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

3D Character and Question Mark

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.

© 2012, 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. 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?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge