Change Your Questions – Change Your Life: Part 4 Be aware of what’s happening around you – but focus on what you can do

We all have a large circle of things that are outside our control, and a smaller circle of things that are inside our control. I believe we should be aware of the large circle, but that we should focus on the small circle – what we can control.

To illustrate, let me share a story from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where the author Stephen Covey talks about a strategy seminar he held for a struggling business:

“I was working with a group of people in the home-improvement industry. A heavy recession was taking a toll on their business, and they were discouraged as we began the seminar.

The first day, we talked about: “What’s happening to us?” The basic answer was that they were laying off their friends just to survive. The group finished their first day even more discouraged.

On the second day, we talked about: “What’s going to happen in the future?” They concluded things were going to get worse before they improved. They were more depressed than ever.

On the third day, we focused on the proactive question: “What is our response?”. In the morning, we brainstormed ways of managing better and cutting costs. In the afternoon, we talked about how to increase our market share.

By concentrating on a few doable things, everyone was able to wrap up the meeting with a new spirit of excitement and hope, eager to get back to work. We all had faced reality, and discovered we had the power to choose a positive response.”

Lesson: Focus your questions on what you can do to improve the situation. Have 25% of your questions be about the larger circle, so that you understand what is happening around you. But then focus the rest 75% of your questions on what you can do about it.


Some proactive questions to add to your vocabulary:

  • What is my goal?

  • What do I need?

  • What can I do?

  • What are my options?

  • What are my unique strengths?

  • What can I learn from this?

  • What if I…?

  • What’s possible?


If we focus more on such proactive questions when faced with challenges, I believe we can avoid digging ourselves further down into the hole, and instead see the best way to climb out of it.

Change Your Questions – Change Your Life: Part 3 Question your assumptions – especially when the stakes are high

Assumptions may be one of the most dangerous diseases to plague the human race. They make us see problems that aren’t there and discard opportunities dangling right in front of us – just because we believe they won’t work. That is why the habit of writing down our assumptions so that we can question them may be one of the most important practices of all.

A stellar example of questioning one’s assumptions is the story of Bolsa Familia; a program designed to eliminate poverty by giving poor families cash, instead of goods.

For us that haven’t grown up in poverty, most would assume that poor people can’t be trusted to spend money wisely. Despite it being cheaper to hand out cash directly – one study estimated it to be 30% less costly than providing traditional goods – the idea of giving people money had been firmly rejected by most experts.

It took one board member, who had himself grown up poor, to get the rest of the Bolsa Familia board to question their assumption. By opening the conversation to questions like:

  • “Why do we believe that poor people can’t manage money responsibly?”

  • “What are the facts?”

  • How do we know that we are right?”

That board member was able to convince them to switch to handing out cash instead of goods. As a result, Brazil’s extreme poverty rate was cut in half and lifted 36 million people out of extreme poverty.

Lesson: What you think is a roadblock might just be a figment of your imagination. Vice versa, what you think is a solid road might actually be quicksand. You won’t know for certain until you take one small step forward to see if what you think is true actually is so.

How to question your assumptions – in 3 steps

1. First, think of a problem you are currently struggling with in your own life: 

  • Is a friend or family member often questioning instead of supporting you?
  • Do you have too much work and not enough time to do it all? 
  • Do you often forget a certain task and then have to spend more time redoing it later?

2. Now ask: “What assumptions am I making here?” and write them down. For example: 

  • “I am assuming that my friend questions me because she is a pessimist.”
  • “I am assuming that I have to do everything myself.”
  • “I am assuming that I just need to be more disciplined.” 

3. Finally, ask: “Let’s assume that I am wrong. What could then be true?”. For example: 

  • “My friend is questioning me so much because she doesn’t want my plans to fail. She is trying to be helpful!” 
  • “I don’t have to do it all by myself. I can ask my co-workers and family for help with some of my simpler todos.” 
  • “I don’t have to rely on my discipline. I can instead set up a system that automatically reminds me about the task.”

A problem is only a problem because we don’t see a solution to it. But more often than not, there is a solution path right in front of us. We just don’t use that path because we see a big boulder blocking the way ahead. 

But what if that boulder was just a wrongheaded assumption? 

Wouldn’t it be worth taking just one step forward to see whether that boulder really is there?