Ask Why

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a detail of my painting, Know That You Are Waiting.

Marilyn told me that she spent the day with her 3 year-old granddaughter. The little girl, like most children her age, peppered Marilyn with the question, “Why?” In her reenactment, after trying to answer the multitude of “Why?” questions, she laughed and said, “I don’t know! That’s the way it’s always been done!” It’s a perfect loop! Sometimes there is no answer to the question, “Why?”

Many years ago Peter Block wrote a great little book called The Answer To How Is Yes. A lifetime of corporate consulting left him perplexed by the pervasive leading question, “How should we do it?” None of his clients ever asked, “Why should we do it?” “Why” was nowhere in the equation.

Asking “Why?” takes time. It slows things down and often requires some soul searching. It lives on the vertical axis of experience, the axis that reaches into the depths and knows no black and white answer. Also, asking “Why?” sometimes leads to the scary profit-challenging twin question, “Why shouldn’t we do it?” The question, “Why?” moves a business and the people that populate it out of reactionary practices and into intentionality. With intentionality comes ownership of action, responsibility. The legal department is dedicated to keeping the conversation away from “Why?” Responsibility can be costly.

People are no different than the organizations they create. We avoid the same questions for much the same reason.

In my life I’ve sat through countless meetings while boards-of-directors asking, “How do we get more people to buy/attend/support our art/business/cause?” I finally made it a practice to stop asking the troubling questions, “Why should people buy/attend/support you?” and “Why are you doing what you are doing?” Usually those questions invoked embarrassed silence or worse, a regurgitation of the company’s value statement. We are valuable because we say we are.

Skip used to tell me that a company isn’t valuable until it serves the customer’s customer. I liked that sentiment a lot: value is service as expressed through two degrees of separation. It is also an orientation according to what is given, not what is received. Serve. It’s a loop with a natural answer to the question, “Why?”

Artists of all stripes, churches, politicians, etc. might find a different understanding of value if they (we) applied Skip’s rule to their (our) plays/symphonies/paintings/dances/businesses. Why? To Serve.

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a detail from my painting May You

Maybe we all just need to be three-year-olds and ask “why?” more often. Maybe the best questions, the ones that make the most sense, are the ones that can’t be easily answered but require us to slow down and challenge doing what we’ve always done.

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It Matters

808. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

From the department of subtlety in language comes a submission from Skip. During lunch today (His email said, “Meet me for a black and tan. We’ll call it late lunch or early dinner.”) During “lunch” he told me about a speaker who made the distinction between a student and a learner – to make the point that our systems of education (higher and lower) are not about learning. To be a student and to be a learner are not the same thing at all.

The distinction is in the assumptions beneath the words. The word “student” implies the need for teachers, curricula, etc. The deeper implication is in the necessary action: it is ‘other-directed.” The word learner, on the other hand, requires no teacher, no agenda, nor a curriculum. The necessary action is self-directed. The action can be facilitated, it can be mentored, it can be shared, but the imperative is within.

Why, you ask, does this matter? Isn’t this just splitting hairs?

Last year Skip and I met at a conference for educators on reinventing learning but in Skip’s words, it was not about learning at all. It was about reinventing teaching. The organizers were educators so their assumption set necessitated students and teachers in an expert driven relationship. The teachers know. The students receive the knowing. No learning required. There were incredible conversations that day and few had to do with learning.

Learning is a pursuit. It is a discovery path. There is nothing passively receptive about learning (note: the moment you separate content from method you end all learning and enter the realm of student/teacher).

It matters. The way we ask the question determines the possibilities we see or don’t see. None of our current questions in the field of education have much to do with learning. I walk in many worlds and in the business realm I regularly hear these phrases: “Why don’t my employees take any initiative?” “They expect to be rewarded for everything?” “It’s impossible to critique anything because they take it so personally.” “Everything needs to be an ‘atta-boy!” “They might do just what you ask but never go beyond the prescription.” Frustration abounds.

Well. We get what we create. Students look for permission, color inside the lines, need approval and fixate on their grade. Learners embrace challenges, step across lines, and know intrinsically whether or not their work is good. It matters.