Bursting with excitement, I quickly raise my hand when my favorite teacher enters the room. She spots me immediately and tells me to go ahead with what I must say. "If an asteroid was on its way to the Earth, would your ethics tell you to inform everyone or withhold that information?". She is surprised, but with a deep inhale and an even deeper exhale, she smiles and tells me what an excellent question to start the day—a moment and a person that makes me feel indeed seen.
At 14 years old, this incident was me exuding an insatiable curiosity for everything around me. My mom, teachers, cousins, friends, and your youtube search history would easily confirm this claim. I had always known I had a deep-rooted need to know and attempt to understand the nature and realities of the world around me. However, recently what I thought was a simplistic characteristic of mine turned out to be a key determinant factor in defining my self-identity. Even further, as humans, this innate behavior might be one of the most critical factors in unlocking the true potential of our lives.
"Look for people who have many great questions," says the investor and billionaire Ray Dalio. This a statement I now wholeheartedly agree with. Further, when I read the biographies of the widely accepted "greats" of the present world and history, I notice a pattern of them pursuing their lives to answer the questions of life they deem most important and pressing according to their value hierarchies. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci asked many questions about how nature works and how lessons from nature can be considered while solving challenging engineering problems. As soon as these questions were asked, his life started aligning itself to formulate the answers.
Similarly, in his non-controversial version, Elon Musk asks questions about the world's most pressing problems today, and his companies have become attempts to provide his best solution/answer. Finally, let's look at the 2006 Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus, who revolutionized the banking sector by introducing the concept of microfinancing to elevate poverty. We can see that there were questions at the forefront of his mind. "How can I be of use to the people in need?", "Why should poverty on a systemic level exist?" are some of them.
Now in my own life, I have formulated a mechanism that works for me to define my path as I move through a chaotic world and an often confusing life. It is first to ask the most crucial question. The question about defining my value hierarchy. What is the most important thing to me at this stage of life? And then, after I have a preliminary list, such as fun, impact, meaning, peace of mind, and exploration, I will start formulating questions to align my life with my set of present values and principles. These will be sheer approximations based on the self-awareness of a person and will look something like: "What is the most fun thing I did recently?", "How can I brainstorm side-projects that will have a tangible impact in the real world?", "How long has it been since I reached out to the meaningful relationships in my life?", "Have I prioritized my solitude as much as I would like to?", "What am I optimizing for?" and so on.
This framework may be called curiosity, reflection, or simply asking the right questions. But it doesn't matter. In retrospect, it has been pivotal and incredibly influential in anything I have done that was worthwhile and I have been proud of. Additionally, being able to ask the right questions while guiding someone is incredibly useful in contrast to giving advice. This is because questions tend to be context-independent, while advice is usually heavily context-dependent.
So, I urge you to start defining your most essential values today. And then ask the appropriate questions. Only then can we start defining our lives on our terms.
We are defined by the questions we ask.
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