The Question Above All Questions

Written by Scott Schimmel

When people ask me what I do for a living, I realize that there are a few different ways to answer the question. I could tell them my title or explain my profession. I could tell them about the field or industry. I could tell them about what I used to do, what I do now or what I’m hoping to do next. Or, I could actually list out what I do all day long….

I drink a lot of coffee and I ask a ton of questions—all day long. I ask students questions about who they are, what they want to gain from life and what’s in their way from achieving their goals. I ask parents and educators questions about their concerns for their students and where they’re feeling stuck. And I ask myself questions about the effectiveness of my work and whether I could be doing it differently or better.  

Questions are very powerful. With a simple question you can challenge someone to act or inspire them to change, you can be the catalyst for deep self-reflection or influence the way someone thinks. With one simple question you can help someone discover a new insight. But there’s one question that is more important than all of the others: 


It’s a question with a lot of inferences behind it—assumptions, challenges and curiosity. The question assumes that you have an answer, and not just any answer, but a true and accurate one. It’s a question that challenges people to filter the real answer to make the most sense to the person asking the question. And it’s the curiosity behind the question that adds an anxious level of significance.

Who are you? is the one question that’s asked again and again throughout our lives—first day of school, first dates, college essays, job interviews, loan applications, new roommates, co-workers, supervisors, neighbors, and even coffee shop baristas. And, depending on who’s asking, the answer typically gets filtered down to a particular response:

I’m a sophomore

I’m from Orange County

I’m an Accounting major

I’m the intern

I’m married

I’m a dad with three kids

Regardless of the response, most answers to that question are shallow—an inconclusive and vague version of the truth. Even though they desperately want to respond, most people have no idea how to answer the question. If Who are you? is the question that’s going to be asked time and again throughout our lives, and if it’s the question that determines how people understand us and whether they want to date us, hire us, or be friends with us—do you think we owe it to ourselves, and others, to have great answer?

The problem is the question itself. It’s a set up for confusion and frustration. Our culture teaches us to hide who we really are and respond with partial answers. It limits the response to simple roles and labels or a cleverly crafted elevator pitch full of buzzwords and jargon. But there is a way to develop a thoughtful, real, relevant answer. Here are a few guideposts to help develop a meaningful answer to the question, Who are you?


Act like a private investigator in your own life. Observe how you come across to others. Do people describe you as shy or reserved, loud and dominant, intense and focused, laid back and easy going, etc.

 Ask close, trusted advisors how they describe you to others. Avoid being defensive, but instead listen to their response and ask them to help you see what they see.

 Find real role models or fictional examples to help you understand yourself better and explain who you are more clearly. Such as, “I’m the Michael Jordan of the internal auditing world. I work hard and take risky shots”.

Experiment more. Intentionally put yourself in situations where people will ask you that question, and explore a new response that explains who you are each time, taking careful note of how people respond, their facial reactions and the depth of conversation that follows each version. 

No one can tell you how to answer the question. It’s up to you to figure it out and decide how to tell your own story. The next time someone asks who you are, will you be ready?