From Default Definitions to Deliberate Questions

Since we are born, a set of defaults influences our goals, our relationships, our tastes. From fashion to friendship, many of the choices we make in life are imperceptibly constrained by default definitions.

For example, the default definition of education is formal schooling. The default definition of love is monogamy. The default definition of success is wealth and power. The default definition of aging is decline.

Those default definitions are the invisible puppeteers quietly manipulating our actions and directing our lives. Fortunately, even though those are the most commonly accepted definitions, we don’t have to stick to them. We can create our own definitions.

Questioning our default definitions

To prosper in the vast liminal space that is life is to create our own definitions of what is good, not based on top-down rules dictated by society, not based on biased moral imperatives, not based on the rigid path to success we have been told to follow, not based on the expectations of our peers — but based on our intimate experience of the world.

To do so, we need to turn our default definitions into deliberate questions. Instead of simply accepting the defaults that govern our lives, we can ask ourselves what we truly want and what we truly believe so we can discover our authentic ambitions.

We need to turn our default definitions into deliberate questions. Here are some examples:

Default DefinitionsDeliberate Questions
• Education is formal schooling.
• Success is wealth and power.
• Love is monogamy.
→ What do I want to learn? What do I want to teach my children?
→ What brings me joy in life?
→ What values are important to me in a romantic relationship?

To do this exercise, grab a piece of paper or open your note-taking app, and go through the following steps:

  1. Audit your default definitions. What are the default definitions in my life? What are ideas that I treat as facts, without ever questioning them? 
  2. Turn them into deliberate questions. Take each default definition, and rephrase it into a question. The focus of these questions should be what is truly meaningful to you.
  3. Answer each question. Write down your truthful answers. Be honest when you don’t know the answer: it’s okay to admit that you haven’t all figured it out yet.

Of course, it may be that the answers to these deliberate questions resemble the ones found in default definition. For example, faithfulness may be an important value to you in romantic relationships, or you may believe that formal schooling is the best way to study what you want to learn. I personally went back to university to study how the brain works because I believed that working alongside neuroscientists would help me learn better and faster.

The aim of deliberate questions is not to turn your life upside down. It’s to have a more mindful approach to your goals in life.

A bottom-up approach to life

Default definitions are not inherently bad — you just want to get rid of their “default” aspect and make your answers deliberate instead.

It may be that you decide to pursue what is considered a conventional career path because stability is important to you — maybe you have other projects with higher levels of uncertainty, or maybe you need to take care of a loved one. It may be that you do want to buy a house, not because it is a commonly accepted marker of success, but because you are genuinely excited to build a home for yourself and your family.

It may be that building wealth is indeed a fundamental factor in your definition of success. Think about the founder of Patagonia, who gave the business away to an environmental trust and non-profit. Patagonia continues to produce outdoor clothing and camping supplies, but now all profits will go to organizations to fight the climate crisis. This would have not been possible if the business wasn’t successful in the first place.

Equally, you may discover that you don’t want to stay in the same city where you grew up, and that you would like to explore the world for a while. You may realize that the career you have been pursuing is not the one that truly excites you. Asking these deliberate questions may open the door to new ideas and directions for your life.

Whatever the answers you find, what matters is that these are now bottom-up definitions you have deliberately crafted for yourself. As Terry Pratchett said: “World building from the bottom up, to use a happy phrase, is more fruitful than world building from top-down.” Because the world is changing and so are we, we can play with the rules and decide what really matters to us.

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