I have a five year old at home. For anyone who’s ever had a five year old, knew someone who did, or has simply seen one on TV, you know the question most asked in our house is Why? Now, generally speaking it’s been pleasant; I’ve embraced the opportunity to reveal the world as I’ve come to understand it to our family’s next generation. Why is the sun brighter than the moon? Why can airplanes fly? Daddy, why are you always late? Although I admit the game has become exhausting (and that I’m perpetually tardy), I’ve appreciated the challenge of needing to constantly consider the Why’s in my life. Not only that, but I’ve been forced to review many deep-rooted assumptions and positions that have gone unchecked for a long time.
It’s actually pretty hard to ask Why, and I think that’s why, when we reach adulthood we tend to avoid it. For one thing, the result of the question may lead to a necessary change, which is dangerous. We run the risk of showing something’s been done wrong (or at least sub-optimally) all along and the onus for a new direction may be squarely on our shoulders. This position is not only intimidating to us, but sometimes threatening to others.
Why is the best catalyst for innovation. Unlike How (which presupposes a Why), it drags the issue all the way back to its roots and forces a defense (or abandonment) of a chosen path. How actually tends to be a question we enjoy because it allows us to be technicians working on well-defined problems within a predetermined scope. The questions Where, What and When are easy – simply change the letter “w” in each to a “t” and you have the answer. But Why… well, Why is just riddled with baggage.
Oscar Wilde observed “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” While this may well be true, I don’t think it’s completely innate. Sure, we grow up and become socialized by learning through mimicry and accepting guidance from others. But then we get this great opportunity to become questioning beings with an immense capacity for critical thinking and innovation. So what gets in the way? Why do we stop asking Why? Plenty has been written on the way in which the modern corporate structure stifles innovation. Then there’s the classic “tall poppy syndrome,” a circumstance where those showing greatness and ambition tend to be cut down or sabotaged by peers intent on keeping them from elevating above “the group.” And of course, the great debate regarding our uninspiring approach to public education continues with no end in sight.
Perhaps a better question is Who? Who will commit to getting back to asking Why?
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a renowned pioneer in computer programming famously had a clock installed in her office that ran in reverse (counter-clockwise) to remind her to fight what she suggested was a dangerous conception, the often closely-held position that “we’ve always done it this way.”
One of my favorite anecdotes concerns a young woman preparing a dinner of ham and corn for her family. As she was readying the ham for the oven, she carefully cut a slice off of each end before placing it in the pan. Her son, having observed the unusual ordeal asked, “Mommy, why’d you cut the ends off the ham?” Confidently she replied that “that’s how it’s supposed to be done and that’s how my mother did it.” But as she didn’t have a complete understanding of the reason, she later thought to call her mother and ask about the process. Disappointingly, her mother confessed that she “never really knew, that’s just how your grandma taught me.” Determined to get a complete explanation of the family’s ham-preparation traditions, the next day she drove across town to her grandmother’s house and inquired about the process. Her grandmother patiently explained that for years she’d only had a small baking dish and cutting the ends off the ham was the only way to make it fit.
Folks, the next time we’re poised to cut the ends off of a ham, I suggest that we stop and remember the great question of our youth: Why? If I take that advice, maybe I’ll start to be on time.