The Most Important Question


A few years ago (a few more than I’d like to admit) I started asking myself a question. Not just any question, but perhaps the most important question. Up until that point I’d been making my way through life according to what the people around me had decided was normal. I’d never felt especially ambitious (particularly about my job, work or career) and once I laid to rest my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut I didn’t have much idea of what I wanted to do with my life.

My journey up until that point was pretty uneventful. I did well at school, and so applied for a place at university. I accepted a place studying engineering and completed my course four years later. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was around this point, in the face of some big decisions, that I started asking the question I should have paid attention to much earlier: “What do you want?”

There were the obvious answers – ones I thought I should be giving: “To own a house”, “To have a family”, “To have a great job” etc. But they weren’t my answers. They were the answers of the world around me. They were the answers I’d picked up and carried. But they came from somewhere else. Somewhere outside. They weren’t mine.

So, what were my answers?

I didn’t have any. I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted. I’d spent so long ignoring the question that when I really needed to come up with some answers, I couldn’t.

I figured that action was better than inaction, and that it was going to take far too long to work out what I really wanted. So instead, I went and got a job. Whilst I didn’t really know what I wanted, I did know that I had some knowledge and skills that I could get a job with. I knew that I could “use my degree” (which for some reason seems to be a measure of success). So I did.

I worked as a project manager for a large engineering company, before moving into a more technical role at another company (which I’m still in). Both jobs were “good jobs”. I was good at them, they paid quite well and I was comfortable. And that was the problem.

Wake Up

Being comfortable was a great way of suppressing the niggling thoughts that I could, and should, be doing something with my life that made me feel alive. You know, the sort of thing you hear people talk about when they say “I can’t wait to get to work today”. Those jobs actually exist. That work is real.

Slowly, but surely, the comfort started to wane and my frustration began to surface. I started reading. A lot. Blogs mainly, but a couple of books too. Some common advice I found was things like “Do what you love” or “Find your passion and do that”. It all sounded great, and I definitely wanted to do what they were suggesting. My problem was that I still didnt really know what I wanted. It’s very hard to achieve something if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve.

So I revisited that question. In the difficulty and the frustration I began to explore, again, what I want. It’s been a long, long journey. I’d managed to graduate from university and work in two decent jobs, without ever really knowing what I wanted. I’d been conforming for so long that it was very difficult to escape from my world view. I didn’t know myself. Not really. I couldn’t have told you about my strengths or weaknesses (I’d have been able to give you my answer to an interview question about them but that is a very different thing). I found it very difficult to notice my dreams or my feelings. I was lost, and didn’t know where to turn.

Things have picked up since then, and I’m still learning. I’m still refining my answer. I’m still getting to know myself better.

I’ll write about some of the things I’ve done to unpack my answer to the question another time. For now, I’d love you to take a moment to think about your answer. Just a moment.

Notice how clear, or how cloudy your answer is. Notice the other questions that appear.

If you’re up for it, in the comments below let us know how easy or how difficult you find it to reach your answer.

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video and Jason Lander

2 Comment(s)

  1. August 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    I love this post. Why? Because so many people in my life don’t believe that jobs exist that give you meaning, purpose, and engage your passion. But you believe this and you’re looking for it.

    I also like your thoughts on being comfortable. Everyone is searching after comfort, when actually comfort is quite boring and hinders you from living a remarkable life.

    What do I want? I know the answer and it’s taken me a couple of years to figure it out, however there is a disconnect. I know what I want, but then when I think of actionable steps that would bring that dream to reality…I get lost. So I’m still searching for that.

    Enjoying the blog, keep it up and thanks for the great post!

    • August 29, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      Thanks Spencer. Actionable steps can be tricky. Once you know the destination though, you at least know where you want those actionable steps to lead. I’m convinced most people don’t really know what they want, so if you know your answer you’re already doing well!

      There are bound to be people who have gone before you. At the very least there will be people who have been or done something similar to what lays ahead of you. I’m finding it helpful to use them for inspiration – at a high level, and also a nitty gritty, tactical level. Anything that moves me in the right direction is a good thing!

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