What Questions Are We Asking Ourselves?

“[It] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but, rather about the choice of what to think about.”

— David Foster Wallace, 2005 commencement speech.

Often times, it is the questions that we ask ourselves that prompts growth and the quality insights we get from the world around us. These questions, if optimized using a practice of consistent auditing — can also lead to better relationships with the people in our lives and with ourselves.

Answers don’t continue the conversation

There’s an art to introducing yourself to someone. As soon as the exchange occurs — the eye contact, shaking of the hands, the anticipation of what will occur — someone asks the question, “What’s your name?” Regardless of whether or not you ask this question before or after giving your own name, the polite thing to do is to ask the other party what their name is. The conversation really doesn’t begin until this occurs (in most cases).

How does the conversation continue to ensue after the introduction? There is an exchange of questions. Most conversations that dissolve into the void do so because there isn’t any active listening. At some point, one party becomes disengaged and stops asking questions. They tune out. This also occurs when we are deep in thought, during our day-to-day self-talk.

It would be quite odd to introduce yourself to you. However, we all have the ability to orient our minds to consider what questions we are asking ourselves. “Why did I come to the conclusion that today was a bad day?” “How did I decide that I did a good job working on my craft?” “Why do I feel frustration or happiness when interacting with specific people?

Where do these thoughts about ourselves come from — both the positive and the negative? How do we put into practice the discovery of the questions we ask ourselves, in all of the moments we experience?

I’ve found that as I prime myself to be cognizant of the questions that I ask myself (engaging in conversations), I’ve become aware of how I react to the world around me. These introspective conversations have also helped me augment the conversations I have with anyone I’m interacting with. At the very least, I tend to enjoy them more (I have very little power over the reactions of others).

Related: Creating Your Own Curriculum For Self-Education After College

The practicality of having conversations with yourself

Subjectivity and objectivity are both very nebulous terms. How I define them myself isn’t as important as the process in which I go about understanding these terms. Often times, when I hear them used in conversation (or when I use these words myself) I cringe. Mainly because language in and of itself is extremely limited in expressing the totality of the human experience and the thoughts in our noggins.

However, one could consider that when we begin the journey of auditing the questions we ask ourselves — we do gain a better sense of what is subjective and objective. The practice of auditing the questions you ask yourself (and eventually other people’s) is definitely labor intensive. But it can also be a fun daily exercise that can help you grow as a person. Consider the value of what positive (and directed) self-talk can bring.

Self-talk can help you learn what you value most about yourself and life but, it can be difficult to cultivate this positive self-talk over time. What I’ve used to start this process — more importantly optimize it overtime — is starting with developing my own definition of the word “positive.”

In this case, it’s certainly appropriate to let your mind wander. See where your thoughts take you. Perhaps at first glance it’s difficult to put it into words: what you consider as the positive aspects of living, who are the positive influences in your life, and what does it mean to be a positive person. You won’t find these answers in a day. This will be a process that you implement everyday. It’s a mental exercise that will require the same amount of repetitions it takes to gain muscle mass.

There are plenty of benefits, not always immediately apparent

One benefit I found from conducting this practice is that it has helped me to understand where I want to be in life. I am now more cognizant of how I’m evaluating the experiences I’ve had, currently occurring, and those that I wish to have. I’m slowly solidifying my goals and aspirations. This process of defining what positivity is for me (and considering what aspects of this definition are subjective and which are objective) has helped me have a better appreciation of the daily circumstances that I encounter.

This mental model also helps us have more control over the reactions we have when outside circumstances and other people try to impose their own realities onto ours (and we do this others all of the time, consciously or otherwise). As an example — consider this experiment. The next time you’re frustrated at someone or at an event that occurs, ask yourself, “Which aspects of what is occurring cause this emotion?”

Another thing to consider as a useful tool for reinforcing this practice and being able to pull it out of your “mental toolbox,” is to have a list of go-to questions you use throughout the day. Here are three that I’ve been using daily, aside from the one mentioned above:

  1. In this moment, are you encountering the fears that plague your mind?

2. Do you have an excuse to smile right now?

3. How will “future-you” feel about this moment after it occurs?

There are many more that I’m still contemplating for myself right now. But the three questions mentioned above can be used as a starting point to help you evaluate your own thoughts and be aware of the reactions and associated questions that occur throughout the day.

Leveraging the resources around you to optimize the questions you ask yourself

Besides leveraging the practice of being aware and auditing the questions that you’re asking yourself, there are other resources you can use to add to your mental toolbox. The primary one being the internet. The true measure of our ability to maximize our use of the internet is ultimately determined by the questions we ask our devices (what content do we want to consume right now).

Have you ever considered why is that you see the content on your screen? It’s unique to you — no two people see the same things in any given feed. Even when we take advertising into consideration, the ecosystem in our devices is determined, in large part, by the questions we ask across channels and platforms.What do you search for on a regular basis? Do you see any themes? Do you like them? If not, you can change at anytime.

The internet is the ultimate tool for distraction/escapism or self-education, it just depends on how conscious you are of your daily consumption. Leveraging people who are smarter than you and the content they create, both online and in person can help you develop new questions you may not have discovered otherwise.

“I grow as a person, not from the answers I’m obtaining from the world, but more so from the questions I’m asking it.”

Find communities online who seek to master the skill of directed curiosity. These communities are the ones I personally tend to be drawn to, so I can discover new questions. If you want a good place to start, LinkedIn Groups and MeetUp.com are places that I’ve leveraged in the past. Find time throughout your weekly schedule to meet new people, in environments where productive discussions about the topics you’re curious about take place.

These communities, and the internet as a whole, are an inexhaustible resource that could you leverage at any time. Mainly because people are constantly changing, — you can learn new things from the same person or community indefinitely. Because if they are seekers of knowledge as well — they will be asking themselves new questions everyday.

Related: What Could You Do If You Had A Second Brain?

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