Sometime after college, I was exposed to the idea that…
Questions are extremely powerful.
In his book, Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss says that the answers to anything and everything that we want is in other people’s heads and questions are our pickaxes. He attributes his 10x, 100x, and 1000x gains to his development of better questions.
I instantly fell in love with this idea. Not because I immediately recognized how useful that perspective is (although I wish I could say that), but because I was having trouble finding answers to the questions that were burning inside of me.
Why am I always getting the short end of the stick?
How come I’m not being rewarded for doing the right thing?
Is this all there is to life?
Will it ever get easier?
What’s the point of understanding complicated things if no one cares about them?
When will I have sacrificed enough?
How do I make more money?
Why do I keep making bad choices?
The frustration drove me deeper and deeper into nihilism, but this new piece of knowledge was bright enough to help me see the light.
It’s not that life was giving me harsh answers to my questions, it’s that I wasn’t asking the right questions at all. Then I realized…
Improve my questions, improve my life.
It’s not that knowing that asking better questions suddenly made my life better, but knowing that there is something I could do to give me a fighting chance was liberating and empowering.
I just needed to ask better questions.
Little did I know that the best was yet to come, and I was just beginning to understand the power of questions. There was another way to use questions powerfully.
This other idea was clearly articulated to me by Jordan Peterson, but I found it to be true in many other instances of my life.
When we’re asked questions, our minds almost immediately go to work on finding an answer.
This can be extremely uncomfortable if we’re asked the wrong (or right) questions. We can ignore the answers and act as if we don’t know them, but we will. The curse of knowledge is that we will never unknow something, so once we are asked the question we are also given the answer.
The cool part is that it doesn’t matter who asks the questions. We just need to be asked the question in order to start looking for an answer. This means that we can ask ourselves these questions or find someone to ask them to us.
At first, this idea seemed inconsequential but then I realized that I can discover honest and reasonable answers if I take a little bit of time to be asked what I really think I should do.
It can be something as small as “What do I want to eat for dinner?” or something as big as “What do I want my life to mean when everything is said and done?” Our minds will find us an answer if we let it.
This can be done in a way that is ineffective, but the key is to want to answer the question in a way that does not compromise ourselves. Try to be genuinely curious about the answers.
Suddenly, big questions don’t worry me as much and smaller questions are answered with myself in mind. My major life choices aren’t made carelessly or for other people. Learning and practicing this is so freeing.
Despite my question list being presented in no particular order, I do think it’s important to mention that good questions in the wrong order can get bad responses. Sometimes jumping right to the deep work questions can surface some superficial answers. If we take the time to warm people up with easier questions before jumping right into the difficult stuff, we’ll get answers that are more honest and well thought out.
My Question List
Here is a list of every question that I’ve found worthwhile to ask myself. I recommend spending at least 5 minutes thinking about each one (obviously in your own time, there are way too many of them to do it all at once). A lot of these questions aren’t necessarily designed to give me pragmatic answers, but to get me to think differently and break old ways of thinking.
I think everyone should keep a question list, if you decide to make one please share it with me at email@example.com. I would love to see what other people’s pickaxes look like.
Bolded questions are the ones that I would argue have most impacted my life.
“Often, all that stands between you and what you want is a better set of questions.”
Tim Ferriss (Tribe of Mentors)
In no particular order:
What do I want to change and how will I know when I have?
What would this look like if it were easy?
What am I avoiding just because I know the answer is painful?
How can I make my 10-year plans happen in 6 months?
How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?
What am I not saying that needs to be said?
What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
What are the actions I need to take today?
What am I unwilling to feel?
Whose expectations am I trying to fulfill? My own or those of someone else?
How much would I pay to relive this moment 40 years from now?
Who do I know that can help me with this?
Do I need this?
Is there an action that I can take now to make this better?
What is something that feels productive to me at the moment, but usually ends up wasting time and energy?
Am I doing this for Present Me or Future Me?
What do I enjoy refining?
What makes me different?
What is something that I know is stupid that I can stop doing today?
What are my 7 streams of passive income?
What skill am I working on?
If someone could only see my actions and not hear my words, what would they say are my priorities?
What is the biggest small thing I could do today?
Is there a way I can automate this?
What do I have to offer?
What am I good at?
What am I preventing myself from feeling?
What can I work on today that will continue working for me years from now?
What am I avoiding just because the desired outcome would take longer than I’d like?
What can I do now that I would be so happy I started doing 3 years from now?
Have I earned this?
Are my goals my own, or simply what I think I should want?
How much of my life had I missed from under planning? Overplanning?
How could I be kinder to myself?
How could I better say no to the noise to better say yes to the adventures I crave?
Assume that more than one path exists to achieve your ideal life. What would some of the alternative routes look like?
What would make today great?
What are the three amazing things that happened today?
How could I have made today even better?
What two things am I going to try to improve this month?
Which thoughts have I had over the past week that are worth remembering forever?
Will this new endeavor either supply me with long-lasting relationships or a new skill set? In other words, will I win even if I lose?
“Life is to man, in other words, to will, what chemical re-agents are to the body: it is only by life that a man reveals what he is, and it is only in so far as he reveals himself that he exists at all. Life is the manifestation of character, of the something that we understand by that word; and it is not in life, but outside of it, and outside time, that character undergoes alteration, as a result of the self-knowledge which life gives. Life is only the mirror into which a man gazes not in order that he may get a reflection of himself, but that he may come to understand himself by that reflection; that he may see what it is that the mirror shows. Life is the proof sheet, in which the compositors’ errors are brought to light.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature)
In my post, The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1), I talk about how many of us fail to recognize the significance of the relationship with ourselves, the different aspects that make up this relationship, and how we can use this knowledge to turn our biggest enemy into our biggest ally. It’s difficult work, but doing it is worthwhile and enriches our lives in a beautiful way.
However, utilizing the knowledge of the relationship with ourselves is more than just creating ourselves. It is also accepting and not avoiding ourselves. Meditating on our flaws, contradictions, and inconsistencies, then embracing them. What I’m suggesting is deeper than “self-love“, especially since that term has been bastardized in the modern world.
Taking on the responsibility of developing an integrated and healthy relationship with ourselves is a form of true love and acceptance of all that we are, in our beauty and catastrophe.
The more I write about this topic, the more I discover how much I cannot cover in these blog posts, so I’m going to hone in and just focus on one section of this idea. This post is going to focus on the archetypically negative side of ourselves. The sides of ourselves that many of us like to reject, ignore, and avoid at all costs.
Existence is the positive, the good, and the light. But it is also the negative, the bad, and the darkness. To be a human being is to understand that both the good and bad lies within our soul. Pretending that we are only good (or that we are not bad) ignores half the story and, more often than not, causes more harm than good.
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago)
The human mind is commonly compared to a horse and it’s rider. The horse being the unconscious mind, and the rider being the conscious mind. It’s the rider’s job to direct the horse to a desired goal, similar to the conscious mind to the unconscious mind.
From what I can tell, our psyches are more than one horse and one rider. We have many horses and it is our moral obligation to pay attention to our horses and how they may act. Similar to how people are responsible for their pets.
If we cannot comprehend that we’re dangerous, then that horse is without a rider, so to speak, and it’s free to cause as much meyhem as it will.
We have horses that we purposely try to reject, ignore, and avoid. Since these horses are usually archetypically negative, they are commonly conflated with pain and suffering. However, the structures of suffering are built right into existence and we must learn to contend with it or we’re doomed to chasing phantoms forever.
“Pain and death are part of life. To reject them is to reject life itself.”
Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)
Good Children and Repression
“When one tries desperately to be good and wonderful and perfect, then all the more the shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive. People cannot see that; they are always striving to be marvellous, and then they discover that terrible destructive things happen which they cannot understand, and they either deny that such facts have anything to do with them, or if they admit them, they take them for natural afflictions, or they try to minimize them and to shift the responsibility elsewhere. The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the shadow descends into hell and becomes the devil.”
Carl Jung (Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930–1934)
A fantastic example of repression are in children who consider themselves “good.”
Good children can be spotted as the ones who finish their homework early, are a little shy, always try to help their parents, and maybe even have neat handwriting. Good children strive to be perfect and on most measures may even match up with these extraordinary expectations.
The real insidious danger of the good child lies in other people not thinking anything is wrong with them. From a surface level analysis, it’s easy to conclude that there isn’t anything wrong with these kids. Adults will shift their focus, and attribute most of the problems to children who are causing conspicuous trouble, even though a little trouble is necessary for a healthy psyche.
Since good children are always doing what’s expected of them, they constantly repress their own desires and inner feelings.
This can be from a number of reasons.
Maybe a parent is depressed and overwhelmed. The child notices this and believes that this parent can’t take anymore trouble. So the good child does everything they can to make sure they aren’t the source of anymore trouble, ever.
Or perhaps one parent is a violent angry perfectionist who explodes at any behavior that’s less than perfect.
No matter the reason, a need for excessive compliance is not natural or healthy and should be treated like the danger it really is.
When a child develops a need for excessive compliance, they become over encumbered with secrets and repress their inner wants for the sake of complying with others.
This repression could take the form of psychosomatic symptoms like twitches, sudden emotional outbursts, excessive bitterness, or irritability. The child may not even be able to identify the reason for the psychosomatic symptoms because they have such little familiarity with their own feelings.
The good child does not have access to the privilege of other people being willing or able to tolerate their imperfections. A privilege necessary for a mentally healthy child.
Good children typically do not have the privilege to express their negative emotions and still be loved or accepted by people around them. In a situation like that, it’s no surprise that someone could conclude that the only way they’ll be accepted is through acting good all the time.
The good child may grow to believe that their personal wants and desires are inappropriate.
This causes a detachment from their bodies and emotions. People like this have a difficult time forming healthy relationships with others later in life. Or, as a response to the repression, the good child may give in to their inner desires too much creating a whole new pathology.
Adult life is full of moments when we need to “break the rules” or act in ways that may upset people. Good children end up having issues as they get older, because they tend to follow the rules and try not to upset people. Without either of these abilities, the good child is damned to a life of mediocrity and people pleasing.
The dangers of repression can take many different forms and don’t just apply to good children. Aiming to understand the shadow sides of ourselves is the path to proper maturity.
Proper maturity involves a deep integration of our less than perfect sides as well as our dark sides. Accepting ourselves in our beauty and catastrophe is crucial to building a strong foundation for the relationship with ourselves.
Establishing a Foundation
Human beings are creators through Logos. We create our lives through our speech. We invent worlds and stories through our conversations and live in them. Most of the time we can’t tell the difference between our conversational world and the “real” world. We build relationships through conversation and the relationship with ourselves is no different.
Most people wouldn’t tell their child to lie as much as they can to get what they want. Many of us know, either from personal experience or otherwise, that lying is a terrible long term strategy. If we were to catch someone lying to us, it would be upsetting and we wouldn’t be as willing to trust them in the future. We also know that if we were caught lying to someone else, they would feel the same way about us.
However, there is one person whom we don’t mind lying to and I bet you can guess who it is…
Healthy relationships are built on honesty. In order to have a healthy relationship with ourselves, we must be able to be honest with ourselves. Honesty is a solid foundation that must be established first before any relationship can be built. If we try to build a relationship without honesty, sooner or later it will all come crashing down.
Honesty comes when we choose to stop lying to ourselves, but in order to do that we need to understand why we lie to ourselves.
We lie to avoid pain.
We love to lie about all of the problematic aspects that take tremendous effort to alter including but not limited to, our careers, relationships, health, habits, or ideologies.
It’s easier to attempt to elicit sympathy from others and ourselves than be honest with our inadequacies. The truth is we could change these things about our lives, but we lie and say we can’t. The best part is no one can call us on our bluff because we are lying to ourselves! Modern people have learned to avoid responsibility, even though adopting it provides us with meaning.
We lie to think well of ourselves.
We lie to not feel inadequate.
We lie because we are angry with people we are supposed to love and the matters we are angry about are petty.
We lie because it’s easy.
We lie because telling the truth makes us responsible.
We lie because if we don’t it will be ourselves holding us back and nothing or no one else.
As long as we understand the drives within us, then maybe we could see past the lies and look at our lives honestly. While the lying satiates us in the present, we will be forced to deal with the truth later. We can choose to confront our lies willingly, or let them take us unexpectedly when we are older. When we confront them willingly, we prove ourselves to be braver and establish a solid foundation to build the bravery upon. That bravery now has the freedom to grow into something much bigger.
No matter which choice we make, it will be painful. The idea that freedom is on the other end of suffering is a tragedy. Everyone deals with their own tragedy of life in their own way and lying to ourselves isn’t the only trick up our sleeve. This can be different for each individual and I recommend looking into methods of coping with the tragedy of life. I wrote a little bit about other methods we use to deal with our own tragedy in my post Proclivity for Comfort.
Here are some of the popular maneuvers that we use to lie to ourselves:
Distraction & Addiction
This can look like porn, news, drugs, work, etc. I go a little deeper about distraction in Proclivity for Comfort.
Repressed sadness can often display as intense happiness. The rejection of negative or sad emotions is so deep that we don’t let ourselves feel any sadness at all resulting in an overly happy affect.
Being irritated is a fantastic indicator that something is wrong. However, general irritability is a cover up for unspecified issues. Honing in on elevated articulation is key for combating general irritability.
Destructivly critiquing ourselves or others. Any fool can tear something down, but it takes substantial effort to critique then offer a solution. Most of the time, denigration is misdirected energy. Talking shit helps no one, focus on what really needs fixing.
Being over critical of ourselves or other people is another sign that we are misguiding our efforts. Usually, it’s easier to find the mistakes in everything else, rather than fixing the fault where it really matters.
Defensiveness comes when we have something to prove. We only feel like we need to prove something if we feel like what we are isn’t what we would like to show. If we understood what we are, accepting both our strengths and weaknesses, then maybe we would lose the need to prove we are more than what we are.
Cynicism & Dispair
These come with the loss of naïveté. When we first encounter more chaos than we can process, we inevitably lose our childlike view of the world. Suddenly, not everyone is a friend and life is no longer fun and games. While it’s easy to ride that train straight to Hell, true wisdom and freedom comes from integrating our childlike wonder with our newfound understanding of malevolence and destruction. Keep the child alive in us, but let the adult really run the show.
“We should not try to ‘get rid’ of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.”
Carl Jung (Civilization in Transition)
Before we get into using anxiety to our advantage, let’s discuss why we get anxiety in the first place.
“The distinctive characteristic of the human being, in contrast to the merely vegetative or the merely animal, lies in the range of human possibility and in our capacity for self-awareness of possibility. Kierkegaard sees man as a creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality.”
Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)
Human beings have a special capacity to project possible scenarios into the future. We can think about how events could play out without actually having to act them out in real life. A lot of this type of processing happens in our prefrontal cortex, I talk about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind. This gives us a huge advantage when it comes to survival and undoubtedly a huge contributor to our reign over the animal kingdom.
But it’s not without a price.
Choosing which potential projection to bring into reality is how we create our lives, but it’s also one of the sources of our anxiety. In this way, humans must contend with their freedom like no other animal must. We ask questions that other animals cannot ask themselves. Which potential reality is best for me? Which potential reality will bring me danger? What do I do about potential threats in the future?
Søren Kierkegaard, renown Danish philosopher, suggests the escape from a life of passivity, stagnation, or mediocrity lies in our willingness to attend, what he calls, The School of Anxiety.
Kierkegaard believes anxiety has two sides to it.
One side is demonic and can ruin our lives. This is the side we traditionally think of when we think about anxiety.
The other is constructive and guides us towards a development of the Jungian Self. Anxiety can act as directions in the journey of circumambulation.
Most people advise to follow one’s dreams, Kierkegaard advises to follow one’s anxiety. Avoiding and rejecting our anxiety leaves us blind and frozen. Our anxiety gives us a glimpse into which possible scenarios we ought to take. Anxiety can tell us what to direct our energy towards. It lets us know what we really find important.
“The capacity to bear anxiety is important for the individual’s self-realization and for his conquest of his environment. Every person experiences continual shocks and threats to his existence; indeed, self-actualization occurs only at the price of moving ahead despite such shocks. This indicates the constructive use of anxiety”
Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)
As May suggests, moving forward through our anxiety is the way to a greater version of ourselves. Greatness lies on the other side of anxiety, as long as we are willing to push ahead.
Unfortunately, much of the common attitude towards anxiety is to reject or avoid it. Having anxiety is seen to be a problem that we “shouldn’t” have and feeling negative emotion has been made to be “bad” & “wrong” in modern society. This is because the constructive elements of anxiety are not easily visible to the masses.
This rejection and avoidance are so deep that some people would even claim to not desire a greater life. When our comfort and security are more appealing than the anxiety that lurks in the unknown, resignation of this nature becomes common practice. This is precisely why the trap of passivity, stagnation, and mediocrity lies in the rejection of anxiety.
When we refuse to move into the possibilities which make us anxious, we sentence the side of us seeking self-realization and a greater life to death. This isn’t a clean death either, it’s slow and sloppy. Repressing this side of ourselves breeds a violent shadow and I would go as far to say that it is like repressing the will to life itself. The tension within ourselves created from willingly seeking self-realization or circumambulation is what gives our lives meaning and stimulates the deepest parts of ourselves.
In order to access the constructive parts of anxiety, we first have to understand that we can always take action, even if we are enveloped with anxiety.
Believing that we have to get rid of our anxiety before we can act puts us at a serious disadvantage for a couple of reasons. It facilitates procrastination and it can lead to a serious dependence on drugs or alcohol.
Holding on to the idea that we need to remove anxiety to act makes us weak.
The next thing we need to understand to access the constructive parts of anxiety is understanding that no one can do this for us except for ourselves.
Realizing that nothing in my life was ever going to change unless I did something to make it change was one of the most anxiety-inducing, but empowering realizations I’ve ever had. I was able to switch my Locus of Control. This realization helped me see the constructive side to anxiety.
The possibilities which stress us out are precisely what we need to pay more attention to. The anxiety is an opportunity to exercise our divine abilities, it’s the call of the hero’s journey.
“One of the most important [revelatory] moments is when the client grasps that no one is coming. No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better. The dream of a rescuer who will deliver us may offer a kind of comfort, but it leaves us passive and powerless. We may feel if only I suffer long enough, if only I yearn desperately enough, somehow a miracle will happen, but this is the kind of self-deception one pays for with one’s life as it drains away into the abyss of unredeemable possibilities and irretrievable days, months, decades.”
Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014)
Enhancing our levels of articulation is another constructive and effective way of coping with anxiety. We experience anxiety when we find ourselves in too much chaos. When things don’t work out the way we expect, our brain responds by trying to prepare for whatever potential danger is lurking around the corner.
Let’s say we’re pre-med, but we get an F on a test. When we recieve that F, we are thrown out order into the domain of chaos because we aren’t sure what the F symbolizes.
Did we just get one question on the test wrong? Did we just forget to study a concept? Did we not properly learn the prerequisite material from the last class? Do we need to change our lifestyle choices? Are we incapable of learning this information? Are we not good enough to get into medical school? Are we too stupid to take this class? Are we even good enough to pursue anything bigger than us?
It’s easy for these questions to spiral out of control, because we don’t know exactly where the error lies. Maybe we just forgot a concept, but maybe we might not even be cut out for our goals at all! Anxiety comes from our mind trying to prepare for all of those scenarios at once. Our threat detection systems in our body are put into overdrive and that makes it difficult to do a lot of things. However, once we specify what we are able to prepare for, the anxiety immediately begins to subside. If there was some way of knowing exactly where the error was, then there’s no need to prepare for everything all at once.
Enhancing our levels of articulation helps us direct our energy towards something definitive, which keeps anxiety at bay, rather than letting our minds run while trying to plan a new career path, prepare for a panther attack, and an alien invasion all at the same time.
We will constantly have to choose between avoiding or moving forward. What will aid us in moving forward isn’t wisdom, intelligence, or even new information. It is the integration of the Jungian Shadow. Creating a relationship with ourselves which captivates the sides of ourselves we tend to reject, ignore, and avoid will provide a steady mechanism that can impel us to act even when our reason tries to stop us. Sometimes our instincts are wiser than our evolved executive cognition. Accepting the sides of us which yearn for chaos gives us the advantage in utilizing our anxiety.
Life is too short to not take the bold risks a fully lived human life requires.
“For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!”
“On hearing of the interesting events which have happened in the course of a man’s experience, many people will wish that similar things had happened in their lives too, completely forgetting that they should be envious rather of the mental aptitude which lent those events the significance they possess when he describes them; to a man of genius they were interesting adventures”
Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)
This question was originally pulled from Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans and I thought it would be fun to answer it for myself. However, instead of just naming one person and analyzing that answer I wrote a list down. Partially because Tim Ferriss was the first name that came up, and I’m pretty sure it priming has something to do with that. Partially because I like reflecting on people that I admire.
When I think of the word successful when it comes to people many different kinds of people come to mind. Honestly, I could go on all day writing people’s names down. I originally was just doing to write 1, then I said I’ll just do 5, but I’ve managed to stop myself at 15.
They are all kind of random, but I think the aspects that I admire of each of these people’s lives are an indication of what success looks like for me.
From what I can tell, I believe each of these people are successful because of a few reasons:
They’re known as people who have made a positive influence in the world.
That positive influence was brought out in a way that can out live them and will exist long after they die.
They’re all financially well off.
They all took the attention people gave them and created something incredible out of it.
They all have a certain kind of freedom that I don’t quite have the words to explain. (It’s now my job to figure that out.)
They all have embraced the miracle that life is and live in a way that does it justice.
I could go A LOT deeper with these ideas and perhaps someday I ought to, but I’ll leave that here for now. I didn’t have as much time to write this week, and I spent most of my allocated writing time to research for a behemoth of a blog post I’m working on.
In the future, I think it would be fun to make a list of people who are considered conventionally successful, but for one reason or another I personally don’t consider them successful. Comparing what this second group has in common will give me a clearer picture of what unsuccessful will look like for me.
Defining success for ourselves is crucial for our mental health. The higher the level of articulation, the less we find ourselves needlessly suffering on a hedonic treadmill or chasing phantom pleasures. We can level up our articulation through analyzing our personalities and inclinations as well. Discovering what we are and what we like helps us recognize success if we are fortunate enough to meet her.