In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a specially constructed computer called Deep Thought is asked: “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” The answer given is “42.” The answer is useless to the askers, because nobody thought to ask what was the question. Deep Thought then predicts that there will be an even more powerful computer constructed to come up with the ultimate question. This computer, it turns out, is the Earth.
As delightfully silly as Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series is, there’s an important lesson here. The more important the answer is to you, the more important it is to start out by asking the right question. My nephew understood this concept at a very early age. When his parents told him he could only ask Santa for one thing, he wisely reasoned that the best course of action would be to ask Santa for a fairy godmother who could subsequently grant him endless wishes!
Science fiction and fairy godmothers aside, I do think that when it comes to the things that matter, it is important, and not all that easy, to ask the right question. If my sense of purpose is about finding an answer, there’s a limiting quality to my quest. Because what happens when I find the answer? Achieve the goal? Get the dream job? Does life suddenly cease to have meaning?
But if my purpose is about asking the right question, that opens up endless possibilities. Because if it’s the right kind of question you can ask it over and over again and, like my nephew’s fairy godmother, it will keep giving you answers.
Douglas Adams isn’t the first, and certainly not the last, writer to ask the question about the question. Joan Osborne sings, “What would you ask if you had just one question?”
I don’t even think it matters to whom you are directing the question. Whether you are asking God, the universe, or yourself, if you only had one question, it strikes me that you would want it to be the one that offered up the biggest answer. Or the most answers. Or the answer that opened up the opportunity for asking more questions.
What would I ask if I had just one question? My question has evolved over the years. The progression looks roughly like this:
- What should I be when I grow up? I like to joke that I’m still working on this one. In truth, I sort of am. Each time I have changed careers it has felt like I finally had my “dream job.” And then time passed and the dream, and eventually the job, changed again. But I have come to recognize that there are several words and phrases that make this question problematic. One is “when I grow up.” Because this question is all about living in the future, which, as I’ve explored elsewhere, is not a terribly hospitable place to inhabit. So over time I began to focus in a little more.
- What should I be? I have invested a great deal of time and energy on “should” and nowhere near enough on “could” and “will.” Whether you are conscious of it or not, “should” is almost always rooted in someone else’s expectations, and therefore it has a tendency to breed guilt and feelings of inadequacy.
- What will I be? Better, but I have come to realize that this whole notion of “be-ing” is kind of fuzzy. I can say I “am” all sorts of lofty things, but it is my words and actions that are going to tell you what I truly am.
- What will I do? At this point in my life, I have come to the conclusion that the best question is the one that results in action. Asking “What will I do?” always steers me in the direction of realizing what it is that I can do–reminds me, in fact, that there is always something I can do. “What will I do?” is about taking action in the here and now.
Like my nephew, I am going for the loophole. Having just one question doesn’t have to mean you only get to ask it once. If I had just one question, I would want it to be a question that, when asked over and over, would continually generate new and significant answers. The real question would therefore be a little more complicated:
What will I do here and now that will move me authentically in the direction of my purpose.
Poet Mary Oliver asked a slightly different question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I don’t want to spend my whole life planning my life. If I do the right thing today, the rest will take care of itself.
What would YOU ask if you had just one question?