“What are the most important questions you’ll ever ask of yourself?”
Following a keynote I gave recently at an annual gathering of seasoned aviators meeting at a casino (a first for me), one of the pilots approached me with that very question.
The Most Important Questions in Life
I thought to myself, “Good question.” I have been thinking about it for a while too.
Here is my list of the most important questions. Yet, these are not all of them. I have thought of other questions, too, that could be included in any list of the most important questions you will ever ask yourself. for the sake of brevity, however, here is my list of the most important questions.
What are your most important questions?
Until you ask yourself these questions, I think it’s safe to say you are not living your dream. You’re living someone else’s.
Live your own life. Pursue your own dreams. If you are not clear about either your life or your dreams, maybe these most important questions will help point you in the right direction.
1. Who am I?
You are not your thoughts…
Not your body…
Not your name…
Not your occupation, career…
And, you are certainly not what anyone else thinks you are.
For years, whenever I looked at myself in a mirror, I thought the image staring back at me was me. I now know that what I was really viewing was what Albert Einstein called, “an optical illusion in consciousness.”
Who are you really? I think I have come to the conclusion, after much thought regarding this, you and I are at best the awareness that is aware we are not any of these things, including the thought inside your head that your not any of these things.
As I understand it, this is that nature of reality the Buddha said, if we did not understand this, we would go through life too attached to that which is disappearing.
And, when you think about it, anything you see – which includes everything in the list above – is disappearing, dissolving, and will ultimately even die. Name one thing that is not disappearing.
You cannot. But, until you realize this, you will mistakenly think you are the thoughts you think, the body into which the real you resides, and so forth.
“Well,” you say, “if I am not my name, occupation, my thoughts, the body I see in a mirror, and so on, then who the heck am I?”
As odd as it sounds, when you ask just such a question out of sheer confusion, you are likely closer to realizing who you really are. The most I can say about myself is that I am aware. I am the awareness that is aware I am none of the things mentioned above.
In the east, they teach people to be the consciousness within – the observer who is watching. Make this your practice and, rather than feeling the need through life to attach labels to yourself, you’ll discover a self-less self.
Double-talk, I know. But I do not know of any other way of putting it. I know only that it is important to recognize that all self-definitions will disappear. What remains is you. Cultivate this awareness. It’s one of the keys to human fulfillment and happiness, albeit in a strange sort of way.
2. Why am I here? Or, what is my life purpose?
To ask this is to ask about your life purpose. Why did you show up? I’ve written a blog about this previously so I will say only a little more here. If you’d like to read more about this question, however, follow this link.
Shakespeare, in Macbeth, framed this most important question, with these words:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Is this true? Are we just cosmic dust whirling around at the speed of life inside a universe of infinite meaninglessness? Are we just finite fools strutting across an empty stage of meaninglessness, making temporary noise that means absolutely nothing?
This is a very big and most important question and nobody can answer this one for you but you. But answering it is a must, if you are ever going to know inner peace, purpose, and joy.
Your life purpose is your inner GPS. It is that which guides your life.
Some years ago, I heard my leadership guru, John Maxwell, say, “You cannot get there from here; you can only get here from there.” I am not recall now just how he was applying those words but I remember the statement. I also know how I have applied these words over the years.
Until you are clear about where you are headed – your “there” – the “here” or how to get there will always be unclear. What you must get clear first is the “there” and the “here” will manifest itself.
3. What is my life plan?
Your life plan will change from time to time, depending on what you’re doing and the goals you set for yourself in the unfolding of your life purpose. In other words, your life purpose – why you have decided you are here – is the foundation upon which you build a life plan – the way you live out your life purpose.
Lay the foundation first – that’s most important question number 2 above – why am I here?
Once the foundation is laid, then your life plan – which is always secondary to your life purpose – will emerge almost on its own.
In our culture, we have it backwards. We teach our children, for example, that what’s important is that they figure out first what they want to do in life. That is, pick a career and then work toward it.
Before picking a plan for life, however, should we not encourage our children to determine what their purpose for life is? To figure out why they believe they showed up?
I think so.
Why? Because your life plan will change; your life purpose, however, will remain the same.
Usually. It is true that sometimes your life purpose changes. It did so for Saint Paul, you might recall. Luke, author of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, tells of the time when Saint Paul, who then was Saul, had as his ultimate ambition the removal of Christians and the end of this emerging and rapidly-growing religious movement (Acts 9). When, however, Saul had a vision of Christ on the Damascus Road, his life purpose changed. Dramatically. So much so, history remembers a change in his name, too. Saul became Paul, the credited author of much of the New Testament.
You life purpose can change, too. But, more often than not, it will remain the rudder guiding the ship of your life and your life plans as they unfold.
Life Purpose is the destination.
Life Plan is the getting there.
Get as clear about this distinction as you can. Once you do, you will not likely confuse the two and life will more likely work more favorably with you. In other words, you will flow with life instead of feeling as if you’re always swimming upstream and getting nowhere.
When the destination is clear, the route for getting there is more easily discernible.
Recently, for example, I drove to Chicago. That was my destination. When, however, I put that destination (purpose) into my GPS system, I was shown three different routes (plans) I could take for getting there. Each was about the same in distance and predicted arrival time. So, I investigated more closely, which is what goal-setting, life planning, is all about. As I did, I discovered that, while all possible routes would lead me to Chicago, one of three was actually the better route for me to take. Why? There was some construction on the other two and very likely long delays. The best route emerged. I arrived safely at Chicago.
In many respects, this is how life works, too.
Several years ago, I wrote down my life purpose: It is “to create a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world.” In many respects this purpose has not changed for me in forty or so years. My plans have certainly changed, however, and very often. In other words, my purpose has been lived out through a variety of life plans.
For years, for example, I was a professional minister. Then, my plans changed and I became a consultant to congregations. In the last few years, my plans have changed further still. Today, I frequently consult with religious leaders and provide consultation and guidance to congregations, but I’m also an inspirational speaker and an avid writer.
While my plans frequently changing, and my goals are constantly being reviewed and revised in any and all of those changes, my life purpose remains fixed.
4. What will I leave behind?
An estate over which the family might fight? That seems to be the aim of many a rich fool.
What is the legacy you will live?
I think one of the most sobering things to do is to write your own obituary.
Because it is not what others will say about you at your funeral that will be your legacy.
Don’t ever forget this.
For example, for many years, I was a professional minister. Consequently, I have conducted hundreds of funerals. Naturally, I was always concerned about what I said regarding the deceased. I chose my words carefully…intentionally, believing what I said about the deceased was important – which of course it was – but words that would also be remembered.
They were not, however.
Why? Because a deceased person’s real legacy was written already. In the hearts of those gathered to pay their last respects. What people will ultimately remember about you is not what the minister says about you at the funeral but the relationship, or lack of it, you genuinely had with the survivors throughout your life.
In the final analysis, the most important question is “How do I wish to be remembered?”
The answer is, as someone wisely put it, “The life you live today is the legacy you’ll leave tomorrow.”
What could be more important today than to answer these four most important questions?
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, speaker, and spiritual teacher. His books and blogs inspire spiritual seekers all over the world. He is a devoted follower of Christ but an interfaith activist as well. He is frequently heard to say, in the words of Mother Teresa, “I love all religions; but I’m in love with my own.” Read more from Dr. McSwain on his blog Your Best Life Ever. To contact Steve, go directly to his website and learn more about his public talks, personal counsel, and his books and interfaith pendants – visit http://www.SteveMcSwain.com