The Single Most Powerful Question You Can Ask

Donald Miller

When novelists sit down to write a narrative, there is a question they ask themselves in order to create exciting and meaningful stories, and that same question can also create a more exciting and meaningful life. That question is: “What if?”

J.R.R. Tolkien once asked the question “What if” there existed a place called Middle Earth, and “What if” Middle Earth were under threat? Every good story begins with some form of this question, and so does every life.

Whenever a novel starts to drag, the writer simply has to ask this question, and suddenly life gets exciting again.

“What if” there were a car accident, “what if” my protagonist won the lottery, what if my protagonist came home and his wife had left with all the furniture? A series of these questions will dislodge whatever fascinating thing is going to happen next in the story.

Now to be sure, you don’t have the power to win the lottery and I don’t recommend getting in a car wreck, but within limits, the question What if? can radically change our story and our lives.

Photo by Jamesy Pena, Creative Commons</center

Photo by Ken Bosma, Creative Commons

Several years ago, I asked the question, “What if the 360,000 churches in America could each have a mentoring program”, and out of that question came one of the most exciting adventures in my life, The Mentoring Project.

Bill Hybles once asked “What if” there were a church in this field? Rick Warren asked “What if” we could bring peace to the continent of Africa? Out of these questions came stories that have positively affected millions.

“What if” you asked yourself a series of these questions? “What if” you got out a yellow pad and wrote down a few story turns that you could engage? “What if” you ran a marathon? “What if” you renewed your marriage vows? “What if” you quit your job? “What if” you brought home a puppy today? “What if” you and your family adopted a child?

If your story has gotten boring, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself the “what if” question.

Try this, in the comment box, just brainstorm five what if questions as fast as you can. Try to to take the suggestion seriously, but do it fast. What will begin to happen is you’ll  begin to dream, you’ll stop thinking of life as stagnant, and you’ll be reminded that life, for the most part, is what you make of it.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He's helped thousands overcome a sense of meaninglessness by helping them create their Storyline life plan. If you're struggling with a sense of meaningless, pick up Storyline today. After studying story for years and successfully using the elements of story to engage customers, Don created StoryBrand, a process any business owner or marketing team can go through to create a communication script that will increase sales. Don is also the creator of the Storyline Productivity Schedule, a free daily schedule using modern psychology to increase a person's productivity. Don believes getting your story straight changes everything. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

  • julie

    What if aliens were real and they have already visited Earth?
    What if parallel universes exists and you could go to one?
    What if faster than light travel were a scientific fact?
    What if the government had a secret it wanted to keep from it’s people at all costs?
    What if you could go back in time and fix all the things you did wrong?

    • anthony

      What if Julie already asked the best five questions a person could ask!?

  • Linder

    What if I stopped eating sugar?

    What if I really did workout everyday?

    what if I got my second novel out there?

    What if I really pushed Austyn?

    What if I believed that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish?

  • Susan

    What if I assume that people are trying their best?
    What if I tip 10% more?
    What if I take a trip without planning it out to the last detail?
    What if I try drinking milk past its due date?
    What if dust before it’s obviously dusty?

    • Susan

      What if I proofread before I submit the comment?

      • Matt A

        Actually, I think there might be more interesting possibilities to the question What if I didn’t proofread every single thing I wrote?

  • Jack

    What if we are more than we think we are?

    • Lyndsie


      And why are we afraid of that possibility? What if we weren’t afraid to be great?

  • Kat

    What if God is real and really does live in my heart?
    What if I make a relationship with him and not worry any longer if I am wrong or right in my actions?
    What if I could find just one person in my community that is real?
    What if I let go of preconceived judgmental notions and really love my neighbors?
    What if I could meet Donald Miller?

  • Peter

    What if…
    I counted to 10 more often.
    We all lived with less.
    I sang more and complained less.
    You knew what I was really thinking.
    I ate more oatmeal

  • Melanie

    What if, instead of sitting around looking at magazines or watching tv at night, I got involved with people in my city and invested myself in their lives?

    What if I got my debt under control and could direct the resources to other causes?

    What if I lost weight and felt physically good and able to help others?

    What if I assumed the best of others?

    What if I didn’t have a bunch of expectations of others or of life?

  • Andrew

    What if we gave less time to reading other people’s stories and more to living ours?
    What if I rode my bike everywhere I went?
    What if the Pirates do win the NL Central?
    What if Denise and I could sit on the beach tonight?
    What if mewithoutyou was our house band?

  • Scott

    I think I’ll use this to teach this fall. My sophomores read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and I use that book to ask them what living a good story looks like. They think about their lives, and then write out a timeline of their future stories. This is a great question to start those timelines with because we can begin by looking at the What Ifs Ivan asks of his life, then move onto the What Ifs you mentioned here (plus those from the stories Francis Chan shares in Crazy Love), and wrap it up with the What Ifs my students have as they look out at their lives from where they stand at fifteen years old.

  • Cindy

    What if we lived like we believe every word in the Bible is true?

  • Kelly

    What if I choose to be grateful every day for the rest of my life.
    What if I loved unconditionally
    What if I Gave more away
    I trusted god completely
    I put my husband first

  • jarrod

    what if i quit my 9-5 job?
    what if i said yes to pursuing my passion full time?
    what if i asked for chances to be obedient to the Father?
    what if i fervently prayed with my wife and children every day no matter how i felt?

  • Ebony Adedayo

    What if…
    - the church could be a catalyst for social justice in the world
    - what if we didn’t define our faith by our politics, but our faith informed our politics
    - what if we stopped dreaming the American Dream and started dreaming God’s dream
    - what if I truly believed that God could use me and my family to share the gospel around the world
    - what if I loved relentlessly

  • Savanna

    What if I started a band?
    What if I started writing music again?
    What if I could witness to people with my music?
    What if I went back to my childhood dreams?
    What if I really could make a career out of this?

  • Chris

    What if…
    I found the right words for the blank page.
    Found a way to make the words “I’m sorry” more believable.
    I named the shades of color under my eyes.

  • Hyperbird

    What if the United States experienced a revival?

    What if miracles were really possible?

    What if people began to question the way they lived their lives and decided to change?

    What if I risked my life for Christ?

    What if I didn’t care about money at all anymore and walked away from what the culture says is important?

  • http://facebook Tracia Nordquist

    What if…
    I started doing travel nursing…
    I sold my house and relocated sooner than I thought I should…
    I never doubted my own abilities…
    I start the relational revolution…
    I always work at showing the best in others, when they are around me they don’t feel lonely…
    I met Donald Miller…

  • Claire

    What if I felt free to talk about my past?
    What if it didn’t make any difference to anybody?
    What if that freed me to be myself?
    What if that helped me to love?

    • Claire

      What if I really thought of others first

  • Tal

    What if I got up and left this house, today.. for real.
    What if I was told I was needed for a mission.
    What if something happened and we lost everything.
    What if somebody offered me a job.
    What if I had the oppurtunity to attend college.

  • Lynne

    What if…
    String theory is true and everything is made up of vibrating strings of energy and God is the conductor of the universe?

    All Americans had access to free health care and no one suffered because they couldn’t afford to go to the doctor?

    I could inspire my students to love thinking and learning?

    We stopped making decisions based on fear?

    I could get to know my neighbors better?

  • Ellen

    What if we adopt another child?
    What if I clean out my garage?
    What if I continue giving that monthly gift card even when it seems I need to stop?
    What if we do foster care?
    What if we house some one not related to us?

  • Kelly

    1. What if I am perfectly fine just the way I am?
    2. What if I reached out to people and did not listen to the cautious voice in my head?
    3. What if I behaved like I believed in the reality of heaven and hell?
    4. What if I quit worrying about things I have no control over?
    5. What if I became the authentic kind of friend I am always searching for?
    6. What if I realized the sanctity of each day and quit planning my life into oblivion?
    7. What if I didn’t watch TV for a whole year???

  • Tina

    What if I had a donut?
    What if I had TWO donuts?
    …and a coffee?
    What if I shared my bounty of deliciousness?
    Who would I share it with?
    How would we connect over the donuts and coffee?

  • Katy

    What if I really believed I could be a writer?
    What if I could really overcome depression?
    What if I could change the world?
    What if I loved better?
    What if I lived as if I believed God is good?

  • Ashley Urke | Domestic Fashionista

    I am a home decor blogger in case these what if questions are a bit off topic… :)

    what if I stopped blogging?
    what if I painted my walls white?
    what if I only wrote from my heart and not to fill in time or space?
    what if I stopped worrying about pleasing other people?

  • Jason

    What if I greeted every person with love?

    What if I truly listened to THEIR story?

    What if I didn’t hesitate, and acted now?

    What if my story is everything I dreamed it would be and more?

  • Carolyn

    What if I traveled to places I’ve never been?
    What if I wrote and did something else creative everyday?
    What if I did submit my writings, songs, and photographs for publication?
    What if I actually did clean out all my closets (real ones and metaphorical ones)?
    What if I stopped being afraid and just embraced the chance to do new things?

  • Jenni

    What if my baby survives this cancer?
    What if my husband and my relationship grows closer from this experience?
    What if I overcome all the anxiety and fear that plague me?
    What if I wasn’t afraid to write a book about our experience?
    What if it helped someone else feel like they were not alone or crazy as they survived their tragedy?

    • Jenifer

      Wow Jenni! You have stopped me in my tracks today and I thank you for that. You should write about this. You could blog. I have 2 friends who have done this, one who carried a dying baby in her womb and one who spent the last year undergoing chemo for cancer. They are such a blessing to their readers and their readers in turn bless them. Praying for you and your baby now.

  • Melissa De Soto

    What if I get my TESOL degree and decide to live in different parts of Latin America for the rest of my life?
    What if I come back home to the States, sell everything & leave my routine life for adventure?
    What if my family gets reunited in Brazil and Jesus becomes the center of our lives?
    What if I partnered with my friends in Guatemala in their dream of a dance & theatre school?
    What if God uses my life for His glory?
    Yes! Yes! Yes!

  • Meg

    What if I quit alcohol and caffeine completely for 40 days?
    What if getting as much done in every hour of every day was not the point of life?
    What if slow is better than fast?
    What if God would highlight the things that have eternal value that I put on my daily to do list?
    What if God would be delighted by me taking time every day to play my flute and practice yoga?

  • Jenna

    What if I went running every day?
    Became a vegetarian?
    Finally became fluent in Russian?
    Quit seeking after relationships to fill me?
    Lived believing I am loved by God and belong to Him?

    Whoa. This will change my life… Yes. I am ready to put action behind these “what-ifs.”

  • Sam

    What if…

    I loved people the way Jesus does?
    I quit complaining?
    I believed in myself the way God and others do?
    I went out of my way to help others?
    I were more selfless and didn’t need to have everything go my way?

  • Dave

    What if I committed to writing every single day?
    What if I loved with grace, without conditions?
    What if I stored up treasures in heaven and got rid of (or at least lessened) my treasures on earth?
    What if i really listened when people talk to me?
    What if I pursued the dream God placed in my heart?
    What if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life (which God initially did not forbid them to do) first?

  • Lyndsie

    What if I stopped dreaming and started doing?

    What if I rid myself of every negative person/attitude in my life?

    What if I ACTUALLY WENT to Italy?

    What if I didn’t fit the mold?

    What if I lived out my heart’s desires?

    What if I found a man strong enough to be mine?

    What if I was a community leader?

    What if stopped being intimidated and started fulfilling my potential?

    great blog. great thought. thanks for sharing.

  • Erin Darling

    What if I made a documentary?
    What if I really showed people the real me?
    What if I truly believed all God promised?
    What if I bought the plan ticket I have been wanting to buy?
    What if I allowed myself to see me as God sees me?

  • Lindsay

    What if I stopped caring so much about what people think about me?
    What if I started helping kids with special needs?
    What if I stopped pretending?
    What if I wrote a book?
    What if I fell in love?
    What if I could say “no” without feeling guilty?
    What if I joined a tennis league?
    What if I bought a pet pig?
    What if I auditioned for SNL and made it?
    What if I started living on purpose?

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