Blog Post: I’ve Been Asking a Bad Question

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I read Eugene Peterson the way I drink bourbon – slowly and not that often.  His writing is not dense, but it is deep.  I don’t find myself highlighting something on every page, or even every other page.  But the things I do highlight are meaningful.  And in pretty much every one of his books I come across one or two thoughts, quotes, or concepts that evokes powerful new awareness for me.

As of this blog post, I am reading Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best.  The book examines the prophet Jeremiah as a model for whole and full living.  A passage that I am sure others read without pause, caused me to stop, re-read, and ponder for several days now.  I share it in this blog post because it will change the way I coach, and therefore might be helpful to other coaches.

The passage is actually a lengthy quote from the somewhat famous psychologist Erik Erikson:

I must register a certain impatience with the faddish equation, never suggested by me, of the term identity with the question, “Who am I?” This question nobody would ask himself except in a more or less transient morbid state, in a creative self-confrontation, or in an adolescent state sometimes combining both; wherefore on occasion I find myself asking a student who claims that he is in an “identity crisis” whether he is complaining or boasting. The pertinent question, if it can be put into the first person at all, would be, “What do I want to make of myself, and what do I have to work with?”

Ouch.  Honestly, the question “Who am I?” has played a central role in my coaching for many years.  The framework I use in coaching leaders starts with an exploration of the client’s identity.  The workbook I created for group coaching blatantly asks the participants to consider “Who am I?” en route to more clearly anchoring their identity on their values and purpose.

It turns out “Who am I?” is not such a great question.

Even though I am quite invested in the “Who am I?” question, as soon as I read the Erickson quote, I sensed immediate relief and clarity.  I have never been satisfied with my well-worn question.  It never seems to generate the insight, the self-awareness, the conviction I hope.  The lackluster performance of “Who am I?” has played out in the lives of many clients as well as in my own life.  I don’t know how to answer the question, really.

Coaches are always on the lookout for ways to evoke awareness.  Asking a good question in place of a subpar question is a proven way to draw out insight and conviction.  Usually the shorter the question, the better.  Typically coaches also ask only one question at a time.  Rules in coaching are rules of thumb.  Erickson’s identity question is the exception to coaches’ rules about questions.

“What do I want to make of myself, and what do I have to work with?”  This is a question that I know how to answer.  I may not have an answer, but I know how to go about discovering the truth the question beckons.

I like this double question because the first half draws one’s focus toward the future (What do I want to make of myself?) while the second half attends to the present in service to the future (What do I have to work with?”). This is the rhythm of coaching: identify the reality you’d like to create, and then start creating based on your current reality.

This question will find its way into my coaching.  Sure, I might change the wording a bit.  I will likely offer the question one half at a time.  And I probably will not give credit to Erickson or Peterson.  But my prayer is that no matter how I use the question, it will prove helpful to clients who are becoming the kind of people who can run with the horses.

1 thought on “I’ve Been Asking a Bad Question”

  1. That’s one of my favorite Peterson books. I read it several times then lead a retreat based on it as well as my study of Jeremiah. I love what you’ve made of this idea of running with the horses; rather then making do or settling for less courage or perspective, to make choices toward how/what you’re going to be. I guess I wouldn’t throw out the Who am I? question though, because what I make of myself is very much based on the Who am I? question, addressed in Jeremiah 1:9,10. Thanks for your insight!

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