Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Importance Of Knowing Why

In the social media age, instructional articles have become all the rage. Everyone wants to tell you the 10 Things You Need to Know, or the 5 Things you Should Be Doing, or the 3 Things Required For The Coming Season. Most of these so-called listicles (I’m a little bummed by the fact that Spellchecker actually recognizes that as a word) are just noise, and not even well-disguised noise. They’re an excuse to get people to click through an ad-laden slideshow and drum up page hits, nothing more, and most of them are about as useful or entertaining as that motivation implies. Even the ones that try to rise above that inherent limitation, though, usually fail because their approach just doesn’t work. Most of these things end up missing a critical ingredient: Why?

Why do I need to know these things? Why should I be doing these things? Why are such requirements in place? More importantly, why does your opinion on this even matter? They begin with the idea that the reader has already agreed to the authority of the writer and to the necessity of whatever is being discussed, and skip right past any foundational work that might help those things to make sense. What they do present appears to be written from the point of view that there is only one perspective and only one possible desired outcome, which is absurd. There are roughly seven billion people hopping around on this little blue marble. The four people in my house don’t always share one perspective with one common goal, and that’s just counting the ones who actually live there, the ones with a bed and not just an Xbox addiction. It’s a safe bet that seven billion people have a few more perspectives than just one.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of people telling me what I should think without telling me why I should think it. As you may have noticed, I do quite a bit of thinking on my own. I put a great deal of time and effort into it, and really don’t have much use for arbitrary instruction. Or any use, really. If you’re not going to tell me why your thoughts might be better than my own thoughts, what motivation do I have to pay attention to you at all? It’s a busy world. Like everyone else, my time is limited.

I try to avoid the word “should” just on general principles. It’s not a word that works well on its own. It’s fairly meaningless without an accompanying “why”. What you should wear, what you should eat, what you should watch … All of these and many more depend on what you expect to get out of them.

“Men in their thirties should not wear this?” Why? “Because you won’t get a good job with a good salary dressed like that.” But I already have a good job with a salary I like, and it lets me wear that. “Oh, um …”

“You shouldn’t do that.” Why? “Because it’s against my religion.” But I’m not you, and I don’t share your religion. “Oh, um …”

“You should write this character this way.” Why? “Because that’s the way I like it.” But I’m not writing it for you. There’s a big audience out there that wants different things. “Oh, um …”

These examples may seem a bit silly, but they all represent conversations I have actually seen wandering around the Internet. I’ve simplified them quite a bit to protect the not-so-innocent, but they’re still real. Far too often, people throw around the word “should” as though it were a magic show-stopper, axiomatic in itself. If someone says something should be a certain way, people are suppose to just accept it. If you can get them to boil it down to why it should be that way, though, it often turns out to be nothing more than personal preference. That’s not really much of a should, is it?

When I was studying journalism, we were always drilled in the five basic questions: who, what, when, where, and why. You don’t have a complete picture without all five answers. You won’t always have a complete picture - trying to figure things out is a large part of why we do the things we do - but the more of these you answer, the closer to complete you get. Finding the answer to “why” can be the most difficult of the five. It’s not concrete. It’s not measurable. You often can’t find it just by looking. Having that answer, however, can facilitate finding the other four, or even enhance the other four, if you already have them.

The answer to “why” often tells you what the speaker believes is important, what makes it important, who the intended audience might be, and whether or not any of this might matter to you, all rolled into one. It’s a very powerful question, and there is a reason it becomes the go-to question for toddlers who are just learning how to learn. Why is a handle to almost everything else.

If you want a better relationship with the world around you, ask “Why?” as often as you can. Look for the motivation behind the statement and you will usually develop a better understanding of the statement. This can help people to get along more easily, and it can help to address those situations when people don’t get along. Don’t just look for your own “why” either. Giving your own “why” helps people to understand you, but looking for their “why” helps you to understand everyone else. More understanding in this world seems like it would be helpful.

The ancient Greek mathematician is reported to have said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum strong enough, and I will move the world.” The question “why?” can be your fulcrum, if you learn how to use it. Place the right lever on that fulcrum, and you can move almost anything. Maybe that’s why so many people don’t tell us why anymore. They don’t want you to move things, they want to move you.

Will you be the mover or the moved?

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