You can’t find the answer if you don’t know the question

“Live the questions now,” the poet Rainier Maria Rilke famously exhorted in Letters to a Young Poet, a message that has since found its way onto countless inspirational greeting cards and posters. “Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Great advice so far as it goes but also incomplete: For the Question-Driven Life to work, we have to choose our questions wisely.

What is wrong with me?

Why is this taking so long?

What is his problem?

I’m pretty sure these are not the sort of questions Rilke had in mind, and yet all too often they’re the ones I find myself living.

In Reality Therapy, a book I skimmed some months back while unpacking boxes from storage, psychiatrist William Glasser stresses the importance of staying focused on our basic needs in the here and now. (In Glasser’s view, we have two core psychological needs: the need to love and be loved and the need to feel that we are worthwhile to ourselves and others.)  In this spirit, I’ve found that asking the question “What do I need right now?” can be a big help in cutting through circular brooding tape loops.

The Fluent Self’s Havi Brooks offers another take on this question that I really like, one that incorporates her own quirky lexicon: “What can I do right now so I can feel safe, supported, and sovereign?”  (As a side note, when I first played with this question a couple months back, one of my scribbled responses was to try joining Click Workspace in hopes of making my writing day feel a bit less isolated. Guess where I’m writing this post right now? And quite happily, I might add.)

A few more questions that have served me well recent months:

What is useful in this?

Is this necessary?

What do I need to take time to appreciate?

Such questions have the advantage of being both distracting and empowering. It’s far easier to stop dwelling on a topic when I swap it out for another. (Baby, meet pacifier. Dog, meet chew toy.) Plus questions tend to put me in a problem solving mode. They’re a way to take control of a problem that seemed to have control of me.

Theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg determined that the mere act of observation affects the behavior of quantum particles. While the science of this is far beyond me, I see an analogy here: The interpretive frames through which we view our thoughts transform the thoughts themselves. Viewing a problem through the right question may in time turn it into an answer.

What does “live the questions” mean to you? Please share your thoughts below.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “You can’t find the answer if you don’t know the question

  1. As a member of a Quaker (Friends) Meeting, I can say that our entire creed is based on questions one asks of oneself. (And “what is wrong with me?” isn’t one of them.)

  2. You are definitely right about this Amy.. No answers if there’s no questions.
    I still asking myself “what should I do to finish my book?”
    Thanks for this post!

  3. Hey Amy,

    I love this post and your writing! But now you’ve triggered a lot of questions going off in my head . . .


    Thanks for the constructive ideas about using questions that can be useless or critical for those that are insightful and productive.

  4. Ah questions….here’s a few more:

    Does having a job define you differently to yourself? To others? Why?

    Do others look at me for who I am and what I can do, or rather what I can’t do (be employed right now or be employed like I was)? Can they see what I am without my being employed?

    Is it frustrating to me, family, friends and acquaintences to not be able to put me in a job box, that allows them to figure out who I am by my employment?

    Why is it so hard to show my vulnerability to others and openly admit that I am not in control, particularly to show vulnerability to family and friends who are control freaks?

    What is wrong with me that so often my sense of self-worth is tied to having a job?

    Which gets more in the way of my being creative – having or not having a job?

  5. Fabulous post! I completely love the idea of swapping out the question from “What’s wrong with me?” to “What do I need right now?” Turns out, “reading this blog” is what I needed!

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