Why ask why?

March 10, 2019
three minutes.

Watching the film Triple Frontier on Netflix the other night (spoiler):

Santiago - “Tom died for this money. Will you do it for him?”
Benny - “He didn’t die for that money, he died because of it.”

So why did Tom die?

When I hear the word why I still remember being surprised to discover that in Spanish it has (at least) two different translations:

  1. The first, “por qué?”, is related to mechanisms or preconditions from which some event was brought about. For example “why did the cat fall out of the window?”. There is no implication of intent but is rather asking about the circumstances leading up to an event. The “5 Whys” technique is an example of asking this kind of question.
  2. The second, “para qué?”, is about what is expected to be achieved by doing something - as in “Why did you throw the cat out of the window?No cats were harmed in the making of this post. . It’s about the purpose or intention of an action, an active voice.

It’s a subtle distinction and often forgotten in daily conversation but there are many examples. Compare the very different meanings of the question “why did you go to the supermarket?” with “why did you go to that supermarket?”.

Is it important or even interesting? Well, I think it is when reflecting about the choices we make.

If the reason you work where you do is because the office is close to your house then that’s a passive reason. On the other hand if it’s because it’s a job which fits with your interests and goals then that is an active reasonSimon Wardley breaks it down further and has two types of active why: (1) why of purpose, and (2) why of movement. The first is strategic and the second tactical, the latter typically instrumental to the first, for example winning the chess game vs moving the piece. Both these are active whys. .

Modern life seems to want to encourage active whys all the time. Business and project management are full of examples of this. Productivity techniques are always asking for goals and objectives. It’s kind of stressful.

On the other hand many people live their entire lives with passive whys. Some actively (and ironically) strive for it.

Back when I was a teenager, many many years ago, listening to some music with a friend, I suggested that some new song was nothing more than mindless noise. He said: “Not mindless, maybe senseless” and continued smoking his joint. He was right, of course, someone had spent a good deal of effort to create that noise, probably spending many hours in the studio not even counting the years learning the instruments, the editing equipment, etc. I guess that he spent that time because he wanted to and what other reason does he need?

I just completed a short course in phenomenology. Why? Will it be useful in my daily work? No. Will it help me make dinner tonight? No. I did it because I wanted to, and although that is a passive reason, for me it’s good enough. Expanding horizons, learning new things just because you want to is fine if done in moderation. Maybe that’s a kind of active why after all.

Like everything the key is balance. Active whys need to be balanced with passive ones. We are humans, not robots.

A paradox of modern life - take charge of your life but go with the flow.

I hope you find the right balance.

Why ask why? - March 10, 2019 - John Hearn