These are the 3 most important questions for your career

When I was a young boy, my dad made a major commitment to my twin sister and me when he promised to be there for our first day of school. He worked in Sao Paulo, Brazil and only came back to Milan, Italy twice a year.

That day when the final bell rang, my dad was waiting for us at the school gates. I was overjoyed to see him and jumped into his arms. On the way home, we bombarded him with our stories: what we’d done at school, the names of our new classmates, the teacher, the blackboard with all the colored chalk, the map of Italy on the wall.

After dinner, he invited me to sit down in front of him. He was quiet for a few beats, and then he looked me in the eye and said:

“Paolo, starting tomorrow, don’t talk about what you did, but ask yourself what have you learned, if you helped other people and if you love what you’re doing because nothing else matters.”

Of all the millions of words I’ve heard and read over the years, these questions from my dad influenced my life more than any others.

These three questions have been my own compass for the past 48 years and offer important lessons about happiness and success.

Have I learned something new?

About 200 years ago, life expectancy was approximately 40s. It has increased two years per decade since then. By 2060, life expectancy will be close to 100.

What does that mean for us?

We need to move from a life divided into three phases (get a diploma, work, retire) to become an unstoppable learning machine.


We must be curious. 

Learning is not something that happens uniquely at university, at school, or at a professional course in your company. What we do in our spare time can provide lessons to energize our working life.

Have you coached an amateur sports team? You learned how to manage a team. Have you tutored students? You learned how to motivate people. Were you a babysitter? You fostered a sense of responsibility.

We must learn from others.

Every person we meet in our lives knows more about something than we do. That means we can learn from everyone.

We can also learn from the best teachers in the world: children.

I got a wonderful lesson from my daughter, Sadika, when she was 4-years-old. I was working, and she came to give me a kiss.

“Not now; I am busy working,” I told her.

She looked at me in disbelief and told me: “Dad, never ever again refuse a kiss from someone who loves you!”

We must also redefine failure.

A key element of success is failure — provided that we learn from it. We all learn by making these mistakes.

As Nelson Mandela said: “ I never lose. I either win or learn.”

Am I helping others?

Who are the most successful people: the takers, the matchers, or the givers?

The takers want something from you, the matchers wait for reciprocity, and the givers wants to help you and give something to you, such as their time, energy, contacts, knowledge, feedback, or just an advice.

The givers are the most successful — as long they understand the difference between pleasing others and helping others.

Helping others can get you hired. Networking is not about calling someone when you need but about investing time, energy, respect in relationships.

Who gets most of the jobs?

The candidates who, in addition to being qualified, have built a positive relationship based on trust, integrity, and reputation.

Do I love what I do?

I learned an important lesson in Antigua, Guatemala, when I tried to buy an unfinished watercolor from a street artist named Gerardo. Since the painting was unfinished, I asked for a discount, but he insisted on charging me twice the normal price.

I was surprised and somewhat upset until he explained: “Because you take away from me the joy to do something I really love.”

Mark Twain said: “The two most important days of your life are the day in which you are born and the day in which you find out why.”

It’s important to ask yourself not only what you love but what gives you purpose.

I discovered my purpose in 1996, in a remote village in West Cameroon when I was working at the World Bank. The driver, George, took me to visit an agricultural project and stopped in front of a well. He told me that, before it was built, his mother had to walk six kilometers to go to the river to collect water with a small bucket.

George took me to his village, and I met his mother.  She embraced me. This was the second most important day of my life.

The most important lesson

My dad has given me the gift of three powerful questions that have been in my heart since then and have guided me toward success.

But the most important thing I learned about life came from my daughter. Never ever refuse a kiss from somebody who loves you.

Paolo Gallo is the Chief Human Resources Officer at the World Economic Forum, a career coach, and the author of La Bussola del Successo.

Gallo delivered a version of this article at TEDx Lausanne on April 21, 2017.