the becoming: August 31, 2023
The Paradox of Why
I can feel the days getting shorter as we creep into fall but we're not there yet! San Francisco has delivered a burst of beautiful (and warm) weather that I am enjoying alongside a sweet pitbull who is visiting for the week. I'm Andi, this is the becoming, and welcome to August's missive.
The Paradox of Why
I’ve been sitting with some BIG unknowing this month and wondering how best to tend to this specific state of being. How to stay connected with the felt sense of… being reorganized on a molecular level is probably the best way to put it, and how to maintain an open connection to the process of transformation. In working with dreams the dreamer is encouraged to presence the dream, to be with the landscapes, beings, and animals as alive and vibrant as they were when initial contact was made in the dreamworld. The worst thing you can do with dreams is to analyze them, zapping them of their vitality and reducing them to static, singular messages. I think the same goes for being in connection with the unknown in a way that feels nourishing and supportive. Where the textured complexity of the world hums its aliveness, rather than being reduced to the silence of flat, smooth surfaces. And I’ve come to realize that one of the primary ways to sever this connection, that can reduce the beautiful complexity of unknowing to a lifeless morass, is the seemly simple ‘why?’ question.
Sidenote: I apologize for the clunkiness of the ‘why?’ and ‘why’ in quotation marks throughout this piece, but I think (hope) it brings clarity to the reading experience.
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The etymology of the word why comes from the Old English hwi to indicate for what purpose or by what means. I’m sure in olden times it was an innocuous word but I can’t help but read it in a voice that demands justification for whatever (or whomever) is on the receiving end of hwi.
Of course it’s vitally important to understand the why of things, but paradoxically asking why questions doesn’t really get us to what we want to know. ‘Why?’ closes the aperture of our perception instead of opening it to the complexity, wonder, and awe required to behold and understand something like purpose.
‘Why?’ is a shorthand invocation that points to something and asks, “what is the reason for this to be the way it is?” The question and intention itself may be well and good, but the response often falls short of the meaning we seek. Think back to the last time you asked a why question. Something like, “Why did you do that?” Or “Why not try this instead?” Did you learn the real purpose and get the clarity you were looking for? Or did something else happen that impacted the dynamics of the relationship? Maybe one or both of you ended up feeling a little defensive.
‘Why?’ is like dropping a small turd into the middle of a conversation. The receiver feels offended and the questioner becomes both embarrassed and defensive, startled by the not so favorable reaction of the receiver. Frustratingly neither person is closer to understanding than before.
Because here is the thing: ‘why?’ takes us out of direct experience and moves us into an analytical mode. We don’t answer from direct experience and what is happening in the moment, instead we remove ourselves from what we are in contact with in order to attempt root-cause analysis in the midst of complexity. And the moment we make this move we lose contact with the layered richness of experience through a reductive act of cause and effect.
We are notoriously bad at using logic to figure out what we’re really up to in the world, we can’t analytically trace a chain of events to a single cause (and also half of our motivations exist below the level of consciousness). Maybe I did the thing you are asking about because of something that happened to me 10 years ago that is subconsciously influencing my behavior in certain situations.
‘Why?’ as a question is causal. ‘Why’ as an understanding is systemic. But we can’t get to systemic understandings by asking causal questions (if only that shortcut worked). We have to do the heavy lifting of critical thinking and deep inquiry to get there.
To be clear I’m not advocating to remove the word from circulation! It would be impossible to eliminate ‘why?’ from the mouths of every 3 year old on the planet, and ‘why?’ has some use in scientific and process oriented endeavors. But more often than not, ‘why?’ diverts us from the reflective rigor needed to understand what it is we really want to know.
Let’s look at how ‘why?’ behaves in fact-based situations with the age old favorite, “Why is the sky blue?”
Light waves from the sun hit our atmosphere. Certain wavelengths pass through while others - blue and violet - are scattered by the gases and particles in the air, which is why the sky is blue on a sunny day. But the sky is also blue because of the physiology of the human eye and the particular wavelengths of light they are able to receive. Two wavelengths are scattered, blue and violet, but our eyes are more sensitive to blue than violet. So the sky isn’t really blue at all, it just appears blue to us. There is an interplay between physics and physiology, between observer and observed, so that the world is never quite as we think it is.
Curiosity is a beautiful human trait and ‘why?’ is the delivery mechanism of choice for small children learning about the world. But for adults, outside of certain circumstances, why is a knee-jerk reaction - a quick formulation of a question that hasn’t been given enough time to be understood and formed with the right words. The desire to know is present, to understand the purpose or reason, but asking ‘why?’ doesn’t get us to a core cause of human behavior or the mysterious ‘why’ of the emergent world.
‘Why?’ is complex and defined by the relationship between observer and observed. If you really tend to your wondering you’ll probably arrive at a more rigorous question along the lines of, “What causes the sky to appear blue to us?” And after you have formed this question, curiosity may lead you to wonder what color the sky is for other animals, or what color the sky is if no one is observing it. How rich the inquiry becomes! The world is not reduced to a universal maxim of The Sky Is Blue, but is revealed in its full dynamic complexity and mystery.
Other forms of lazy why questions include:
- Why is that important to you?
- Why do you like that?
- Why did you make that decision?
Fortunately, we have other interrogatives that can help us uncover ‘why’ while allowing people to stay in contact with their direct experience: who, what, when, where and the one h - how. Eliminating ‘why’ as a question will lead you to a deeper understanding of the purpose or means of whatever it is you are curious about. For more on the specifics of how to ask questions without asking why, see Rebecca Berry’s insightful article, Why you stop asking why (and what to ask instead). If you are a designer looking to understand the ‘why’ and want to improve your ideation prompts, sheryl cabana has your back with, Design for Meaning: Rethinking Design’s Ideation Prompts.
Here are those why questions again, reworded:
- What makes that important to you? What resonates most deeply for you?
- What do you like about that? How is that for you?
- What was behind that decision?
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a why question knows how judgmental they can feel. I frequently forget to turn the oven off after baking, and my boyfriend will wander in and say, “why is the oven on?” Immediately I find myself getting a little snippy and defensive. My internal monologue goes something like, “I made cookies earlier and as I pulled the last tray out of the oven I got a phone call and that diverted my attention and because I can’t multitask I moved into that activity and left the cookie making behind and I guess I’m a terrible person. Shit, who knows, maybe it has something to do with having jaundice as a baby.” In this case a simple, “What is the oven on for?” would be great and save me from going down a rabbit hole of negative character analysis.
Some of you may be wondering about The Five Whys, a method pioneered by Toyota in the 80s. If you are analyzing a process, go for it. But if you are analyzing human behavior, try and stay away from it. Approaches like The Five Whys can be really useful when seeking to understand cause and effect in complicated systems, but when sitting in complexity where cause and effect are loosely correlated, asking why can take us in the wrong direction, alienate others, and ultimately fail to help us understand the very thing we are seeking clarity on.
Give it a try this week. Whenever you catch yourself reaching for ‘why?’ pause and think about what it is you really want to know. And then use a non-why interrogative instead. And I will continue to tend to the BIG unknowing that has made its way to my doorstep, allowing it to be full and mysterious by not needing to know what, exactly, is its purpose.
Leader as Coach
A quick update on Leader as Coach - the upcoming cohort has been pushed back 2 weeks and is now starting October 2nd. For those of you who had schedule conflicts with the earlier dates, hopefully this now aligns with your schedule! Discount codes are available to subscribers of the becoming and Words Make Worlds.
Worth Your Attention
Neuroscientist Daniel Toker takes a look at how the theory of the triune brain - the idea that we have a lizard brain, mammalian brain, and primate/human brain - became widespread even though, from the get go, evolutionary neuroscientists had a sense that it wasn't right. It's a fun read, and you don't have to hold an advanced degree to follow along.
Marketing is hard, and the techniques recommended by "experts" often feel manipulative and sleezy. I was complaining about this to a friend last week and he shared a resource that kinda blew my socks off - Marketing for Hippies. The site is great, the copy is fun, and there are lots of free resources to get started. But the best part! The best part are the "Putting Sessions" that Tad offers. I have never seen anything quite like it and DELIGHTED is probably the best way to describe my reaction to the whole endeavor. Go read it, enjoy, maybe book a session. And feel your faith in humanity restored just a little bit more.
"Healing-centered leadership acknowledges how we all have been harmed, and focuses on restoring relationships across differences. This means that healing-centered leaders practice empathy over blame, compassion over complacency, and curiosity over criticism. The only path to reimagining the future is through healing our collective trauma and restoring a sense of possibility in our work. This can only happen when we foster a collective imagination that restores communal wisdom and sets a path toward more humane ways to show up in life." - Shawn A. Ginwright
Inline with the topic of this edition's essay is Imaginal Journeying, a process of staying connected to the imaginal realm typically accessed through dreams and subconscious explorations. The copy on the site states "it can open a door into a direct and intimate connection with the depths and richness of the full range of human and collective experience. This unleashes creativity, deepens emotional resonance, heals trauma, uncovers true purpose and unlocks new paradigms for people." I first started learning and working with the imaginal realms through Stephen Aizenstat's Dream Tending work, and continue to find resonance with folks who are exploring this space.
Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods is a book I turn to often. If you don't have time to read the book, here are a few summaries that are a pretty quick read and give you some useful food for thought to take into both your work and personal life.
Thank you for being here and see you next month!