“Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” ~Nancy Willard
My twenties and thirties were an endless quest for “The Answer.” As if there were only one.
The one answer that would change everything. Make everything right. Make me happy.
What Didn’t Work
I searched high and low for answers. I'd read the latest book, hoping it held the key. I’d watch to see what others said and did, assuming they had the answers.
My M.O. was simple: read, observe, imitate, emulate.
I was always searching outside myself.
Always thinking finding the “right” answer would hold the key to happiness and contentment.
I'd think, “This is it!”
“This” being a new career, new city, new relationship, new wardrobe, or new hobby.
Inevitably, though, the proverbial bloom on the rose faded and whatever “this” had been became the latest thing that wasn't.
The problem was, I never did land on the right “answer.” All my searching and seeking deceived and misled me. Or more honestly: I deceived and mislead myself with all my searching and seeking.
I couldn't understand why I kept getting the answer wrong. I was smart and resourceful. I was making an effort.
Why didn't I seem to want what I thought I wanted? Why did my “answers” for happiness keep turning out to be wrong?
It was only years later I shifted my attention to a different part of the equation, and started to focus less on the answers and more on the questions.
And that has made all the difference.
It finally dawned on me: My answers were someone’s right answers, just not mine.
How did I come to this breakthrough?
I wish I could say it was an epiphany, which has a nice ring to it, but it didn’t have that kind of suddenness. Instead, it felt more like a wearing down and wearing away:
- A wearing down of false assumptions, limiting beliefs, and habits that don’t serve me
- A wearing away of others’ voices, people pleasing, shoulds, and have-tos
Asking questions of myself rather than focusing on answers I thought existed outside myself was new ground. Shaky and unfamiliar, it felt treacherous in the way the unknown and uncertain often feel.
I realized once I started asking questions I wouldn't be able to “unknow” what I was going to find. Yes, perhaps a bit of light and exhilaration accompanied that thought, but trepidation was certainly there too.
I remember two cautionary, albeit unhelpful, thoughts running through my mind:
- The devil you know is better than the one you don't.
- Be careful—you can't put the genie back in the bottle.
What if I started asking questions of myself and even those answers were wrong? I wasn't sure there was a Plan B for that predicament.
Leaping to the Questions
In the end, I took the leap into the deep end of the question pool.
Once I made the decision to shift my focus to the question side of the equation, an intuitive part of myself came alive.
Before that moment, I was the last person to describe myself as intuitive. If someone asked, “What does your gut tell you?” or “What does your inner voice say?”, I'd nod my head like I knew what they were talking about, but really I was thinking, “What inner voice? Beyond telling me I'm hungry, my gut doesn't speak to me.”
But I guess when you shift your focus, a lot of other things necessarily shift too.
And so the first question I knew to ask myself was: Who am I?
That was the question. Three little words. Short and sweet, but oh so juicy.
Who am I? Who am I—really?
Not who I might want to be. Not who I've pretended to be. Not who others expect or want me to be. Not who I was yesterday, last year, or a decade ago. But who am I, really?
When I asked that question—long before I got close to any answer—I knew I was on to something big, transformative, enduring.
For the first time I really knew—head knew, heart knew, soul knew, gut knew—my answers would always be out of sync until I started living an authentic life.
So the question, “Who am I?” had to come first.
Intuitively I knew that question—Who am I?—was the right question. The one that would get me to my answer. My very own true answer. The answer that would free me, empower me, trust me, lead me.
The Decision to Get Real
Getting to the real Who wasn’t easy for me. I’d internalized real or imagined messages to conform, fit in, go along. I’d been conditioned to look outside myself. Often a lurking “should” in the back of my mind prodded me to the right-by-others but wrong-for-me answer.
But while it wasn’t easy to get to the Who, it also wasn’t impossible. It took, more than anything, a commitment to search within and to find within.
It came down to deep thinking and even-through-the-fear exploration of all that makes up the Who.
I was used to telling people who I was based on a synopsis of my resume or a reflection of who I thought they wanted me to be.
So at first I couldn’t even answer the question, “Who am I?” because I really didn’t know. But I made the decision to figure it out. To figure ME out. To get to know the real me.
My own deep dive into the Who delved into many aspects of Self. For each one below, I asked myself, “Who am I—really—in relation to this aspect?”
- personal characteristics
- preferred environments
- what engages
- what gives energy
While my list may not be exhaustive, exploring those aspects of Self was more than enough for me to stop looking outside myself for answers, and clearly and confidently answer the question, “Who am I?”
I’ve long since ventured beyond my one question, because after the first, two others naturally follow:
- What does a life based on who I am look like?
- How do I close the gap to live a life based on who I am?
But it all starts with the Who. With being willing to ask the question and then look within to find your right answer.
Photo by h.koppdelaney