What is your lighthouse question?

A lighthouse question can be the beacon that guides us through unknown territory especially when we are creating something new in our lives. 

Art and business interlocutor, Amy Whitaker introduced the lighthouse question in her groundbreaking book, Art Thinking. A lighthouse question comes into play when what we want can’t easily be reduced to SMART targets or goals. That ‘something’ may be too daring, abstract or simply has never been done before. SMART targets have their place, but as Whitaker writes, they also reflect a belief system that the future responds to specific, knowable plans.” 

More usefully, Whitaker likens the lighthouse question to the major dramatic question underlying a screenplay. There is the plot line (what will happen, and who will do or say what when) but underneath the plot flows the “current” of a more expansive and meaningful question.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

For example, the major dramatic questions underlying the movie Green Book might be: can two men from different classes and ethnicities be friends in a segregated America of the 1960s and can a black man be seen and respected as an equal human being in white America? (The second question is one we are, woefully, still struggling with.) In a way, it’s like asking, what’s really the big possibility at stake here?

 As a co-active coach, I am also asking clients: what’s really at stake here? I help clients claim a vision for their life that is more authentic, meaningful and fulfilling—to them. Many come to me with their plot lines all worked out such as “I just need help getting a job that pays a little bit more and where I won’t have to work late.” And then they’re off to the races, applying to every job posted online that they are equipped for, whether it’s a good fit or not. They don’t take time to stand back to ask the more profound lighthouse questions beneath, such as:  

-Earning more money is one factor, but what else is essential to have? 

-What opportunities have I not looked at because I believe they won’t pay enough? 

-What kind of work would really engage me and get me up in the morning?  

These are the questions that as a coach I am more interested in shining a light on because they permit clients to explore bigger-hearted and more generous possibilities of whom we can be. 

Most people live a ‘second-hand’ life, one handed to them, based on what parents, social network, culture, or society tell them they should be and do. And yet, many of us experience moments when our inner voice comes through loud and clear and when we are inspired from the heart. But in the cold light of day we are often too scared to move towards what we want, or just don’t know how. This is where a lighthouse question can help. 

As an example, Whitaker gives a gripping account of Roger Bannister who was the first man to break the four-minute mile, something that apparently it was believed could not be done without the risk of death. This was not something that could be set up as SMART goals, as there was no precedent for it. It required imagination. While the plotline of this exciting story might focus on teamwork and tactics that Bannister used to get around the track faster, the major dramatic question she writes was “can a man run that fast?” Or even bolder than that: “is the frontier of human capability bigger than we know?” 

People who are willing to make a break from the trajectory of their predictable past and create something new in their lives are the ones who have most to gain by articulating their lighthouse question. Whitaker notes, “you move forward not by winning a game but by creating the game itself. You’re not going from a known A to a known B, you’re inventing B….”

Lighthouse questions illuminate a way forward towards B; but they do not provide binary answers, and they are certainly not a step-by-step road map. They are a beacon that can elicit new ways being, stir dormant qualities within you, deepen your sense of your purpose or vision, and light your way forward. 

Let me use an example from my own life. In a blog post a few years back I wrote:

A month after I turned 50, I quit my job. I said goodbye to a decent salary…with a future untold… I was almost nine years into my monogamous relationship with my job, and I’d been in the game long enough to know that I run on something akin to a seven to nine-year itch in my professional life. And each time the push to renew, to find new shores, is different. I decided it was time to go against the grain, take a break — a sabbatical if you will — stretch my toes out and enjoy life a little more. It was time to know what I wanted the rest of my working years to feel like. What was to be the texture of my remaining time? What was, to paraphrase Oliver, to be my “place in the family of things”?

Suffice it to say this was not an easy decision. What if my money runs out? What will I actually do with my life? Friends asked: won’t you have a hard time getting another job after 50, and what about retirement? These are all valid questions to ask, as there is a part of us that wants to make sure we don’t end up under a bridge. But as I look back on that period, I realize that the major dramatic questions for this story for were: 

1. Can someone in their 50s reinvent themselves to do something totally different, more fulfilling and fun? (the texture of my remaining time)

2. What does it mean to find your place “in the family of things”?

These are the perennial question that many people later stage of life are willing to explore. Now, my life is not a Netflix miniseries (at least not yet) and I’m curious to see how this story will unfold. After giving it further thought, and going deeper, I’ve realized that my lighthouse questions are these:

1. Can I create a life of belonging, entirely on my terms, that brings me fulfillment and joy? 

2. If I trust myself, will I know how to live? (This takes a favorite quote from Goethe and turns it into question.)

These are not time-bound questions. I also get to invent point B, which is what fulfillment and joy look like—for me. These are the lighthouse questions I have been living into for the past three years. I only ‘saw’ these when I stood back a bit and applied Whitaker’s frame to my recent life journey. In time, the question may shift or change as I test new propositions, arriving each time at a deeper knowing. This approach is infinitely scalable over any period of our lives. 

I like lighthouse questions. They elevate us above the fray of life. They don’t deliver us to the doorway of dull and mundane answers. They rise above the commerce of reason into the realm of creativity, of ‘why not?’ They enable us to test new paths where there have been none before. Perhaps, most ennobling as Whitaker writes, the “lighthouse question is a touchstone of how your authenticity manifests in the world.” 

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