The power of a simple question

"What do you really love?"

(Image credit: (iStock))

Upon meeting someone, instead of asking, "What do you do?" I prefer asking, "What do you love to do?" That always stops people. Their eyes soften, and they smile. "What do I love to do?" Sadly, it usually it has nothing to do with their work.

The problem is that our society does not teach us to value what we really love. It teaches us to value what we are good at. How many people do you know who are really good at their jobs but hate what they do for a living? Think for a moment. It's staggering.

In the last few years, I've become acutely aware of just where the culprit might lie.

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My daughter and I have just finished the college slog, and she is off to her freshman year in a matter of weeks. The journey wasn't easy. Over and over again at colleges around the country I heard admissions people with starched shirts and neat scarves shooting what felt to me like verbal bullets to a room full of prospective students, such as "Who here is good at math? Raise your hand."

Half the room would groan. Half would raise their hands.

"Okay — for those of you with raised hands, you might want to declare Accounting as your major. Accounting majors are guaranteed jobs out of college."


Is that what college is for? Getting a job?

A job is a good thing, of course, but college is about something deeper. It should teach you how to think. It should help you learn what you can't stand. It is about stretching your mind in ways you never thought you could and coming out the other side ready to fly into the unknowns of life with some level of confidence and better yet, wonder.

I understand that to "make a living" we need to make money. But I also know that I vouchsafed my passion early on, and while I spent a long time working jobs that I didn't particularly love in order to focus on writing, in middle age I am both living my dreams and "making a living." Picasso once wrote: "If they took away my paints, I'd use pastels. If they took away my pastels, I'd use crayons. If they took away my crayons, I'd use pencils. If they stripped me naked and threw me in prison, I'd spit on my finger and paint on the walls." Exactly.

Even if we aren't passionate about one specific thing, everybody knows that in today's society people reinvent themselves. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average American worker changes careers three to five times during their lifetime. So why are those admissions people trying to put our kids in a box? Isn't their job to inspire those prospective students to dream a little? To think big?

Every single time I witnessed this What-are-you-good-at-raise-your-hand assault on our college-bound youth, I wanted to stand up, Oz-like, and say, "Ignore the person on the stage. It's not what you are good at. It's what you love. If you are lucky enough to have both, good for you!"

What if someone told you in college that making a fulfilling "living" is about finding out what is uniquely you in voice, passion, quirkiness, pith, joy? What if those admissions officers stood up on that stage and said:

We can't wait to have your passion at our institution, and it doesn't need to add up. It can look sloppy and wandering. And that's okay. We will do our best to help you funnel that passion into something that will bring you joy in life. "Making a living" has a lot more to it than finding a job that you're good at. Come. The world is yours.

After working with hundreds of people at my Haven writing retreats, I have learned that something profound happens for people when they leave what makes them powerful behind. I watch it over and over again. In tapping into that pure spring inside us (which likely flowed when we were children but became clogged with the detritus of living along the way), we find something familiar, easy, and even intoxicating.

And in becoming aware of that flow, we start to imagine how we can translate it into living a life we love. Sometimes we have to shock ourselves into it by going way outside our comfort zone. A good place to begin is with a powerful question. Maybe not a daunting one, like Who am I? But maybe something easier to answer, like What do I really love?

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