Why changes our thinking

Do you ever wonder why pre-school kids always ask why, and do it irrepressibly so? Yet, somewhere along the way we forget the value of that most fundamental question, and we stop asking it.

At the outset, let me be clear. This is not another post about “finding your why”. As fashionable as that is right now, “my why” is as contextual to me as yours is to you, and unless and until we share the same context, it’s likely not to be helpful to you. I believe there's more value in exploring the practice of asking why, and why 'asking why' seems to be sliding off the scale. And, ask what we can do about it.

There’s a sliding scale and it’s a slippery slope

As a parent of two wonderful daughters and grandparent of four (ages 12-19), I reckon I’ve seen a sliding scale of development that goes something like this.

  • Babies … and if yours is in my arms, good luck getting it back. I love cuddling babies.

  • Pre-school toddlers … those who only have one question, why. “Please don’t touch the oven… why? It’s hot.. why? Because I’m about to bake some biscuits? …why? I thought they’d be nice to go in the lunches this week… why?” We’ve all been there.

  • Primary school kids have learned to be curious in a different way. They’ve moved on from why to what. What’s for dinner? What’s in the box? What are we doing at the weekend? … and, then the perennial question on the school break, “I’m bored, what can I do?” (Seriously, I’m not responsible for your happiness, find something. Go get happy.)

  • High school, they slide further away from the why, keeping curiosity with the what but exploring the how. And the closer they get to leaving high school, the deeper they get into the how. The thing is, they no longer ask. They’re very happy to tell us how it is.

  • Then there’s the beautiful visionary: our university student… a true millennial born in the year 2000. Politics… no problem. He's already a signed-up member of a major party with a solution for everything. And, here’s the rub – it’s all solution. Any connection to a “why” goes directly to justifying the solution with often imperious overtones of ideology in dichotomous dialogue.

Why is it so?

There appears to be a reason for this sliding scale: At each and every stage, the developing child and young adult are using that part of their brain that is most under development. There’s been enormous progress in neuroscience’s understanding of the development and functions of the brain. I borrow three points to serve us here:

“Brains are built over time, from the bottom up. The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Simpler neural connections and skills form first, followed by more complex circuits and skills. [1]” (… and so much more that’s relevant in the reference.)

The neural network expands exponentially. “As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 synapses per neuron. This is like going from 100 to 600 friends on Facebook, and each of those friends in turn, is connected to 600 more people! [2]“

If they are not used repeatedly, or often enough, they are eliminated. “Brain development does not stop after early childhood, but it is the foundation upon which the brain continues developing. Early childhood is the time to build either a strong and supportive, or fragile and unreliable foundation. These early years are very important in the development that continues in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. [2]”

Re-interpreting my experience into insights on leadership

A properly researched longitudinal study would serve us well, but for now, here’s my interpretation of those facts (as an intuitive thinker) in the light of what I see happening with our children and adults. I share these insights based on my exposure to working with many leaders over forty years – some exceptionally senior and remarkable people.

As a baby, our earliest connections establish the basis of emotion into the limbic system. Our leaders need more emotional intelligence (EQ) than ever before, and I wonder what limits there are to their growth of EQ based on their earliest stage of development. I also marvel at the great opportunity new parents have to build the foundations of high-EQ leadership simply by cuddling their babies in their arms.

As a pre-schooler, our constant asking of ‘why’ reinforces connections in the limbic system between emotion and experience. As leaders, our ability to engage with our employees by asking 'why' has its foundations here. Perhaps not asking as relentlessly as a child, but pragmatically as a leader of people. Leaders who ask 'why' build emotional connection between themselves and their employees' work. Leaders who do this concurrently are showing themselves not to be the know-it-all, superior being but a leader who cares that people know they count and are counted on.

As a primary schooler, our focus on ‘what’ builds connections between the frontal cortex and the limbic system. If as a child we are driven to subservience with authority telling us what to do, then the number of synaptic connections reduce. Big problem here for This Century, when these children grow into leaders as adults who enjoy a drive for prescription and operate by telling without much showing and asking and integrating.

If, on the other hand, pre-school children are encouraged to be curious about what works and what doesn’t and are given the freedom to be so, we learn early that life is an adventure we can create within the boundaries we’re given. Big opportunity here for This Century, when these children grow into leaders who know the importance of boundaries and how to set them in ways that set their people free to explore and create.

Then, there’s the high-schoolers and above, who increasingly focus on ‘how’, learning problem solving skills and making extensive connections between the frontal cortex and the limbic system, where the ways that are proven to work are stored in long-term memory. The knowledge learnt and stored in this way stands ready to be drawn into heuristics / rules of thumb for rapid decision making.

Leaders well-schooled with strong long-term memories will be prepared to make decisions quickly based on what they know worked in the past. The risk in This Century is whether, in the long-term they prove to be the right decisions. It is a comfortable place for conservative approaches. Yet, they are finding ongoing stress when circumstances rapidly change. It is a roll of the dice in This Century if one does not know whether the cognitive foundations of the leader included the beneficial growth of a young adventurer.

Life after schooling

By the time our young adults are getting into tertiary study, they’re not only exploring the “how”, they’re deeply engaged in designing into their brains the world they want to see. Whether that be in politics, business, manufacturing or entertainment and fun pastimes.

By that stage, few leaders get back into asking why and what. It’s all about how. I remember as I got into the feeder group for senior executive, I was often asked by my peers if I really wanted to take the leap across the gap. Did I really want to have the programmed chip inserted? I was told, “You know you’ll have no choice but to drink the executive cool-aid.”

At issue is how leaders quickly converge to a collective “why” without the irrepressible challenge of asking why and doing so irrepressibly. Group-think becomes a norm in times when thinking is harder because there’s too much pressure on the time it takes. It was Carl Jung who said, "Thinking is hard, that's why people judge." Eventually, coherence is lost – and we see the popularity of people, especially leaders, trying to “find their why” with the same zeal others adopt in finding family members from long ago. It’s about meaningful and deep connection. The time it takes to ask why in This Century has a value beyond priceless.

Watch out: It can get personal

The first time I challenged a Secretary of Defence was in the theatrette of the Australian Embassy in Washington with the entire defence staff present. He talked about “working smarter, not harder…etc” and I had asked whether the reality he was talking about aligned with the reality I was observing. I presented a few statements about lights on late at night, and people working to exhaustion. It had seemed similar in Canberra. But I was to be disappointed. The Secretary simply repeated his prescription – work smarter, not harder.

Immediately afterwards, my senior executive took me aside and counselled me to be cautious questioning what our Chief was announcing. If I wanted to go further, I wouldn’t want to be perceived as a “whinger” (pronounced win-jer). The Australian Linguistics Society notes “Social reproval of the whinger is indicative of the value Australians place on acceptance and coping.[3]” So, basically, I was being told not to rock the boat. Accept what is. Find ways of coping. Once again, stick with the ‘how’ or design a new ‘how’. Find a way forward. Whatever you do, don’t challenge the what or why.

With social constrictions on learning and development

in school and afterwards

the world is stuck.

How can it be…?

(Exactly my point)

In the next article titled “Two Questions” we’ll explore what a way to deal with the world’s extraordinary pre-occupation with the ‘how’ at the expense of spending time on the ‘why’ and ‘what’ and on the relationships among all three.