Why “Why” is the best question to ask

(NOTE: This article has been originally posted on our blog)

Hours, literally hours after I started to write this article, I came across AK Ikwuakor’s blog post on the very similar topic. In fact, when I spotted the title “Why Knowing Your “Why” Is Your Greatest Tool for Success” title in my mailbox feed, for few seconds I sincerely though I pressed ‘publish’ on my unfinished article by mistake. Law of Attraction, please, slow down a little!

I hope I’ll be able to add my 5 cents to the topic and approach it from slightly different perspective, while sticking to the main idea — the question “Why” is probably the most important question we will ever get a chance ask. In fact, if you learn any new language, this word should be on the very top of your list, above “I” and “am”.

(PS. I have created the “example conversation” showing what asking “Why” can lead to, you can get it from here)

When coming up with the idea of our goal-achieving platform, achiever.be, we focused on addressing the most popular questions on the internet: “What” and “How to”. As much as I personally love to dig in to the core of the problem and fix the foundations, rather than filling the cracks in the wall every time problem occurs, it is clear to me that, having only 24 hours a day, we must prioritize and hierarchize the importance of tasks. And it is no secret that we can achieve incredibly much in life, knowing “What” and “How to” only. But if spare time allows, and you have a particular interest in the topic, those are not the only two questions you should be asking.

Law of Attraction in Action: I tend to use old sheets of paper when sketching or making temporary notes. While writing this article I used old sheet from one of the seminars I attended several years ago. See the questions in the top box? Coincidence?

List of content:

  1. Why “Why”? Why Not!?
  2. Re-inventing the wh(y)eel
  3. What is “Why”?
  4. The reason Why
  5. How deep shall I go?
  6. “Why” in physical activities
  7. “Why” in creative and intellectual activities
  8. What if you can’t get the answer?
  9. Bottom line

1. Why “Why”? Why Not!?

Have you ever had that one simple question on the back of your head, when someone was telling you what you should do, or how you should do it? The “Yeah, but Why?” question? The same you eventually didn’t ask?

You probably should have asked. Really.

We live in the times where the information quantity exceeds the quality to the embarrassing extent. We are seduced by “5 simple steps to become millionaire overnight” guides, that promise quick fix to any problem we are facing. We start to believe that, if something takes too much time to accomplish, we are doing it wrong. We are exposed to the images of happy, dynamic, ambitious, clever people who’s DNA ,under the microscope, seems to form itself in the shape of letters that say “success”.

And on top of all that, our attention is exposed to incredibly vast amount of all sort of distractions, be it images, videos, funny cats and doge, but also even interesting, educational articles or guides. As powerful as our brains are, there’s a limit of information it can accept.

Take a look outside. See that tree? It has probably several hundred branches, bigger and smaller ones. On each of them there are tens or hundreds of leafs. But you only see the tree, the shape, the form, the colors, the abstract definition. Why? Because if your brain was to notice each single leaf every single time you see the tree, we would undoubtedly go mental. Nature’s way to filter the information from surrounding world in order to help us to survive.

It is no surprise therefore, that we no longer have much interest in in-depth analysis of the advice that we are presented with. We look at the headline that promises the results with no much effort, and we fall for it.

Despite the complexity of each element of the landscape, unwillingly we will only see the lake, the forest, the mountain and the sky. Just enough to understand what we look at and make the initial decisions

2. Re-inventing the wh(y)eel

And it makes sense if you think about it. We tend to give the authority to the person that helped us get something done or provided us with useful advice. Just like when our PC is misbehaving and we find the solution on techie website, or when we feel unwell and the doctor gives us the drug that kills the virus on the spot, in the very same way we put our trust in the hands of someone, who made an effort to write an online guide, that promises to sort out certain problem we’re currently facing, or, in general, help us having a better life.

Yes, we fall for it. No one to blame here, if it worked for the author, it is very likely to work for us, why should we investigate deeper?

Here’s why: because this is probably the most efficient way you can learn. Not the quickest, not the easiest, not the smoothest, but the one that that gives you the deepest understanding of the topic, and leaves permanent mark on your wisdom and life experience.

3. What is “Why”?

“Why”, together with “Where”, “Who”, “When”, “What”, “How” and “How much”, is one of the key questions — core words, that we learn in our mother tongue, and in fact, in any other foreign language we study. They help us to navigate, collect bits of information, build a base on which we’ll structure our conclusions, give us ability to create and follow up on conversations. They help us to learn, unlearn, gossip, create, destroy, expand, grow, evolve…

While I believe the question “Why”, used wisely, is really the most important question to ask (despite the fact that achiever.be focuses on “How to” and “What”), Google doesn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. I have compared the key questions, and as expected, “Why”, together with “When” and “Where”, is nowhere near the “How” and “What”:

Google Trends comparison: why, how, what, where, when

Also, on the infographics, that I found on Duncan Bloor’s blog, question “why” appears literally few times, squeezed somewhere between “How-s” and “What-s”, and definitely not in the profound context I am trying to expose you to in this blog post (“why is the sky blue” is one example). It basically represents what google trends is telling us, in much nicer, visual way, but the core principle remains unchanged: we want to know What to do and How to do it (the question When is not that important, because, these days we want everything as soon as possible, ASAP!). But, for some reason, we do not care as much about the reasons. And my job here is to change your mind.

We want to know How and What much more than Why. Why?

4. The reason Why

The benefits of asking “why” are no secret, and, to put it simply, they provide you with the answers. That first answer that you are very likely to get will be probably pretty simple and straightforward (I tend to call them “the first layer answers”).

And you might stop here. You got your answer, you question seem to be answered, you are good to go. But are you really?

Most likely not.

Since I mentioned “first layer answer”, there must be also “second layer answer”. And the “third layer answer”, and so on, depending on the complexity of the subject, the mental age of the questioner or his intellectual engagement.

If you learn any new language, this word should be on the very top of your list, above “I” and “am”

Understanding those deeper layer questions, those big “Why”-s behind every major tasks you are dealing with, will give you complex insight into the problem you’re looking at, will stretch your brain one extra inch, will help your neural connections to find new routes, in the long term making you faster and more efficient thinker. It will collect the facts scattered all over your subconsciousness and link them all together in the perfect order, turning things that didn’t make sense before, into a logical obviousness.

The more facts you learn by doing this and the deeper you dig on random, not necessarily related topics, the more, at some point, you’ll realize how things around you just make sense. You will no longer rebel against the circumstances, human nature or “bad luck”. Out of sudden you will start seeing the universe as one big living environment that is playing by the same, basic rules. Rules, that now you will know. Rules, that you can you use to your advantage.

But most importantly, good answer (the outcome of deeper level Why) will give you motivation to take action, because now you understand, you truly understand, what is the desired end-result of the task you should be doing.

While we all die to know what Leonardo painted in the background before he covered it with black paint, that is one of the layers no one will ever dare to peel

5. How deep shall I go?

How far you should go with asking “Why”? Until you have an “aha” moment, an epiphany. You will know it’s there, because that moment, when you realize how everything just clicks, how everything you have been though makes sense, feels soothingly well. Like watching the movie that starts in a chaotic order, scenes just pop in one after another, random characters have random conversations, but the more you watch, the more your brain makes a journey back to the previously captured scenes, linking them together for you, as a result giving you complete understanding of the story plot. That moment when you nod your head and think to yourself “clever!”, because you just found the missing puzzle piece.

(PS. Take a look at the “example conversation”, to better understand the concept of asking deeper “Why-s”. Get it from here)

What is more important, this “why-digging” habit is applicable to both, intellectual and physical activities. And I really wouldn’t put my money on the stake having to decide, which of the two benefits from “how” more.

6. “Why” in physical activities

Our bodies are on autopilot more often than not. We walk, we breathe, we pick up things, all without thinking which muscles to engage. Because, as a human, we have a natural tendency to use as little energy as possible to perform daily activities, we all develop habits that reflect our weight, height, bone structure, lung capacity etc. And it is no surprise, that quite often what we do is as unhealthy as comfortable. The only problem is that we won’t find out about it immediately — our leaning sitting body posture will strike us back usually when it is really late, often too late to fix it.

To prevent this from happening, our teachers, our parents, our coaches keep reminding us “sit straight”, “do this”, “do that”, having our best interest in mind. But because we do not have in depth understanding why should we follow their advice, in addition to the fact that what they offer is simply not comfortable (in the short term), we ignore their advice. And often they can’t convince us, because they themselves never have asked the “Why?” question to their teachers, and simply they do not have the knowledge to explain us the benefits of the correct body posture.

In sports and physical activities it is called the “technique”. Some people have naturally the body type, that helps them perform certain exercise almost effortlessly (if you know the exercise called “the plank” and keep in mind that the Guinness World record is over 8 hours, you’ll understand what I mean). Majority don’t, and that’s when the technique comes in. Biggest problem with it, is that the correct technique of doing things is really uncomfortable at first, often even painful, and because at first attempt we probably won’t do it right, it is really one difficult job convincing students to apply it. After all why would anyone do something that is very difficult, feels simply wrong and brings no instant results?

Here’s where asking “Why?” and having a teacher who really knows the answer would make incredible impact. Simply answering “because that’s the correct way of doing it” won’t work, especially if you have a natural born rebel inside of you. You will question that rule, you’ll make up reasons why it’s “stupid”, why it doesn’t make sense, why your way is better.

On the contrary, if the answer to the “Why” question would be something like “because it puts your body in the grounded position, activate the back muscles that will hold your posture long enough, shortens the way your arm needs to travel to reach the position and keep you in balance, saving you energy for next movements, and basically makes it possible to to it more than 4 times” — now that’s whole another story! Out of sudden that “technique” thing doesn’t seem that “stupid”. Out of sudden you are exposed to the perspective of potentially doing the move that seemed out of the reach. And perhaps, out of sudden, you give it a though, you try it out, you get the sensation that it might actually work, and it all just starts to make sense!

Simple physical activities can be performed much more efficient, it the athlete understand the core principles of the sport and human anatomy

7. “Why” in creative and intellectual activities

Similar principles are applied to creative and intellectual activities, be it programming, design, architecture, mastering the instrument or software. In this case they are more often referred as “good practices”, but they work in identical way — they make no sense to the novices, and require additional intellectual effort to be read and understood, but they help to avoid costly mistakes and accomplish tasks quicker and more efficiently. Because novice is not aware of the issues he might be facing at later stage if he won’t follow the guidelines and best practices, he tends to ignore them, argue on them, reject them. After years of education, finally given the possibility to work, he’ll want to jump right into the action, rather than learning yet another set of rules.

Those situations are more likely to happen in professional environments, such as offices, design studios, software houses etc, where even a single mistake can affect large group of employees, and therefore be very, very costly. For that reason it would be superior’s or director’s responsibility to address the deeper level “Why-s” as a part of the introduction process. Expecting employee to have a craving desire on reading guidelines is as noble as naive.

Vitruvian Man is an absolute canon, principal source of proportions and classical order of architecture. We all know this image, but it takes several “why-s” to truly understand it’s depth

8. What if you can’t get the answer?

What you should also remember, is that explicitly asking your teacher or mentor, will not always give you the answer. Not every teacher is actually capable of explaining you the principles, even though the task they are teaching you seems effortless to them. The way their brain works or the way their bodies are built, makes it difficult for them to understand, that some people might be struggling with the things they are equipped with from the day they were born. Think of it as trying to teach a foreigner your own mother language. As effortless as it is to you to use it in any possible form and shape, understanding the rules and principles and ability to explain it to somebody else, is the whole different story and often requires additional in-depth education.

If your mentor can’t give you the answer, despite his/her best intentions, it’s not all lost. Question is: should you follow the advice, if you can’t get the proper, deeper level explanation? Definitely yes, give it a go, investment is rather small, potential gains could be impressive. And if that’s the advice you’ve heard numerous times from different people, you can drop the doubts. Just follow it!

But that’s the moment you need to start asking “why” to your own self. Act, practice, analyze what you’re doing, what you’re looking at, what you’re exercising. Think what you see and hear, feel the connection between your muscles, confront it with the knowledge you collected in the past. Once you think you have the moment of realization, try it out. Find out, whether what you tough is the solution, actually is the solution. If it is, you’ll probably feel incredible, if it’s not, don’t worry, your brain just memorized that connection and flagged it as a wrong one — critically important part of learning curve.

What if asking “Why” does not bring desired results? Continue, because, by nature, some concepts have far more layers to peel and need much more time to be truly understood. To make it worse, sometimes you will need to alternately discover one layer, then practice and really work it through. Because without execution, another layer won’ be visible to you. You will think you reached the bottom, you found the core of the problem, and you have the solution. But if that’s not the case, no worries. Now you know what to do, you have tools, and you understand how it works. Get excited, because you’re about to discover something amazing. And become someone amazing.

Is is very unlikely you will find all the pieces of puzzle at the first, 5th or even 50th attempt. But that’s where the fun is. And the satisfaction once you accomplish the task and will see the big picture

9. Bottom line

I hope I was able to convince you that “How” and “What”, as useful, are not the most valuable questions you can ask. Although they indeed provide you with quick and easy fix, our world is a complex place with decillions of connections and interactions taking place every day, every hour. You won’t know them all, you you really wouldn’t want to, but asking the deep levels “Why-s” will sure make your life easier to master and to understand.

(PS. Get the “example conversation” pdf and see how asking “Why?” can make your life easier and save you money. Click here to get it Free)

The idea behind achiever.be follows the trend and focuses on “How to” and “What” questions. After all, those will always be the most popular questions in this fast changing world. And to be honest, I personally ask myself those questions very, very often. But we thought that concept through and figured out, that some goals will require asking all 7 questions alternately, and some will be achievable only when one truly understands the core of the problem. So if you will want to use achiever.be to ask “Why” question, you will get your deeper level answers too.

To summarize, I will stand by what I wrote: question “Why” is the most important question you can ask. I wouldn’t go as far as recommending doing that for everything you do though. Perhaps right now you just want to have your pepperoni sandwich, and you’re not necessarily dying to know why saturated fat is labeled as unhealthy.

But things you are passionate about, things you love doing, things that make you happy, people you love, people you admire and people you care about — dig deep. And don’t ask me Why, just dig!

This is very unlikely to happen, there is always more questions than answers. But that’s ok, we, human, are made to discover. Without questions, meaning of our lives would be questionable.

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