From How to Why

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“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” Man Ray (Photographer and Painter)

It’s natural at the beginning of one’s career to become consumed by asking “How?” for it seems the mistakes we make will never end. We’ll make a deal with the devil to give just one flawless presentation or conduct one flawless class. Eventually we discover that “flawless” is as plentiful in this world as hens’ teeth, which is to say not very.

As I sit here with my cup of decaf in the waning afternoon, I’m wondering about the transition from when we ask only “How?” to when we mostly ask “Why?” about our work. Part of me thinks that it should be a mystical, fantastical experience, like seeing a double rainbow with leprechauns dancing at its many feet. An epiphany of the highest order, you might say.

I doubt this is true, though, for most of us. How about you?

In my case, I think the transition started with a piece of advice from my principal after she observed me in class one day back when Paul McCartney’s hair was still naturally long and brown. She told me to be ever aware of what she called the “triangle of attention.” When you’re standing close to an audience, imagine a line projecting straight forward from the center of your torso. She suggested that we can only pay close attention to those people who are seated no further to our side than 30o in either direction from this center line, making a triangle with ourselves at one corner. Her point then was that it would be easy for students outside that triangle to escape my attention, and thus get away with bad behavior.

She was concerned far more with bad behavior than I was and it wasn’t long before I started to think of that triangle of attention as a triangle of influence. I could have the most direct impact on those seated within that triangle – and impact was what I wanted to create when I was in front of that room. Because without impact I wasn’t really teaching.

That’s when the “how” of the triangle of attention became the “why” of the triangle of influence. For what is teaching if we are not intentional about where we direct our impact? And what is teaching if we don’t have impact with our work?

How about you? When did you make the transition from asking “How” to asking “Why?”

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