one question

In a world of sound-bites, cancel-culture, and voices screaming for your attention, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a meaningful conversation. People are rightfully skeptical and hesitant in engaging in conversation with strangers and friends.

Over the years in my career, I have had the privilege and opportunity to meet and listen to people from all over the world, in different stages of life, and with various careers. I’ve spoken to MBA students, financial investors, nurses, non-profit leaders and child caregivers. In all my interactions, there has been one question time and time again that has led to rich and meaningful conversations

This question is so easy to ask yet so elusive to answer. The question confounds and yet empowers.

What is it? It’s this—“What do you want?”

You Are What You Want

Human beings are beings of desire. Donald Miller, CEO of Storybrand in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years says that our greatest stories are ones of great conflict— where the protagonist(s) want something meaningful and does all that it takes to get it.

What is a person’s life aside from a story? We are our stories and our stories are about what we want.

In addition, we are not beings of achievement. Miller says take for example the movie Friday Night Lights, a story of the underdog football team. Although they make it very far and to the championship finals, they don’t win. Did it make the story any worse? No, in fact it may have made it even better.

Although winning and resolution certainly makes a story more enjoyable— the joy comes from the battle. Great stories involve great desires with great action. Great results is only a bonus.

Miller says you would never choke up about a story of a woman who worked 12-hour days, with blood and tears, to eventually just buy a Volvo. Instinctively, we know that certain desires and pursuits are of more meaning and value than others.

Start With What

Whenever I have asked a person what they want, what they truly want, nobody ever really says more money or a promotion. They just want to be happy, to be loved, to have purpose.

The beauty of this simple question is that either people know exactly how to answer it in vivid detail and color or they’re completely confused. Both are beautiful.

In the former, the person will naturally and without stop, share with you their hopes and fears. What makes them happy. What gives them meaning. You can learn so much about a person if you simply asked them what they want.

In the latter, the person will stop, begin to think, and then slowly realize they either do not know or that they are living for something they do not want. Both are profound realizations. When a person discovers either, they will with a bit of necessary prodding, begin to share with you why and how they came to where they are now. They will answer for you and more importantly themselves, how they ended up so far from who they once were.

Why do mid-life and quarter-life crisis occur? Largely because they lived lives they never wanted.

Matter Over Money

When we ask a person what they want in life, it quietly tells them that they matter. 

Although every childhood experience is different, most grow up either being told what to want or to just do whatever they want. These are very different then sitting down or walking with a person and giving them the time and space to think—what is it do I really want?

Whether you are a parent, a partner, or a supervisor, asking this one easy and empowering question will do wonders to their life and your relationship together. People stop talking and listening to people because they don’t feel seen or heard. If you want to say something, then first listen. 
The numbers are in and people leave people and jobs not because of money but because of matter. They leave because they feel unheard, unseen, and unimportant—that they don’t matter. 

Just ask people what they want and then listen. If they don’t know how to answer, then just ask them again. Even ask them what they really want. And if all else fails, ask them what they last really wanted and then ask them what changed.