Why stop at why?

Why stop at why - image for article by Greg Alder

Why? is a great question. Kids ask why all the time. They ask because they don’t know why.

Why is that lady fat?

They don’t know if she’s fat because she’s pregnant. They don’t know what pregnancy is. They’ll learn one day.

They don’t know if she’s fat because she eats too much. They don’t know there’s a link between eating too much and being fat. They’ll learn one day.

Kids are curious. They are information sponges. To help them know what they don’t know, they turn to people they figure know everything, their teachers. They’ll also ask their parents, even if they already know their parents don’t know everything.

Early on, parents tire of their kids always asking why. Then they notice that as their kids age, they stop asking.

Curious parents might wonder why their kids have stopped asking why. Their kids haven’t stopped asking because they know it all. They have stopped asking because they have stopped wondering.

A lot of adults who stopped wondering as kids never wonder again. They left their curiosity in a box full of old toys gathering dust in a garage or basement or attic.

So, here’s what happens to you when you lose your curiosity:

  • You lose the chance to become innovators and entrepreneurs. Every breakthrough is the result of someone questioning rules, beliefs or habitual behaviours. Someone asked not just why, but why not or what if.
  • You lose the chance to learn. This might seem obvious. But researchers at the University of California showed that “curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information”. That is, curiosity about one thing makes it easier to learn and memorise unrelated information.
  • You lose the chance to understand your audience, your customers and the people around them. If you don’t understand, you can’t connect or anticipate or empathise. A study from Virginia Commonwealth University found a clear link between curiosity and compassion.

So how do you foster curiosity? You take a tip from the preceding sentence. You ask questions. Why? is a good starting point. However, if you want to understand your audience, really understand, it isn’t enough to ask why? Why? Because why will give you an incomplete understanding of behaviour, and it won’t necessarily lead to a potent insight. Or an innovation.

Here’s a list (not complete) of additional questions to ask every time you’re confronted with a fact.

First, some What? questions:

  • What’s the consequence?
  • What’s the alternative?
  • What if we did the opposite?
  • What if they’re wrong?
  • What if they’re right?
  • What can we learn from this?
  • What if?
  • What’s the big picture?

Some Who? questions:

  • Who does that?
  • Who does it affect?
  • Says who?
  • Who are they? (When you’re told, “They say that …”)
  • Who’s asking?
  • Who’s buying this stuff?
  • Who does it best?

Some Why? questions:

  • Why should they believe us?
  • Why not?
  • Why is this the way it’s always been done?
  • Why do we want to change it?
  • Why won’t they see the truth?

Some How? questions:

  • How is that possible?
  • How can we leverage that?
  • How can we make it possible?
  • How do we know?
  • How can we break the rules?
  • How do we know it’s true?
  • How would we like to be remembered?
  • How else could this be used?

Some When? questions:

  • When does it happen?
  • When is it OK?
  • When is it not OK?
  • When did this become the norm?
  • When should we question the questioner?

Some Where? Questions:

  • Where will this end?
  • Where will we be in 20 years?
  • Where is this going?
  • Where did it go?
  • Where did it go wrong?
  • Where’s the fun in that?

Curiosity is simply asking questions. It’s not a single question, but a chain of related questions that lead from a dead, useless fact to a potent insight.

Asking questions is something we did as kids. We stopped asking because we thought the world expected us to know. Expertise is the enemy of curiosity.

And yet, the world’s greatest thinkers weren’t afraid to keeping asking.

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
– Albert Einstein

Photo by Emily Morter via Unsplash

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