As most of you know, for the past six years, I have been suggesting, urging, and even cajoling anyone who would listen to ask their loved ones what my friends now call, The One Magic Question. It’s a simple question really – just some version of the question I asked my mom when I asked her how I could be a better daughter. People have asked their moms, dads, grandparents, children, spouses and even in-laws. The answers have ranged from profound to mundane and have, I’m often told, changed lives just as they did for my mom and me.
Recently, I heard an especially touching story when I interviewed a busy executive mom, Patty, who asked her young sons The One Magic Question. She found out something simple and profound that changed her life and theirs. Interestingly enough, Patty was inspired to do so by Marshall Goldsmith, author and leadership guru; the same person whose words set me on my journey in 2005.
Patty’s experience with Marshall was much like my own. She heard him speak at a corporate event for rising leaders. Marshall often begins a presentation by telling an audience he is a Buddhist, a fact which seems to ground his presentation in the here and now. Instead of soaring theories, Marshall presents simple concepts and practical ideas for making life better at work and at home. While he doesn’t specifically mention the Buddhist concept of Mindfulness, it clearly permeates his advice.
Patty reminded me that at a certain point, Marshall asks all the men to leave the room so he can speak just to the women. Grounded as he is in reality, he recognizes that women executives have special concerns which often include the guilt of spending less time with their children than their stay-at-home sisters.
- “Am I doing the right thing by working?”
- “Would my children be happier if I were at home?”
- “What am I missing?”
- “Have I made the right choice to continue my career?”
For many women executives, these little worries tickle the mind just under the surface of every conversation and thought from morning to night.
During his time talking with the women alone, Marshall urges them to turn loose the guilt and honor their choices. He also suggests that they focus on what’s important at work and at home by asking for feedback from the important people in their lives. “Ask your employees, your colleagues, your manager and your team mates,” Marshall urges.
From there it was easy for Patty to expand that concept to include the most important people in her life, her three sons.
Asking The One Magic Question
Patty recalls, “I was on the west coast when I heard Marshall speak in the morning. At lunch, I wanted to call the boys right away and, since they were back east, I knew they would be home from school.” Her sons were 15, 14 and 7 at the time. “When I called, my oldest son, Sean-Patrick, answered the phone and I asked him to get his brothers and to put me on speaker because I had an important question to ask them.”
Remembering my own son at those ages, I can just imagine that scene. I imagine the 15 year old Sean-Patrick being curious and a touch skeptical, the 14 year old Ryan wondering what was important enough to interrupt his video game, and the 7 year old Liam running to the phone and leaning in as close as possible, just so happy to hear his mother’s voice.
“Boys, I want to ask you an important question and I want you to think it over and give me a serious answer. You don’t have to tell me right now, you can think it over.”
Patty went on, “I want to ask you what I could do to be a better mommy?” And then she waited.
At first the boys were a bit hesitant. This was not the usual “How are you?” or “How was your day?” kind of question traveling moms usually ask when they phone home.
“Are you feeling OK?” “Are you sure?” “Really?” they asked at first. Then in less than a minute their sweet voices were a chorus of compliments. “You’re the greatest mom!” “We love you.” “There’s nothing – you’re great!” And while every mom loves to hear these things, Patty wanted more. So she pushed a little.
“Everyone can improve something. I really want to know how I could be a better mommy.”
Then, in just a few words, Liam gave her, and the whole family, a gift Patty says changed their lives forever.
“I wish you would play with us more. When you play whiffle ball with us in the driveway and you act silly, we like that. That’s what you could do. Play with us and be silly. We love that.”
Play whiffle ball and be silly. Who knew!
Patty explains, “My boys didn’t care if the house was clean or if there was food on the table. They wanted my undivided attention. I needed to chill out and spend quality time with them. I had been busy trying to keep a perfect house and make good meals because I thought that was what mattered. But from that day on, whenever one of my sons asked me to play, I tried to drop whatever I was doing and I played with them.”
The tone in Patty’s voice told me how satisfied and happy she was to have made that choice again and again while her boys were still boys.
Patty tells me the games have changed over the years. With one son in college, another in high school, and her youngest in 5th grade she’s more likely to join them in a game of tennis than whiffle ball. And, while she’s never mastered video games, she says she can hold her own at foosball, a current favorite.
While the games may have changed, Patty’s philosophy hasn’t. The house can wait. The meals can wait. Even work can wait. However, childhood is fleeting. Opportunities to “Just play with us” can’t wait and still take first priority in Patty’s life.
At the end of our interview, I asked Patty what one message she’d like others to hear. She responded, “Find out what’s important to those you love and give it to them.”
Perhaps many moms who read this will wish they had asked their young children how they could be a better mommy. Others will just be thankful that Patty reminded us all of a universal truth:
To be happy yourself; ask your loved ones what is important and give it to them.
Sometimes it’s as simple as playing whiffle ball in the driveway and being silly.