Over the years, I’ve learned to ask, why? Not to be a jerk, which I recently learned is a word my son learned from me, but to actually determine the rationale behind something. It started for me when I was still teaching and I went to an in-service being run by a mathematics professor at a state college. She’d ask us to answer a math problem. We’d give her the answer, and then it went like this: 

Prof: Why?

Us: Why what?

P: Why is that the answer?

U: Becaaaaaaause… that’s what we came up with?

P: Why did you come up with that?

U: When is lunch?

It seemed pretty simple: she asked a question, we answered it, and that’s all. Nothing else need be said, right? Wrong. While it seems excruciating at the time, what she was really attempting to do was lead us to understand the nuts and bolts of our answers. The reason they were an answer to even begin with. In essence, she was trying to get us to think. Did we understand all the elements that went into arriving at that answer?

And what I learned was that it wasn’t just a lesson contained only to the world of mathematics, but to everything. Asking that simple question of “Why?” makes you really stop and consider the reason why things are the way they are. Why decisions are being made the way they are. Why changes are being made. You end up discovering that at the heart of a great many things, people don’t really understand the reason they do the things they do; make the decisions they make; make the changes they make. And it’s really important to be able to answer such a question, because if we can’t back it up with something solid, then we’re doing it for the wrong reason. We’re only doing something, or changing something, for the sake of doing/changing it. Which is a bad reason. It’s being a busy idiot. And no one wants to be that.  

Asking that question has crept into my daily life. And for good reason. 

Take design, for instance. Design isn’t just about making things look appealing or clever. Certainly you want your designs to appeal to the eye, but design is very much a game of problem-solving. You are tasked with communicating a message, and the problem, in most cases, is what is the most effective means to communicate that message clearly? When I’m asked to change something I often ask why? Again, not to be a jerk, but because we’re solving a problem, and I want to understand in clear terms what’s motivating decisions. If the reason is concrete, if there’s actual substance behind it, okay then, let’s change that. Nothing wrong with that. 

As a parent, I think I ask my children the question of why as much as they ask it of me. Part of it is because the minds of children often times amaze me, but because in reality we’re playing a game of cat and mouse. And the outcome I’m hoping is that my children grow up to be adults who think they’re way through life. That they don’t mosey about life well-meaning, but living lives of substance or contentment. I want them to think about the decisions they are faced with or the gravity of the changes they wish to make. Ultimately, we won’t understand everything that happens in our lives. We just won’t. But that doesn’t mean we should be superficial about the things that ultimately chart the course of our lives. It also doesn’t mean we should give ourselves over to analysis paralysis. But, we should be intentional about certain aspects of our lives. 

Ask yourself why, whenever you can. If you can’t walk yourself through an actual, substantive reason for whatever it is sitting on the other side of that question, then push back from the table. Or, more simply–don’t do it. 

Maybe put the decision off until you can give yourself a better answer. Don't create situations simply for the sake of getting to make decisions.

Don't make a change for the sake of making a change. Don't make changes simply for the sake of making changes. 

Why am I doing this?