A Question of What If…?

the art of possibility

Image by debaird™ via Flickr

Sometimes life’s really BIG questions are deceptively short. ” What if…?” is to questions what nitroglycerin is to explosives.  Such a little question can pack a wallop. Wisely asked, “What if…?” can lead to lands of unlimited possibilities and new discovery. When used carelessly, “What if…?” is potentially devastating. 

What If…? Warnings

“What if…?” must be treated with respect.  Whenever it is uttered, a mental warning siren should wail in one’s head followed by this automatic announcement.  “Warning. The following what if question has the potential to lead you to unforseen consequences. Proceed with extreme caution!”

What If I Push This?

As a naturally curious child, “What if…?” was both a friend and a foe to my experiential education and my family’s harmony.  I remember the family vacation when I was 9 or 10 years-old and we had rented a summer cabin on a beautiful lake in Michigan.  Due to the remote location, my mother had packed a week’s worth of groceries and had carefully stocked the refrigerator/freezer to capacity.

Early on our first evening, I decided to search out a snack and there at my eye level was a bright red button on the inside of the refrigerator.  Red buttons have a way of demanding attention.  I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it might as well have been labeled, “What if?”  My young mind was flooded with natural curiosity of what could happen if I pushed this enticing red button? What if…?

Defrosting our week’s worth of food and receiving a physical, posterior reminder from my irate father, to ask permission before pressing any buttons, was the outcome of my surrender to what if. I’ve since learned that like the defrost cycle of this particular refrigerator freezer, once the red  what if button is pressed, sometimes there is no going back. 

What if…? can lead to discovery of new possibilities. Edison, Ford, Hawkins, Galileo, Gates all benefitted from “What if…?” The possibilities are endless when attached to “What if…?” The challenge is in learning to tell the difference between positive and negative what if questions.

The Darker Side of What if…?

I invest a rather large amount of my monthly income to feed fear-driven what if questions.

Insurance-What if I die? What if I have an accident? What if my house burns down? What if there’s an earthquake? What if I get sick?  A whole industry that’s dedicated to reducing the risk of What ifs?

Vitamins-What if I don’t take them?

Exercise-What if I don’t exercise?

Fear of the unknown, of losing control, of remote possibilities, and more, can cause us to respond and behave particular ways in answer to our what if questions.

What If It’s Sinfully Enticing?

Given the success of the infamous Eden apple experiment (Eve thought, “What if I take a bit?”), other more subtly ruinous What if..? questions are constantly being crafted by a special division of Satan’s research and development demons. What if, has proven to be quite effective as sin’s door bell.

“What if I invited that bathing beauty Bathsheba up to my kingly pad?” asked David.

“What if I convinced the German people that their problems are the Jew’s fault?” wondered Adolf Hitler.

“What if I typed XXX in Google?” asked too many curious Christians.

“What if I had three drinks instead of just one?” asked the soon to be alcoholic.

“What if I have sex with my boyfriend?” asked the teen mom in-waiting.

“What if no one would ever know?” questioned the now inmate.

“What if I fail?” asked the person who never achieved his purpose or potential.

“What if God is a myth?” asked the lost soul.

High five’s in Hell all around at the latest devilishly effective,”What if…?”

Managing the Risks of What If?

Life is a risky business.  Nothing is 100% safe. We either choose to ignore obvious and potential risks of our answers to what if questions, or we decide to expect, manage and lower the risks. As a pilot, one learns to accept a certain amount of risk, but tries to reduce other potential risks.  The way we do it is by using a system called Operational Risk Management (ORM).

The three main ORM principles are:

1) Don’t accept unnecessary risks.

2) Make decisions about risks.

3) Only accept risks when the benefits outweigh the costs.

Wise pilots follow a six step systematic risk evaluation process before and during every flight.

Dale Carnegie had a simple way of dealing with fear-based what if questions. He said,

“First ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen? Then prepare to accept it. Then proceed to improve on the worst.”

What if…?

What if you asked more positive what if questions that lead you to explore your full potential?

What if you thought about the risks and potential rewards before you acted?

What if you accept your risks when the benefits outweigh the risks?

What if you took no council from our irrational fears?

What if you were no longer afraid of failure and of what other people might think of you?

What if you tried?

What if…?

About Andrew W Dix, MS, BCC
Author, Board Certified Executive Business Coach, Trainer, Reiss Motivation Profile Master and Private Pilot. Expertise in motivational intelligence, leadership development, strengths, management, coaching, and change management. Available for keynote addresses.

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