What is your why? Part 2 – Sharing, questioning and committing to the why

whyA few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of knowing your why. Over the last few days, I realized that it is equally important to understand each other’s why. To me, this was the best type of realization you can have. When it finally comes together in your mind, it feels as if you have always known it, but suddenly a light shined on it in a way that you didn’t see possible before.

Three elements led to this reflection. First is the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann, which I’ve been reading for a while now. Second, an ESPN documentary about John Calipari, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, who my father would argue symbolizes all that is wrong with college sports today. Finally, a Heineken ad that brings together people with opposing viewpoints.

While I am still completing the book, I’ve taken away two key points so far. Our brains are lazy and WYSIATI (What you see is all there is). Kahnemann’s research is extensive and was mostly done with his late colleague Amos Tversky and is often credited as starting the field of Behavioral Economics. His research led him to believe that we have two systems of thinking (System 1 and 2) and that System 1, which focuses on finding the easiest solution or response, frequently dominates our thinking. This is mainly because our brain assumes that what you see is all there is (WYSIATI). Unless we train our brain to use System 2 thinking, which questions our initial thoughts and digs deeper into a question or situation, we are led to some glaring fallacies and misconceptions. Essentially, we rarely take enough time to truly understand someone or something, because it is easier to work with limited knowledge and draw limited conclusions that feel right. As Kahnemann’s research points out, however, these conclusions are often incredibly wrong, even for people who are relatively adept at system 2 thinking.

When I started watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 about Calipari, I can honestly say that my system 1 was in control and my skepticism was quite high. In my mind, I had heard enough stories to know that Coach Cal’s controversial exits at UMass and Memphis proved what my dad has been saying all those years – he was just another coach in it for the money, not the kids. Watching this documentary made me realize that, until we understand someone’s why, our judgment is nothing but a limited understanding leading to a unreliable conclusion. In each part of the documentary, the story behind all of those story I had read or heard, showed so much more. Calipari had good intentions and focused on the well-being of his athletes. I will say that there are a few elements that I still question about the controversial situations at each college he has coached. However, by knowing his story, it is easy to see why players want to play for him and why he has made many of his choices. I am sure there are people who still disagree with Calipari’s methods and decisions, but it would be unfair to say that greed and arrogance are the driving forces behind his actions. At least for me.

I had written a paragraph highlighting the positives of the Heineken ad yesterday. Fortunately, this morning I read a post by Didi Delgado that made me realize I had allowed my system 1 thinking to keep me from seeing other elements in the ad. I rewrote this paragraph here to show that, even with good intentions, it is critical to question ourselves and each other. Critical questions allow us to dig deeper and make sure that our why is truly valid and valuable. Knowing someone else’s why is important, but that doesn’t mean we should always accept it without question.

When two students are arguing in school, my main goal when sitting down with the students is to help them hear each other; to hear each other’s why. If I am frustrated or disappointed with a student, one of the best things I can do is learn the student’s why. Often times, these conversations, especially student to student, don’t lead to a solution, but a better understanding. Without the time to talk, most students would never reach this understanding.

As Delgado points out, sometimes questioning the why is essential. For example, giving equal weight to the bully during conflict resolution can be counterproductive. If a student’s explanation doesn’t feel right, questioning their why encourages them to reflect on their actions and recognize that the why wasn’t valid or valuable. If I am in discussion with a student, I might hear their why and realize that my actions were unnecessary and I need to recalibrate for the future.

Teacher to teacher, we need to share our whys and question them, too. Over the years, I have had a lot of ideas that I thought were brilliant and innovative only to have another teacher or administrator question me. My best colleagues and supervisors were at their best when they explained their why – why they were nervous about my idea, why they were scared to go ahead with a plan that others might question or frown upon. Being questioned was frustrating at first, particularly if I didn’t understand their why. What I realized, however, is that their questions made me solidify my why. And, if my why was strong enough, I could convince myself and them that the idea was valuable. I originally viewed their questioning of my why as the problem, but the sharing of our whys led to an incredibly valuable solution.

Teachers should expect each other to share their whys, with students and other teachers. Being honest, vulnerable, and empathetic make for much more meaningful relationships, one that can inspire a student to go much further than expected or motivate a colleague to take a chance on a new idea. While the idea of being empathetic or really listening to someone’s why is far from innovative, committing to it might be. Let’s challenge each other to share the driving force behind our decisions more often and question those whys in a way that helps us all grow as a result.


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