Master Your Three Toughest Questions

Have I just wasted 5.5 years of blood, sweat, tears, sprains and strains? How could he do this to me? I just don’t understand this. 

It was December 8, 2000 and I had been training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido for 5.5 years. I was excited for my chance to test for shodan (first-degree black belt). Shodan means “master of the basics.” I invited some friends and family to come watch the event.

Class ended and no test took place. Left with nothing but questions, I reminded Sensei that I was supposed to test that night. He replied, “I decided to cancel your test tonight.”

I felt betrayed. I was embarrassed. And to make matters worse, I had to go back to my family and friends and somehow explain this bizarre situation to them.

Next class, Sensei sat me down and explained that not testing me was part of my test. He wanted to determine whether I was only in it for the ego boost of attaining a black belt, or if I was in it for lifelong mastery of self. He reminded me that anybody can buy a black belt for $10. What a black belt represents is someone who has reached a point of mastery and commits the rest of his life to continuing that journey. When you change yourself, you change everything around you.

At that point, I confessed to Sensei that while I was upset, I was committed to studying and teaching Aikido for the rest of my life. He then asked me three tough questions, which I had to answer immediately. These questions changed the trajectory of how I viewed my martial arts training, and how I set out to accomplish my largest goals. Your answers will determine your destiny.

Many people today don’t have a clue who they are, what they’re about, or what they stand for.

Who are you?

This is the first thing that you need to determine along the way to accomplishing your greatest goals, dreams and desires. Based on my Aikido training and working with my executive coaching clients, I know you will fall into one of the following two categories.

You’re either going to be a forest person or a goal getter.

A forest person enters into a specific industry, field of study, or pursuit of a meaningful personal interest. This is a person who enters the forest and never strays from the path on which they set foot. I have trained under many different sensei with different styles, but I haven’t left my pathway of Aikido for other sports.

The goal getter is the opposite of the forest person and doesn’t subscribe to one specific pathway. Instead, they choose meaningful destinations to strive for and arrive at. Goal getters set their sights on a goal, dream, or ambition and then craft a well-structured plan to accomplish it.

Goal getters go through life accumulating a series of accomplishments that create a monumental life worth living for.

Neither category is better than the other. However, knowing which one you most identify with will strengthen your approach to getting what you want from life.

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What do you want?

Once you figure out who you are, it’s natural to ask this next question. “What do I want?” is the second most challenging question my clients struggle with. Like you, my clients initially claim that they lose focus, get distracted and are too overwhelmed on a daily basis. Overwhelm simply means having too many choices that you want to explore. The key to breaking free of overwhelm is to intentionally narrow your focus to four critical areas vs. a dozen.

What do you want for your health? Is your goal to be in better shape in your 40s than you were in your 20s? Are you trying to reach a certain level of net worth? Are your key relationships in life giving or life draining?

Once you know what you want, you will start behaving differently. You’ll go from squandering your life to investing in it. Before you jump into action, you have to master the question that will help you break through the obstacles that will inevitably come your way.

Why do you want this? 

When I ask, “What do you want?” my clients say things like, I want to lose 10 pounds, travel to Barbados, or grow my income by 20%. I want a better marriage or a promotion.

Asking yourslelf “Why do I want this?” will ensure that you don’t waste your time and energy. It will save you a ton of agony in your life. Instead of going out vaguely focused on a broad target, you can go out and focus on a very concentrated set of four targets for yourself.

Why do you want to lose 10 pounds? Is it because the latest fitness magazine said you should? Has your best friend lost 10 pounds and looks amazing in that red dress? Are your pants feeling tighter?

Living in “should” mode is not a good reason for doing anything. When you match your strongest desire with a specific purpose or outcome in mind, you ignite the passion that will give you all the energy required for reaching your destination as you imagine it.

Back to Sensei. I said to him: “You asked me to stick with it and never give up until shodan. In this process I learned that I want to continually master myself and that is what shodan means to me. I am a better person after each class. I’ve learned that I’m on a spiral staircase of life, whereby I’ve come up several hundred steps. When I pause to look down, I celebrate what I have accomplished. However, when I look up, I see that I have several thousand to go and I will never reach the top because mastery is a pathway, not a destination.”

When the next weekend’s class came around, Sensei called me up and for 50 minutes proceeded to rigorously test me. It was gruelling.

I’ll never forget the feeling when Sensei presented me with my black belt. That was many years ago and I’ve never looked back. My commitment to stay on the spiral staircase of life is stronger than ever.

Who are you? What do you want? Why do you want this? When you master these three tough questions, you will have the ignition to light the fire inside of you. With passion as your fuel, you will have the perseverance necessary to accomplish anything you want, as long as you set your heart and mind to it.

Domo Arigato.