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3 Important, Life-Changing Questions

3 Important, Life-Changing Questions

Harry Roberts was a friend and teacher of mine while I lived at Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. He was fond of saying that life is very simple — all you have to do is answer three questions: 1) What do you want? 2) What do you have to do to get it? And 3) Can you pay the price? After stating these questions he would usually laugh heartily, saying, yeah, real simple; most people don’t ever ask themselves the first question.

Harry was trained as a medicine man in the Yurok Indian tradition. He had been a cowboy and a farmer and was a PhD agronomist who designed the gardens at the University of California, Berkeley. Harry used to say that a primary difference between American Indian culture and Western culture is that Indians believed that each person is born with a particular skill and strength, that there is a primary reason for each person to be on the planet. The responsibility of parents is to provide opportunities for each child to discover his or her purpose and mission, to discover the kind of talents he or she was born to express. Indians believed that by careful observation, you could usually see by age three what a person’s lifelong work was likely to be. Harry often said that it is vital for each person not only to discover her song but also to sing it.

What do you want? This is the simplest question, and the most difficult. What is really important to you? What is the purpose of your life? What is your true intention? How do you want to spend your time? What do you want to accomplish? What has meaning for you? What do you want from your work life? What do you want from your relationships? Where is your passion? What kinds of activities do you find most satisfying? Spending time with any one of these questions can change your life.

What do you have to do to get it? Once you have answered this question, it is time to determine what you need to do to get what you want. What skills do you need, what training or schooling is required? What steps do you need to take? What do you already have, and what is needed?

These questions make me think of a woman who tells her friend that she really wants to be a lawyer, but she is forty-two years old. Because of her age, she doesn’t think she can fulfill this goal. She says it will take her three years to complete law school and that she would be forty-five by the time she finishes. Her friend asks her, “How old will you be in three years if you don’t go to law school?”

Harry used to say that everything comes with a price. Can you pay the price? Choosing something means not choosing something else. Choosing what you want and laying out a plan requires that you then take the steps needed, do the work, or go through whatever difficulties you are likely to confront. Every choice comes with a price that begins with risks. This question puts your resolve to the test — once you know what you want and what you have to do to get it, are you willing to risk failure, are you willing to give up other paths?

And, here I am again in my life, asking these three most important questions!

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Marc Lesser

Marc Lesser is CEO of ZBA Associates LLC, a company providing executive coaching, leadership development consulting, and keynote speaking services to businesses and non-profits. He is a developer and instructor of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program. Marc is a Zen teacher with an MBA degree and a former resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years. He is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration.


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9:53AM PDT on Oct 5, 2014

Yes, it really is that simple. And that complicated...

10:15PM PDT on Jul 24, 2011

T'was easier to focus on what I wanted back in the days before kiddos were in my world! ;)
Thanks tho!

6:26AM PST on Jan 17, 2011

How do you figure out the answer to the first question--I've thought about what I want a good part of my life--without really coming to a conclusion. Is it possible to want too much???

7:34AM PST on Jan 2, 2011


9:10PM PST on Dec 22, 2010

Thanks, I find it quite difficult to answer them.... sometimes I know what I want to do, but in reality, it's hard to make decisions even if I know I m sth not right...

12:12PM PDT on Nov 3, 2010

but what do you ask to find what you want?

3:57AM PDT on Oct 2, 2010

Great Article I have printed it so I can read it at least once a day and really answer the questions. Thanks

9:18PM PDT on Sep 26, 2010

I must come back as a Native American ... or I'm not coming back at all!

Right from the beginning they were the most trusting, giving, grounded humans alive. Never take more than you need, always give back to the earth what you take from it, etc.

If left alone and not exploited more than have would be examples for the rest of us.

2:34AM PDT on Sep 26, 2010

The article made me think! thank you!

11:14AM PDT on Sep 24, 2010

I've question myself these many times and I think just now I know what I want to do and how to do it. I still don't know if I am ready to pay the price, but I'll try

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