I like to play a game when I first meet people. It’s a game of questions. For all intents and purposes, let’s call it, “The Question Game.” It’s a wildly creative title, and it’s actually pretty simple. You go back and forth asking one question, and there’s only one rule:
You aren’t allowed to ask the same question you’ve already been asked.
This prevents the forced “what about you?” monotony that comes along with meeting new people, without killing the opportunity of an interesting exchange. Added bonus: Nobody gets caught up talking about themselves for three hours, because it’s a game.
Questions start out with the basics:
- Where are you from? (New Hampshire.)
- What’s your favorite song? (“Holocene” by Bon Iver, “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis, and every song by Bruce Springsteen.)
- What do you do for a work? (This is a terrible question. Don’t ask this.)
After a few rounds, and perhaps a few glasses of whiskey, people generally loosen up.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret.
It’s never their answers I’m after.
It’s their questions.
I’ve been obsessed with asking questions since I was young. I distinctly remember the teachers in Sunday School pulling me aside and telling me that my questions were distracting to the other children. As soon as I realized I wasn’t allowed to ask questions, I stopped listening. As soon as I was old enough to answer the questions for myself, I stopped going.
In high school I was a terrible student. I mean, really awful. I was a good kid all around, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. If you know me today you’ll know not much has changed — I just work a lot harder. I didn’t get into any real trouble, but I also didn’t get into any of the colleges I applied for. I had a 1.7 GPA. Let that sink in. One. Point. Seven. My poor parents. I think deep down they knew I’d figure it out, or maybe that’s just what I tell myself now that I actually sort of have.
My biggest problem with high school was that it didn’t matter what questions they asked, there was always a predetermined correct answer. This is why I didn’t care about precalculus. It’s also why I decided to become a teacher. There were far too many adults with teaching degrees asking kids questions that didn’t matter.
When the questions already have answers, does it really matter what you’re being asked?
At this point I could wrap this all up nicely and tell you that I fulfilled my lifelong dream of changing children’s lives. After all, I did eventually get into college. I did major in English teaching. I did wax poetic on Shakespeare for a few years there, and nary a student left my classroom confused by Hamlet. (“We know what we are but know not what we may be.” AMIRITE?) Staying in New Hampshire and teaching felt like a security blanket — it was warm and cozy and something I knew I was good at. Something I knew I would succeed at. Something I knew would always be there. I wasn’t ready to commit to doing one finite thing for the rest of my life.
“…But what else will you DO?”
was the question my dear mother asked me on her living room couch over a cup of tea and shared stack of People magazine. Half horrified and half intrigued, I watched her face scrunch up as I explained that I really didn’t know, and relax again when I explained that the thought of working my ass off for a piece of parchment paper, only to go on and do that ONE thing for the rest of my life, didn’t really sound like me. She laughed and agreed. What can I say — the woman knows me. And she knew I didn’t have a game plan.
But I had questions that needed answering.
The only question that has ever stumped me was asked nearly three years ago by a man who, no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be right for. We were out to dinner at Le Village, a lovely BYO French bistro in the East Village with the best roast cauliflower I’ve ever had. We shared a bottle of red wine and a deep conversation about why relationships don’t work, and we landed somewhere between timing, trial and error, and that sometimes there’s no future. For us, it ended up being a combination of all three. Perhaps I didn’t realize it because those weren’t the questions I was willing to ask myself. I left the moment I realized this to be true, which ended up being several months later. I stayed, presumably for one more question.
“When did you stop believing in make believe?”
I didn’t have an answer. I struggled to pinpoint the exact moment the things I dreamt in my head and the things happening in the real world around me emulsified. When did my wild childish imagination and my adult need to move forward untether? I wrote the question down in my notebook the next morning. It’s still sitting there on an otherwise empty page with no answer below it.
When I moved to New York to pursue a more creative life, I slowly realized all of the questions I’d been asking myself in the last three years, ten years, twenty-eight years have paid off. Simply put, if you never ask, the answer will always be no. Hell, sometimes you ask and the answer is still no. Whether it’s your education, your relationship, or your career, I’ve learned you have to be fearless in asking big questions, even if the answers are scary. Even if the answers mean failing, or moving on, or starting from scratch. Even if the answer isn’t what you want to hear, or what you initially planned on, you must ask the right questions.
My answer to his question?
I never stopped believing in make believe.
Everything I made believe, I became.
No questions asked.