Superstars Ask Why

Having been in the professional workplace since 1980 and in workers’ compensation since 1990, I have observed a few things about people. They’re all different (thanks, Captain Obvious). Some people are competent at their assigned tasks and some are not. Some people’s attitude about their work, workplace, colleagues and life in general is very positive and others make me cringe. Some are passionate (even joyful) about what they do on a daily basis while others obviously hit the snooze on their alarm clock several times before being required to confront their day. With each of those examples, what I mentioned first is an indicator of success; the second … not-so-much. However, I want to focus on a different innate (but learnable skill) personality trait that I think is the best indicator that someone will fully achieve their potential.

Some people seek the answer to “what” or “how” when they are doing a task at work, at home, with friends or in the community. They want to know the roadmap for satisfactorily completing the job. Some prefer learning by reading documented steps, others prefer learning by watching others (especially on YouTube), still others prefer to learn by trying it themselves and adjusting as they succeed or fail. Knowing “what” needs to be done and “how” to do it is a key foundation to being successful at anything, otherwise you’re aiming at a target you don’t fully see. Without a baseline understanding of the process it takes and what successful completion looks like, there is no hope of actually achieving the goal. People that fully understand the “what” and “how” and execute it flawlessly repeatedly will ultimately be successful.

But they will not be superstars.

That is reserved for those that do not stop at “what” or “how” but continue on to ask “why.”

I learned this lesson early on in my professional career. I was surrounded by a lot of people in my entry-level position as a “mainframe computer paper handler” (it was as cool as it sounds – from 7pm to 7am I loaded boxes of paper into a printer the size of a couch and collated the printed paper for distribution). During down time I wandered over to the operators (those controlling the mainframe computer that took up an entire building floor but had less computing power than my current smartphone) to see “what” they were doing and “how” they were doing it. But I also asked “why” they were doing it. The “why” I wanted to know was more than motivation – they wanted their paycheck – but “why” they did one thing instead of another. The options they were presented and the choices they made intrigued me. It helped me build a methodology to make decisions that increased the likelihood of good outcomes. Knowing the steps was important, but knowing the “why” helped me better understand how to address scenarios that weren’t written in the book.

Has your career or your personal life not always gone “by the book?” Let’s just limit it to the last six months … has anything “gone by the book” in the age of COVID-19? I didn’t think so. You know “what” to do and “how” to do it. Going further to know “why” gives you an opportunity to create the wisdom and motivation to achieve your goals.

Management noticed my naturally inquisitive nature and I quickly joined the operators at the console as their peer. Fortunately, that personality trait has continued throughout my life. I could share many other stories. Like the business owner for whom I did programming consulting that ended up becoming a personal and business mentor as we talked about business and life. I still remember his investment in me. Or seeking the “why” for over-prescribing painkillers after reading tens of thousands of pages of medical records in claims offices around the country made it obvious we could do better. It was my investment in me. If you think back, you can probably remember situations where diving in more deeply by asking “why” provided insights that made you better.

Those that ask “why” – and don’t stop until they know – become superstars. So next time you’re tempted to stop at “what” and “how,” take the next step to make yourself great and ask “why.

Mark PewThe RxProfessorEducator and Agitator