Why Ask Why [on Two Artists Tuesday]

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A rare warm day, walking the Des Plains River trail. I should have been startled when Kerri suddenly jumped off the trail but I’ve grown accustomed to her spring-loaded-photo-impulsive-gambols. I actually love the passion of her image capturing so I’ve learned not to be surprised when she leaps and snaps. There is no danger. There is a photo opp.

“SEE!” she exclaimed, showing me the photo. “Even nature is asking ‘Why?'”

My first thought: Which “why” is nature asking? Why a pandemic?  Why so much division?

Simon Sinek has made a career of teaching people to ask “Why?” before asking “How?” It makes sense: you should probably know why you want to scale the mountain before asking, “How will I do it?” People need an answer to “why.” And, because we are human, the answer to “why” need not be reasonable or rational. “Because it is there,” is an acceptable answer to “why?” I want to. I need to know. I want to feel. I need to see what is there.

“How?” is a question that can only be answered after the fact. “How” is known through reflection. There is the plan. There is the reality that comes when the plan meets the unknown forces. The plan changes. The only honest answer to “how” is: do what makes sense and we’ll talk about it later.

Amidst a pandemic, it is only human to throw up our arms to the sky and demand an answer to our “Why?”  To borrow a lyric from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: “I don’t believe in an interventionist god. But I know, darling,  that you do.” In other words, viruses are intention-free. Sometimes, even though we want an explanation, there is no “why.”

There is, however, always a plan, there is a path to “How?”  How do we protect ourselves? How do we deal with it? In fact, there are layers to the question “how?” The first layer of ‘how’ is simple: social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands. Looking back from this vantage point, we know it is the best we can do short of a vaccine. Simple science.

The second layer of the how-cake is more complex and, like all ‘how’ questions, we will only be able to talk about at some point down the broken road. Maybe a vaccine. Maybe herd immunity. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe we will be foolish, like the Philadelphia parade during the Spanish flu and escalate the death toll to the point that we wake up and listen to the first ‘how?’

The virus is a force like a tornado is a force. Why did it take my neighbor’s house and not mine? Why did the forest fire rage through this neighborhood and not that neighborhood?

Here’s the only “why” question we really need to consider: in the face of this virus-forest-fire, why did we rush out to light matches (pack into bars and onto beaches), parade around screaming about our individual rights instead of metaphorically rushing into the fire to save our neighbors in the only way we knew how (social distance, masks) –  as we would have done in an inferno?

I don’t believe in an interventionist god. But I do believe in intentional human beings (conscious and otherwise).

Nature need not ask “why?” We do. It’s a sure bet that our answer will make little or no sense at all.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about WHY

 

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Take One Glorious Step [on Merely A Thought Monday]

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This post marks the 100th week of our Studio Melange. As it turns out, to my great surprise, the body of work I leave behind in this lifetime will probably have nothing to do with my paintings. I write everyday. I do not paint everyday.

I read that Graham Greene, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, wrote 500 words a day. Sometimes those 500 words took an hour. Sometimes they took several hours. Either way. Write 500 words a day, every day, and you, too, will be prolific.

Listen to enough mountain climbers and you’ll receive the same advice. One step at a time. One hand hold at a time. Don’t think of climbing the whole mountain. Rather, pay attention to the next step and the next and the next. The action of stepping will take you farther than the wishing. Step consciously and the summit will cease to be a goal and will become another glorious step en route to another glorious step [and, best of all, your odds of survival will skyrocket].

Were Kerri and I to scrabble together into book form our 100 weeks of writing, we’d have more than a few tomes on the shelf. A single prompt. He said/She said. Mounds of accumulated thoughts. Lots of writing. A few precious and treasured readers. Every once in a while, especially on these dark winter days, one of us asks, “Why do we keep doing this?”  The other will inevitably say, “Well, let’s stop.” The answer is always, “Nooooo! I love doing this!”

Why do it? Why climb the mountain? Why walk toward the horizon? Why paint what no one sees or compose what no one hears? Our answer, after 100 weeks, is becoming clearer and clearer: do what you love. Even better, do it with someone you love. One glorious step en route to another glorious step.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about MAKING HUNDREDS

 

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Sit On The Wire [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

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Google the question, “Why do birds sit on a wire?” and you’ll get a curious tidbit of information. This is what I read: birds are able to sit on electrical wires because the current ignores the bird’s presence.

It’s human to ask the question “why?” In fact, asking the question “why?” is probably a central characteristic of the critter called human being.

Another characteristic of a human being is personification: attributing human characteristics to things non-human. For instance: the current ignores the bird’s presence. I laughed heartily when I read the phrase. The electrical current dissed the birds on the wire. Wait. Is that why the birds sit there?

Now we have two possible questions.”Why?” you might ask, “did the current dis the birds?” OR, you could ask,”Why do the birds taunt the electrical current?”

Either way it sounds like the beginning of a really good joke. Or, a good question to ask in a philosophy class: why and when did the conflict between birds and electrical current start?

All good stories, like all good jokes, begin with a hearty conflict. Yearning meets obstacle. Bird meets wire.

Why?

We critters are excellent at asking the question. Why, you might ask, is there rarely a definitive answer? Well, asking the question seems to be the point. Curiosity is what makes us human. Don’t ask me why.

 

read Kerri’s blog post about BIRDS ON A WIRE

 

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Don’t Ask Why

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From my archives. I call this painting Alki Beach.

When I woke up this morning, researching the color blue was not on my to-do list. Did you know that in Belgium blue is the color associated with baby girls? Pink is for boys. To be blue in the German-speaking world means to be drunk rather than the English assignment of depression. Color associations are cultural.

I jumped down the rabbit hole of color symbolism and meanings because I’ve been building a new catalogue for my paintings. I’ve been revisiting the eras of my work, looking at every painting I’ve done (those that I documented…). A few days into my cataloguing Linda asked me why I never paint with the color blue. Linda loves the color blue. She is a veritable celebration of blue in earth, air, and water. “You never use blue!” she exclaimed. “Why?”

BlanketOfBlueSky

A Blanket Of Blue Sky

“I always use blue,” I sputtered, convincing no one. Since my move from Seattle to Kenosha my paintings have been more earth tones, umbers and sienna. The blues are there but certainly not dominant. Linda has never seen the work from my blue period.

“Why don’t you use more blue?” she laughed.

‘Why’ is one of those words that can either bring you to clarity or will drive you crazy. Knowing ‘why’ is useful in a Simon Sinek seminar or valuable in the pursuit of a purpose driven life but is near-to-impossible when attempting to articulate an artistic choice. The top two responses are conversation stoppers: 1) I don’t know, and 2) It feels right. I suppose there is a third response, the anti-why: 3) why not? It, too, leaves no room for discourse and is generally a lousy explanation.

IslandDreaming

This one is called Island Dreaming

“Why don’t I use more blue?” I asked Kerri. Without looking up or missing a beat she responded, “Why don’t I use seventh chords?” Leave it to my wife to hit me with a musical-zen-koan.

Horatio often reminds me that to enter the studio is to also enter stillness. Working in and from stillness precludes all questions of why and how.

Did you know that blue is the most commonly used color in corporate identity and that it is a color rarely found in fruits and vegetables? It has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other color. Among the seven billion people on earth, roughly 4 billion of them prefer blue to any other color.

This morning while entering images into my catalogue – most were predominantly blue – I heard the echo of Linda’s question. “What’s up with blue?” I asked myself. Abdicating all responsibility for internal answers, I did what we all do at such moments: I turned to Google.

Did you know that blue is generally embraced as the color of heaven?

Why?

 

Shared Fatherhood

My latest: Shared Fatherhood.

 

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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Ask Why

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

I’ve heard this phrase several times in the past few months: What you put your mind on grows. If I think there is a monster under my bed I will listen for the monster’s movements. The monster will get bigger every night. This morning Elizabeth and I had a great conversation about what happens when we micro-focus on the one thing that’s not working. You know the story: the micro-focus overwhelms everything else. The gold is invisible when the speck dominates the focus. A single mosquito buzzing in your ear can make all of nature invisible.

Recently I’ve been sitting in on Skip’s Design for Demand course. It’s an MBA course in the Human Centered Design track. The students are examining online learning platforms to improve the design of each platform. They are having a difficult time breaking through the superficial to see the essential. The speck on their gold is the assumption that the purpose of education is to get a job. “What are you going to do with this?” is confused with “Why do this?”

Simon Sinek reminds us that at the center of every successful venture (adventure) is the question, “Why?” Why are we doing this? Why must precede What and How. It is simple: What and How carry no meaning. To focus on the result with no consideration of the reason is an empty pursuit. “To get a job” is a result. “To make money” is a result. “To raise test scores” is a result. Assuming that the purpose of education is to get a better job or to micro-focus on raising test scores is to design an empty pursuit. It is a fool’s errand.

If you don’t get a job is your education meaningless? If you get a job but have nothing to bring to it are you worth hiring?

For a brief moment the MBA students shifted their focus and rightly identified that a major obstacle in online learning platforms is that they are designed for consumption and not for engagement. Learning is not consumption. Information exchange is not learning. Learning IS engagement! Some fresh air blew through the room. They sat up! They glimpsed a bit of information that might lead them to meaningful design! And then someone asked, “How will employers know…?” They slumped and began looking for data to consume. They discussed how they might get people to care. Their conversation was once again trapped in the What and the How.

They were so close and then the monster under the bed retook their focus.

Tap Into It

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

What is the original “why?” What is your reason for doing what you do? During a break in the Design for Demand class I eavesdropped on a conversation between Skip and one of his students. The student asked, “Isn’t making money the reason “why.” It can be a reason. It’s not the reason.

Before the break the students were doing business pitches followed by a discussion about their reasons for creating the business. Skip showed them Simon Sinek’s terrific TED talk explaining what distinguishes a great business from a mediocre business. In the talk Simon explains his golden target with the reason “why” occupying the center. A great business operates from why. How and what occupy the middle and outer rings of the target. Mediocre businesses confuse their what and how with why. This might seem obvious but it’s not.

In another class, I recognized that the MBA students think the single reason they are getting a degree is to get a better job. They’ve confused their why with the what. Getting a better job can be a reason. It’s not the reason. K-12 education believes that the purpose of education is to raise test scores. They’ve confused why with how – and it is debatable whether raising test scores is a viable how. In our lives we have an abundance of “how and “what” reinforcement. It is no wonder we sometimes misplace our why.

In the modern age, people without a clear understanding of their “why” will generally buy something to fill the void. It is a temporary hit but delays the recognition that there is nothing substantial driving their life. Or, they’ll numb themselves, distract themselves or sabotage themselves. Either way, the “why” gets lost in the “what.”

Everyone has a why. Sometimes you have to wipe off a layer of dust or muster enough courage to look beyond the purchases. It is there. It’s waiting to be sourced. If your current answer to the question, “What’s the point?” is to raise your test score or to get a better job, stop and ask yourself, “What else is true?” Look beneath the superficial and you will find a spring that will rejuvenate you and keep you nourished for the arc of your life. Tap into it.

Where Are You Standing?

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

It is First Thursday, the night that artists across Seattle open their studios. To pass the time as we await the crowd, PaTan, the artist across the hall, shared with me a Life magazine from 1994. It has four articles that, read together, have my head spinning.

The first is entitled, “Saving The Endangered 100;” it is a photographic list of 100 species of plants and animals in America that are, by now, most likely gone. The second article is about the young boy who was identified as the reincarnation of Ling Rinpoche, tutor of the Dalai Lama. This boy will be the teacher of the next Dalai Lama. The third is an overview of Ken Burn’s Baseball documentary series. The fourth is a photo essay called “Eyewitness to Rwanda.”

Genocide, baseball, extinction, and among highest forms of spiritual tradition – all wrapped in a glossy cover under the umbrella name, “Life.” The magazine reads like a spectrum of human capabilities; the greatest horror to the heights of poetry. It is shocking, inspiring, troubling, breathtaking, overwhelming,…. It is life. At least it is life as we report it; it is life as we story it.

I long ago stopped asking why we do what we do. Asking the “why” question almost always brought a fixation on the horrors and injustice so that I’d miss entirely the other end of the spectrum. Asking “why” assumed the existence of “an answer.” What possible answer can there be for mass murder? What possible explanation is worthy of the reincarnation of a great teacher? There are beliefs, assumptions and justifications. There are stories. We destroy and we create; depending upon where you stand sometimes my creation brings your destruction; Oppenheimer learned this all too clearly. Is it right? Is it wrong? I no longer believe anything is clean enough for such small absolutes. Life is messy.

There are better questions and they usually come in pairs. For instance, “Where are you standing?” is a great question. Locate yourself but don’t stop there! Before justifying your actions consider asking, “I wonder what might this look like if I stood over there with you?”