Why we need to keep asking the important life questions


The tune “Are we Human?” defined my MBA class of 2009. It is inarguably our song, playing in every reunion and every INSEAD wedding in the last ten years. People go crazy when they start listening to the music.

It was not the number one hit of 2009. But, it stuck with us. I believe due to the identity question in the heart of the song.

During our MBA, we were on our knees, looking for the answers. Are we human? Or are we dancers?

An MBA can in itself cause an identity crisis. You get exposed to many new things, and the options open ahead of you. If everything is possible, who do you want to be?

But for my class, the identity crisis went deeper. In our second month, the global economy melted down. If nothing is possible, who could you be?

We were told that it would be the best year of our lives. And while the world was crashing around our little bubble, we partied like there was no tomorrow. We did not know what was waiting for us on the other side. The future had never been more uncertain.

There are many interpretations of the song. Some say that the dancer symbolizes our divine nature. Are we living up to our potential?

Others say that the dancer is synonymous to a puppet. Are we humans, doing what we want, or puppets conforming to society? And if we are puppets, how do we cut the cord?

The right time to ask is now

We had our 10-year reunion last weekend. The most popular lecture was one that talked about working couples who balance career and love.

The lecture’s premise was that every day, the easy thing to do is not ask the critical questions. What do we want in life? What are our priorities? What are the criteria with which we will make the important decisions?

We avoid thinking about those questions ourselves or discussing them with our life partner. If we do not answer those questions though, we let ourselves drift, carried by inertia. We are likely to wake up one day realizing we are living someone else’s life. We are puppets.

And no, waiting to have “the talk” with our partner when there is a crucial decision to be made, doesn’t work. The stakes are too high. And we will both try to manipulate the decision criteria to favor the outcome we want.

What would you do if this was the last year of your life?

Ten years later, the song is more relevant than ever to my class. Many shared that they are going through a period of unraveling. What do we want for the next phase of our lives?

You are never done answering those questions. I reinvented my career from strategic sales to coaching in the last few years, which felt huge. I am still not done. The critical decision I am pondering at the moment is whether I want to live in London long-term. Staying where I am, is the easy way. Is it the best way?

There is a hated friend who pushes us to resist the inertia and be more decisive. Most people dread even thinking about it: Death. In existential coaching, talking about death and what it means to us can be one of the most transformative conversations.

We lost a classmate over a mountaineering accident a couple of years ago. Luckily, before his death, he had abandoned his corporate career to follow his dream of opening a burger joint. Imagine if he had waited to go after his passion a couple of more years?

One of the questions that have helped me make decisions in the past is the following: What would you do if this was the last year of your life?

Are we human, or are we dancers?

We have been trying to answer the question for the last ten years. Who are we? Divine creatures or puppets? Following a choreography or transcending what we imagined possible?

The only way to “do it our way” as Sinatra said is to keep asking the hard questions:

– What do we want?

– What are our must-haves?

– What is the cost of inaction?

– What would we do if this was the last year of our life?

Farewell my INSEAD friends. See you at our next reunion.

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