The 3 Questions of Life

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Published: 19th September 2012
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We live in a fast-paced culture that asks us to make things quick and easy even when life isn’t that simple. I experienced that recently when I was asked to condense a day-long Power of TED* seminar into one brief keynote speech.

In preparation I reflected on over 30 years of my personal and professional journey. I realized that all I have learned about empowered living and working can be boiled down into what I now call “The 3 Questions of Life ™.” I am delighted to share these three questions:

1. Where am I putting my focus? Am I focusing on problems or on outcomes?

What we focus on has a great deal to do with what shows up in our life experience and how we feel.

The default mindset of most of humanity is focused on problems. By primarily focusing on what we don’t like and don’t want, we engage an ongoing inner state of anxiety or even fear. This inner state then drives reactive behavior, which normally is some form of “fight, flight or freeze” in the face of the problem we face. We go through life feeling victimized by the problems that show up. Hence, we call this the Victim Orientation.

Let’s look at an example of how this might be applied at work. A team member – let’s call him John – is sitting in his weekly team meeting and becomes annoyed with comments made by his manager and the way he is running the session. In his mind, his focus is on judging what he hears and sees. He reacts by withdrawing and crossing his arms. While he may not say anything, he feels himself tighten and may not be aware of his non-verbal reactions to sitting through “another stupid meeting.”

Empowered and resourceful living comes from adopting a Creator Orientation toward our experience. In living and working from this mindset, our focus is on envisioned outcomes that engages the passion or desire (in the positive sense of the word) for what we want to have, do or be. We create by taking daily actions toward focus on what we want, learning every step along the way.

Another team member – let’s call her Jill – is sitting in the same meeting. She listens to her manager and observes how he runs the meeting. Jill wants to grow into being a leader someday and chooses to use the poorly run meeting as a way to think about what works and what is not effective. She speaks when and if what she has to say helps or is relevant to the meeting.

2. How am I relating (to others, life experiences, and myself)? Am I producing/perpetuating drama or am I empowering others and myself?

The Victim Orientation is fertile ground for relating to others, our life experiences, and even ourselves through the interplay of the roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer, which in The Power of TED* we refer to as the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT) ™ (also known as the Karpman Drama Triangle). These roles, and the dynamics between them, are reactive in nature, as each role sees the others as problems.

In our meeting example, John reacts as a Victim in the ineffective meeting, judging his manager as a Persecutor. He may be hoping someone plays the role of Rescuer by challenging the manager or hoping something like a fire alarm going off will bring the meeting to an early close. He may be unaware that his nonverbal behaviors are being noticed by others, which is making them uncomfortable, adding to the unspoken drama in the room.

By adopting a Creator Orientation, we relate to others, life events and ourselves in much more resourceful and empowered ways. We learn, through practice and experimentation, to cultivate the roles of Creator, Challenger and Coach that make up TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) ™. TED* is the antidote to the toxic nature of the DDT and all three roles treat those with whom they interact as Creators in their own right – whether or not they know it or act like it.

In the same meeting, Jill chooses to view the ineffective meeting (and, therefore, her manager that is running it) as a Challenger from which to learn. She jots down a few notes to herself about what is going well and what might be done differently to make such a meeting more effective. She also decides that, when she has the opportunity to manage a meeting, she will ask someone to serve as a Coach to debrief with afterwards in order to improve her skills. She also considers the possibility of offering constructive feedback after the meeting to her manager, if he is open to it.

3. What actions am I taking? Am I reacting to current realities and problems or am I creating by taking Baby Steps in service to outcomes?

When we live and work from the Victim Orientation, actions are normally reactions to the problems we face. We tend to react to whatever is going on in our immediate experience (our current reality).

John’s actions, as previously described, are reactions to the ineffective meeting. He judges, withdraws, and spends most of his time not listening while watching the clock. His actions do not contribute to any kind of forward progress.

When we live and work from a Creator Orientation, the actions we take are generative in nature as we take Baby Steps in service to creating our envisioned outcome(s). We learn from each step we take as we get closer to and/or clearer about our outcomes. We also tackle problems and choose our response to obstacles and issues when they arise, while always keeping our focus on the outcomes.

Jill, on the other hand, sees the meeting as an opportunity to learn and prepare herself for a future leadership role. She speaks up in the meeting when she thinks it will be helpful, takes notes for herself about what she sees working and not working during the session, and considers the possibility of offering constructive feedback to her manager. All of these actions are Baby Steps in service to her learning.

These “3 Questions of Life” can help keep each of us focused on outcomes, relating in resourceful and empowered ways, and taking daily steps in creating our lives. Keep them present. Perhaps print them out and put them on your mirror or at your desk or workplace.

When life’s challenges arise – as they inevitably will – these questions can also help us choose how to respond.

I am reminded of a portion of one of Rainier Maria Rilke’s most famous passages from his Letters to a Young Poet:

“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

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