There are some big life questions we should be asking ourselves.
But I’m pretty sure the question I pondered the other night isn’t one of them: “How can I also get a retweet from him?” You see, I had just found out that the creator of not one but two (!) of my favorite TV shows had retweeted (!!) a comment from my friend (!!!).
You will forgive me for any ensuing (short) burst of envy.
However, my meditation practice had paid off. After realizing that I was more envious in theory than in practice, I also realized that their Twitter exchange was a gold mine of helpful life advice. In just a few sentences, it contained the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves.
But let’s start from the beginning. In the beginning, there was a sci-fi show. A great sci-fi show. Some (a surprising amount of people on IMDb) would say it is the best sci-fi show.
I happen to agree. The name of the show: Babylon 5.
(Yes, it’s better than Star Trek. Fight me!)
The 3 Biggest Life Questions We Can Ask Ourselves
In his tweet, my friend Dr. Ellis Jaruzel summarized the show’s key philosophy in just three questions.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not, given that Ellis is smart, wise and a practicing therapist), these three questions also summarize the key philosophy of life.
What prompted Ellis to do this? A near-death experience? A spiritual retreat? Meeting the Dalai Lama?
No, it’s slightly more prosaic than that: a Twitter fan had congratulated J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and Sense8 (my other favorite TV show) on the imaginative philosophy of two cultures in the show.
This was Ellis’s cue to try and summarize their philosophy. Here’s how he put it:
“Who are you?
What do you want?
Do you have anything worth living for?
Basically the backbone of any good psychotherapy.”
To which Straczynski replied: “Got my first degree in psychology…had to use that stuff *somewhere*….”
Let’s explore these questions one at a time:
1. Who are you?
When asked who we are, we often respond with platitudes. It’s common to mention our profession, such as “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m a stay-at-home-parent.”
This works until our professional circumstances change. When they do, we have no idea who we are anymore. That’s why many people have a hard time retiring: leaving the workforce feels like they’re losing their identity.
Changing professions can be similarly disorienting. For instance, when I left law and became a coach, at first I didn’t know who I was. That’s because I had made the mistake of equating my sense of self with my profession.
People also often choose to identify themselves through their relationships. This used to be common for women. At least in the English-speaking world, women’s identity was often reduced to wife and mother. This lead to such ridiculous titles as “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.”
These days, we often see references to relationships in professional biographies that are supposed to make super-famous people seem accessible. For instance, Barack Obama is a “Dad” and “husband.” Hillary Clinton is a “Mom,” “Wife,” and “Grandma.”
However, many relationships change, just like professional circumstances do. In the US, between 40 to 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. All other marriages end in death which typically means that one partner becomes a “Widow/Widower/Surviving Spouse” instead.
When asked who we are, it’s tempting to respond with platitudes — “I’m a doctor,” “I’m a husband,” “I’m an American” — because it’s such a hard question.
But it’s better to sit with the question instead of rushing to a superficial answer. You are not your work title. You are not your relationships. You are something else.
What is that?
The best answer I have found also comes from Babylon 5:
Dr. Stephen Franklin: “… I can define myself by what I am instead of what I’m not.”
Captain John Sheridan: “And what are you?”
Dr. Stephen Franklin: “Alive. Everything else is negotiable.”
2. What do you want?
As a coach, this is perhaps the most central question I ask my clients. This question matters because, as the famous Lewis Carroll paraphrase goes, “if you don’t know where you want to go, every road will take you there.”
You can ask yourself these four words with various inflections, emphases, and meanings:
- “What do you want?” Pretty straightforward and to the point, this question focuses on your object of desire (a new job, car, relationship, sense of purpose, etc.).
- “What do you want?” As opposed to the things you don’t want.
- “What do you want?” Asked in this way, the question focuses on your desires as opposed to those of your family, your friends, your culture, your boss, etc.
- “What do you want?” This focuses on the verb, the act of wanting, on the gap between desire and reality.
This question matters so much that one show used it as an actual superpower: In the show Lucifer, the Devil’s superpower consists of asking “What is it you desire?”
This might seem like the world’s lamest superpower… until you realize that the show’s Lucifer always gets honest answers. Yepp, if you met him he’d get you talking about all these heartfelt desires that you don’t even want to admit to yourself.
It doesn’t get much scarier than that, does it?
That, my friend, is the power of this question! Once you had found an answer, you know which way to go. You’ve found your true north.
3. Do you have anything worth living for?
This question touches on purpose, meaning, and contribution. As blogger Alex Green put it:
“The above questions all focus on you, the asker. This is the first question that asks you what is important to you that is external to you and your life.”
Perhaps the thing that’s external to you and that gives meaning to your life is your family and friends. Your creative work. Your desire to make a difference.
Or just life for its own sake. For instance, I don’t have a complicated answer to this question. My answer is: “Yes.” I think life is inherently meaningful and thus worthy of being lived.
There you have it. Three questions that you can spend the rest of your life exploring.
Now, personally, here are my answer to these questions:
- Who are you? Alive. Awake. A spiritual being having a human experience.
- What do you want? [long list, including getting a retweet from J. Michael Straczynski].
- Do you have anything worth living for? Yes.
What about you? Who are you and what do you want?
Want more advice and insights?
If you'd like to take the next step forward, sign up to receive my emails that will help you live a life of productivity, passion and purpose. I'll get you started with a free mini-meditation (5 minutes) that will increase your focus and decrease your stress.
I respect your privacy.