The question that runs my life.

As anybody who’s ever met one of them can attest, human beings tend to be far from perfect. We’re subject to our impulses, temperaments, desires, and whims. We are often reactive creatures.  I’m no exception, of course.

That’s why, whenever I speak or do something, I always try to retreat to one question: What’s useful?

That simple question grounds my words and actions and gives them purpose—instead of allowing me to succumb to the irrational part of my mind.

To determine what it is that’s useful in any given situation, you need to figure out your goal. Are you looking to convince someone? Motivate them? Mobilize? Inform them? Reveal your own self more in order to form a better bond?  Different individuals require different approaches.  By understanding what you want to achieve and who you’re trying to reach, you’ll be able to establish the best way forward. Yes, you’ll be able to answer the question: What’s useful?

Let’s say you’ve just missed your flight because the airline neglected to notify you properly of a change.  You’ll be upset. That’s only fair. The temptation would be to lash out, to act out of anger. Again, understandable.  But, is it useful?  What’s likely most helpful in that situation is figuring out next steps and ensuring that you’re quickly rebooked on the next available flight and the airline is aware of their system flaw so that the issue does not occur again.

Now, what if your assistant happened to double book you and two clients show up at your office at the same time. How embarrassing. Bad assistant. Does it make sense to berate him or her in front of the clients? How will it reflect on your business? How will it reflect on you? How will it affect your poor assistant…will it cause the assistant to do their job better, or worse?  What’s the most useful move?  (Of course, if this is a common occurrence, it possible that the most useful move is to indeed replace your assistant—but that’s a destination you have to arrive at by asking the question first, not just reacting in the heat of the moment).

I’ve noticed that those who tend to be popular on social media platforms like Twitter tend to fall into two groups: a) They are already famous   and b) They like to pick polarizing fights. I mean, there’s nothing like a scandal to get the blood boiling, right?

The latter group tends to be most associated with political discourse, often attacking the “opposite” side. Their followers are already aligned with their views, so they are essentially performing for the converted.  But how is this virtual performance art useful to them?  Well, for starters, it gets them likes and clout, and those little dopamine hits can feel rather good, I’m told.  But unless they are methodically doing this in order to prop up a career in podcasting or write a book to sell their followers, there’s no real net benefit.  Certainly not if the intention is to stand up to what they believe to be the “wrong” ideas or ideology.

After all, to my knowledge, no one has ever changed their mind by being screamed at, ridiculed, harassed, threatened, or punched.

What’s useful then?   Well, if the goal is to persuade someone else, it’s probably a good idea to ask them why they hold the beliefs that they do in the first place. It’s useful for them to see you as a human being that also sees them as a fellow human being—sharing a space. It’s useful to connect with them on a human level. Bring them closer to you, rather than pushing them into a corner where they are forced to double down on ideas and defend themselves. Empower them to think for themselves and think critically. And, exchange ideas.  You never know, you might learn something too.

And that’s pretty darn useful.

What question runs YOUR life? Leave in the comments below.