What’s your question?
I spoke with Lucy Bernholz recently, and she said something that dramatically shifted the way I think about my professional life. Lucy is someone I greatly admire and, in my opinion, is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the social sector. During our conversation, she told me she never sat down and charted a path for her growth. She never came up with quarterly goals or yearly plans. Instead, she has always followed the path of what she called her “one question.”
She said all of her career has been built around the answer to this one question that has been nagging her in the back of her head for years. She said she didn’t know how to articulate it at first, but over time she has been able to understand it more clearly.
To her, that question is “What’s private, what’s public and who decides?” If you know her work, that question makes perfect sense. If you don’t, you might not understand what she means, but that doesn’t matter, because she understands it. And she has been working to find the answer, or at least get closer and closer to the answer.
In a world of five-year plans, goal setting and key performance indicators, it is refreshing to meet someone driven by pure curiosity. Sometimes, we can get too focused on a particular goal or a particular action that we forget why we are doing it in the first place. Entrepreneurs especially can become trapped by the tunnel vision of execution and lose sight of the broader problems they are trying to solve.
I’ve never been fond of goal setting. I do it, because can be useful for certain things. But when setting off on an ambiguous path without clear metrics, I’ve found it less useful to set time-sensitive goals for myself. Following a question—such as, “How do I make this organization sustainable?” or “How do I achieve more work/life balance?”—can be more helpful. Using a question as a guidepost centers you back to what you ultimately want to achieve.
Lucy took this one step further and used a question to guide herself through her professional life. This question became her guidepost as she explored the world around her. She never turned down the opportunity to have a conversation, whether that was in an amphitheater full of people or as a part of a small dinner group or through a blog post. Not only has her question helped her create a successful career for herself, but by following it every direction she could, she’s explored areas she didn’t think she would and contributed to the betterment of society in new ways. Rigid career goals wouldn’t have allowed for that.
I’m still figuring out how to articulate my question—I think it’s something along the lines of “Why don’t we work together to solve problems?”—but after re-thinking how to approach my career I feel much freer to pursue what excites me, and I’m not so driven by what I think should be constructing for myself: yearly goals to speak at five different public events, writing for ten different blogs. Instead, I’m pursuing my question and finding ways to talk with people about it. Success will come to me the closer I get to finding my answer.
I think we’d all be happier if we could stop focusing on a strict career path we (or others) lay our for us, and instead find one question we are passionate about a pursue it to the extent we can—maybe that’s through work, or maybe that’s in our spare time.
So, what’s your question?
Photo credit: omcoc