Soon after my children began to master language, their two favorite words — like most toddlers — were “no” then “why.” Like most parents, I responded to their increasing usage of these words with a mixture of amusement then annoyance.
As we grow up, we learn that saying no to every request we receive is not really an option. Even on those occasions when it might be the right thing to do, we become reluctant to say no to people who seek our help or hold authority over us. As a result, many of us take on more than we can handle.
Young inquiring minds habitually ask about causality as they seek to discover their place in the world and start to form a sense of agency over their circumstances. Some of us never lose this curiosity. Almost all of us are routinely pressured to ignore or suppress this impulse and accept things as they are.
Seeking understanding of the world and our place in it by questioning situations and assumptions does not mean we cannot accept things as they are or prefer things as we ourselves think they should be. When why and no become flashpoints for conflict among adults, it need not be so if only we take understanding as a prerequisite for acceptance.
Indeed, when acceptance and agreement come quickly, we would often do well to ask ourselves why. In many if not most cases, such easy agreements are based on competing or conflicting understandings of own own and others’ interests. Accepting the outcome or the process for achieving it does not mean we all agree on why it is important or what it will do for us.
Combining why and no into a prescription for action has become quite fashionable in recent years when phrased as a statement rather than a question: “Why Not!” As opposed to “Why Not?” (Nike made good use of this tactic with their “Just Do It!” campaign a few years ago. Anheuser-Busch seems to be taking a similar tack now with their “Up For Whatever” campaign.)
As a statement, “why not!” has become synonymous with a “can do” attitude, a sense of adventure, and a keen appetite for risk. As much as we might want to admire these qualities, we should ask ourselves why or at what cost?
The rush to to implement solutions and get results comes at a cost just as waiting or failing to act sometimes has a cost. Learning how to be patient, or as Kevin Cashman puts it, to apply The Pause Principle, is an important leadership skill. And that skill requires expert knowledge and experience to apply consistently and correctly.
The older I get, the more important I find it to reconnect with my younger self. Over-committing too often leads to under-performance. Making “no” a default setting for taking action may have a bigger place in our thinking than popular culture suggests.
Likewise, asking why we should change or move from this default should be encouraged. Asking why repeatedly and insistently until we get to the root cause of problems will help us avoid creating solutions for which we have yet to discover a definition, which usually leads us to solutions that themselves only become new problems.
Let’s keep “why not” a question rather than making it a statement. Seeking understanding will help us build acceptance based on shared values, which will lead to better solutions and fewer problems with those we seek to help and upon whom rely for help and success.