To me, freedom is not being tied to a job where I’m working for someone else. It’s not being tied to a mortgage that I have to pay off for the rest of my life. Freedom is having the financial flexibility to travel, spend quality time with friends and family, and not work for periods of time. It’s doing work that doesn’t feel like work. It is being as self-sufficient, in terms of food and energy, as possible.

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Once I had a true understanding of what is most important to me, I revisited the question:

“What do I want to do?”

Do you see now how what I really want to do doesn’t fit neatly into a programmable answer to that question? Do you see how putting a tidy box around what you really want to do might be limiting the way you think about your life?

So I kicked that question to the kerb and replaced it with this:

“What kind of life do you want?”

Rather than always asking myself what do I want to do, I have started asking what kind of life do I want. It is amazing how much freedom this has allowed me. I look at everything differently.

The job that I’m currently doing doesn’t fit into the kind of life that I want, so I’m taking steps to leave it. The city I’m living in doesn’t fit into my idea of being mortgage free, so I’m taking steps to move. Simply by hinging my decisions on a different question, I have opened myself to my true calling that has been suppressed for years. I no longer feel like I have to “do” or “be” something.

It’s amazing how much power the questions we ask ourselves have over us. I’m only now starting to realise that we can take that power back.

I’m by no means advocating that this is the only question that we should ask ourselves. Your question might be different. This is just my experience of expanding my mind and breaking down the barriers that these questions create.

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