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A dominant question is the thing we keep asking ourselves, over and over throughout our day. It’s what drives our decisions in the moment and focuses our obsessions when we’re alone. It feels permanent — but Jim Kwik says it is not. Kwik was recently going through this exercise with a friend of his, and they realized her dominant question was: “How do I get people to like me?” This explained a lot about her. “You can imagine her personality, ” Kwik says. “She’s self-deprecating, her personality changes depending on who she’s with, and people take advantage of her.”
This is a habit we’re programmed to have. “We all have a part of our brain called the reticular activating system, and that helps determine what you focus on,” Kwik says. “People don’t realize this, but our brain primarily is a deletion device. We’re trying to keep information out. If you paid attention to the billion stimuli around you, you would go stark raving mad. The only things that come through that filter are the things that are important to us, that are charged by the questions we ask. Because ask and you shall receive.”
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The goal, then, is to shift our brains toward asking a positive and constructive dominant question. For example, when Kwik started working with the actor Will Smith, they realized that his dominant question is “How do I make this moment magical?” That drives Smith toward action. One night, Kwik was with Smith and his family on a movie set, and it was 2 a.m. and everyone was freezing. “He starts making hot chocolate for everybody, even though there’s a crew there that does that for them,” Kwik says. “He starts bringing us blankets. He starts cracking jokes. He starts telling stories. And I realized, He’s living his dominant question.”
But no matter the question, Kwik says it can always be improved and refined.
How do you identify your dominant question? You listen to yourself. “Usually a dominant question emerges when people are under stress,” he says. “Noticing yourself talk is very important.” He also suggests journaling, perhaps first thing in the morning.
Next, how do you install a better dominant question (or just upgrade your existing one)? “One way is through repetition,” Kwik says, “and the other way is having external triggers.” Some people will put a question on their phone’s lock screen and set a sporadic timer to remind them to look at it. Others will write it on Post-it notes and stick it on their walls.
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People can also tie the question to specific actions or events, so they think of the question whenever something happens. For example, Kwik recommends a few useful dominantmquestions worth adopting: First, How can I use this? And second, Why must I use this? Think of these questions whenever you read something, or have a useful conversation with someone. Through repetition, these become your filters.
When Kwik worked with Smith, they realized that his dominant question — “How can I make this moment magical?” — had a flaw. It meant that not all moments are magical! But what if every moment has some magic in it? To empower him, they worked together to change the question. It became, “How can I make this moment even more magical?”
That’s the magic of a good dominant question.