Can One Question Change Your Life?

Meandering toward clarity, one answer at a time.

While browsing the internet for productivity tips — a favorite, if somewhat counterproductive pastime— I came across the following advice:

Ask yourself: What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Other tips I read prescribed how much coffee to drink, when to schedule brainstorms, and what kind of light bulb to use (soft white, 60 watt). This question was an anomaly.

I looked it up and found that The One Thing isn’t just a productivity tip, it’s a best-selling self-help book by an entrepreneur named Gary Keller. The website, which feels a bit cultish, describes Keller’s philosophy as “the surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results.”

No matter how success is measured, personal or professional, only the ability to dismiss distractions and concentrate on your ONE Thing stands between you and your goals.

I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t get the question out of my head. Nor could I answer it; for me, there’s never been one thing. I’ve always experienced the world through a frenetic stream of observations, judgments and feelings. Distilling those complexities into a single purpose seems impossible.

I decided to survey 40 people who I thought would give me good answers— various artists, bankers, lawyers, social workers, engineers, my wise mother, my ex-boyfriend, my former boss, friends new and old. I asked for their responses in an anonymous form.

What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

They responded with clarifying questions and skepticism:

Do you mean every day, or something I’ve always wanted to do?
What’s your deadline?
Is this real?

Answer however you see fit, I wrote, feeling a bit like an asshole. There are no guidelines.

Well, I can answer this a few ways…

one person began.

I’m not sure how to phrase this, but here’s my attempt…

another wrote.

I don’t have an answer yet,

a wise friend said.

I watched each box of text appear in the spreadsheet, feeling as if I was spying on a particularly reflective stranger.

First, at 12:22pm:

Take a deep breath.

Then, a few minutes later, more responses trickled in.

In my professional life: remain one step ahead of my colleagues and competitors. In my personal life: remain in the present.

I felt a surge of delight with each new entry. Scanning the lines of text, I searched for a single thread that would illuminate a “surprisingly simple truth.” The words expressed humor, vulnerability and poignance, but no single theme emerged.

Some offered the kind of practical advice my mom has always given me and I’ve never quite followed:

Get a full night’s sleep.

Drink that first cup of coffee.

Pee before you leave the house.

Others expressed intentions that require more effort, whether metaphysical or logistical:

Grapple with the Great Questions: the meaning of life, the order of things, my purpose in the world…

Adopt a baby sloth.

A handful focused on eliminating something:

Let go of self-doubt.

Quit my job.

Silence the voices in my head.

Stop looking to others for validation.

While others expressed a desire to achieve a certain state of existence:

Be grateful.

Think of the bigger picture.

Embrace my own mortality.

Be honest about who I am and what I want.

Adopt a world view where I believe that people are trying to help me rather than hurt me.

The responses felt familiar. I’ve made similar resolutions and repeated them as mantras. I would get them embroidered on decorative pillows if I wasn’t ashamed of what that would say about me.

My first thought was “work out,” then “love.” Final answer: love.

(I still might get this embroidered on something).

So far, I’ve read 29 answers and drafted various versions of my own. This article is the closest I can get to a concise response. While I came upon this question just last week, its core has troubled me for many years.

So… can one question change your life? Maybe it’s more important to ask the question than answer it. But what do I know? As one entry said, “all I have to go by are my meandering experiences.”

We’re all meandering, hopefully in the direction of progress. I might not have One Thing just yet, but I do have the next thing. I can try to make that next small step count toward something.

I’ll leave you with some wisdom from the 1991 film “City Slickers.” In this scene, an old western man explains the purpose of life to Billy Crystal’s character:

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: What’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you got to figure out.


Thank you to everyone who contributed to this experiment. I enjoyed your honest and beautiful words.

Image by Flickr user Tom

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