An Important Question You Should Ask Yourself (But You Don’t)

what is the right question for improving yourself

Tell me.

When was the last time you did something to invest in yourself? Like, really invest in yourself?

Examples could include consciously applying what you read, or practicing a new skill. Or even re-examining a skill you already possess.

Let’s tweak the question a little. How many times did you invest in yourself in the last week?

Zero, once, twice or more? If your answer ranges between zero and two, don’t worry. You’re not alone. In fact, you’re one among the majority, which is not really a bad thing. But it’s not such a good thing either.

People know that investing in self is as important as living in the present moment. They know this action brings happiness, and more importantly, progress. Then why do they struggle to find time to invest in themselves? Why, when they know what they must do, do they lean towards actions which barely move the needle in their lives?

Two Approaches to Your Life

Your life is driven by two opposing styles of attention.

In the red corner is bottom-up attention.

Imagine walking through Times Square while thinking about a problem. Suddenly, your eyes meet those of a gorgeous woman. A thin smile forms on her voluptuous lips before she disappears into the sea of people around you.

Immediately, your mind switches from thinking about the problem to thinking about her. This involuntary behavior is bottom-up attention. It asks, “What thing should grab my attention here?” In this case, it’s the beautiful woman’s eyes. And her smile (which, let’s be honest, you must mostly have imagined).

In the blue corner is top-down attention. It asks “What do I want to concentrate on?”

Have you found yourself in a paradox while doing what you enjoy? Time seemed to stand still while you worked. But when you finished, you realized that time flew by.

According to behavior science writer Winifred Gallagher, top-down attention is a deliberate process. It’s key for you to lead a fulfilling life and to decide what to focus on and what to suppress.

Adopting the top-down approach is the logical thing to do, right?

But man is not a logical animal. He’s an emotional one. He lets emotions and instant gratification drive his actions, even though he knows that delayed gratification offers better results.

That’s why most people follow the bottom-up approach. It keeps them abreast with events around. Plus it’s easier. But it also leads to lots of fruitless work. It makes them divert their mind from one event to another, since there’s so much happening in the world every day. (Or rather, the media makes it seem like that.)

Until we didn’t have much to do, this action was okay. It didn’t hurt. But in today’s ‘next-big-thing’ economy, the bottom-up approach has become dangerous.

Here’s why.

You might argue that staying informed about the latest trends and events is, in a way, improving oneself. Yes, this constant interest in what’s new makes us knowledgeable dabblers. But dabbling is as dangerous (and ironically, as rampant) as people smoking cigarettes. It’s hardly an in-demand trait. And it does nothing to make you smile when you look in the mirror.

If anything, dabbling just makes matters worse. Shallow work, distraction, anxiety, mood swings… the list goes on and on. It makes concentrating difficult. Difficulty in focusing and concentration, and widespread distraction, are signs of a toxic environment.

Each time we get drawn to an object that makes us go “Ooh! New and Shiny,” we lose a chance to get better.

What to Ask Yourself Instead

It’s time to change the question. Instead of asking yourself, “What’s new today?”, take a leaf out of Jeff Bezos’ book. Ask yourself, “what’s not going to change in the next ten years?”

When Bezos asked himself this question for Amazon, the answers were:

  1. Cheaper products, and
  2. Faster delivery.

Since then, every new business strategy the company adopts is in sync with these goals. And it has reaped the rewards. Technologies have come and gone, competitors have burst on the scene and disappeared equally quickly. But Amazon remains the undisputed king of the e-commerce space.

The answer to “what won’t change?” laid the foundation on which the world around you was built. And it’ll continue to dominate the bigger picture in times to come. People who drop out of the rat-race and embrace this will have a huge advantage.

I asked myself this question two years ago. The answer was:

I am responsible for how my life turns out, and how people who matter perceive me.

Whether I go to bed satisfied or unhappy, calm or angry, relaxed or anxious, depends on me. It depends upon my perception of things and events around me. This won’t change no matter how old I grow.

The world doesn’t function the way I want it to. It works in a way which, like time, stays the same for everyone. I can either try to control things (good luck to me with that). Or I can figure out what’s in my control and adjust my perspective accordingly.

Ironically, when I start doing the latter, the world becomes better even though nothing in it changes. My next step becomes figuring out what I must do to focus on that which won’t change. My goals and actions then circle around those perceptions.

The reason most people don’t reach even half their potential is because they ask themselves the wrong question. They ask themselves, “what in my environment demands my attention?” And the more they see others commit this mistake, the more they believe that self-destruction is the right way forward.

It’s time to take a closer look at who you are, and what you stand for. It’s time to stop living the revered fast-paced, blurry-eyed life. It’s time to stop springing from one detail to another, with no idea about where you’re headed.

Slow down. Ask yourself, “What won’t change in the coming times?” Wrap your head around the question. Build your life around the answers.

You cannot control what happens in the world. But you can control what happens in yours.

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Have you found your answers? If yes, I would love to hear them in the comments.


  1. Shailaja March 5, 2018
    • Vishal March 6, 2018

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