Two Kinds of Why

One of my favorite periods of life so far was a two-year stretch where, almost every other month, I was back and forth between a significant period of time in El Salvador (on the Pacific Coast of Central America, just south of Mexico & Guatemala) and the USA.


El Salvador’s place on the Pacific Coast, among other geological features such as heavy volcanic activity in the last thousands of years, means its beaches are almost always black sand – except in heavy rains when the whole beach churns awash with tumbled-smooth or chunky crags of rock in every color.


The locals love to spend time watching the waves, surfing, or (in between trips to the volcanoes, lakes, waterfalls or other beautiful outlooks) sitting at a bar overlooking the palm trees, sunsets, and mountains…. then clamoring out into the water.


In addition to black sand and stony beaches, one of El Salvador’s most famous landmarks is the rocky mass at Playa El Tunco, a funky hulking rock that looks like a suckling pig roasting on a spit, lain on its back out beyond the beaches and amidst its surfing waves.


One of my favorite lessons about life from months at El Salvador’s beaches came from a Salvadorean friend, stepping over big stones one day as a cold, slippery wind blew through the air.

“Do you know why your feet get all of these wrinkles from the water?” he asked.

“Of course I know,” I thought eagerly! In bathtubs all over the US, kids are proud to learn early that your skin not only just enjoys water, but soaks it up, too — sponging it inside until the texture of your fingerprints is all warped from the places the water’s seeped in to hide.

I said something like this cheerfully, proud to chirp the right answer even if the exact science of the porey absorbent things in our skin, and what-exactly-is-going-on-in-between-the-wrinkles weren’t REALLY things I had much more to comment on.

“Cool,” my friend said. “But do you know why?”

Ooh, the science wasn’t what he was looking for!

Instead, my friend offered helpfully (picking up his foot to show how he wasn’t slipping, as he climbed over a larger stone) — “Our feet pick up the water to get these wrinkles so we can stick to the rocks when they’re wet. Otherwise we’d slip off. The texture of the wrinkles helps us not to slip!” He confidently stepped up the side of a rock formation, trusting his feet, with sticky gecko feet confidently unburdened by aquasocks or other waterproof foot-protectors aiding (or overriding) his feet’s natural texturosity.

I think of this moment so often, not necessarily when my fingerprints get wrinkly, but in terms of the meaning of “Why.”

What’s going on with these different Whys?

When in the US we ask why (or are asked), we’re in the habit of asking for the diagnostic science, the reason or mechanism by which it is true, for proof of how it happens as a way of proving it’s real.

“Why did you go to the college you chose?”
“Why did you become a college professor?”
“Why did Picasso paint so often in blue during that one long period?”

We’re so accustomed to looking inside for some perfect story to explain this kind of why.

“I chose this college because it was the PERFECT FIT for ME.”
“I became a professor because I’ve always loved to teach.”
“Picasso painted in blue because, clearly, he was sad.”

But how often is that internally diagnostic answer useful, if not incorrect?

In my friend’s rendition and answer, I found myself so refreshed, intrigued and curious about the many benefits of HIS why that mine didn’t seem to carry gladly. When HE used why, he primed himself less to analyze something compared to its potential or someone else, but instead uncovered great gems such as “what for?” “What good might it do us? How could we utilize it? How could this become a gift, if we pair it with other things and get creative?”

Picasso, by the way, painted in blue (according to my high school Art History teacher) not because he was sad, but because he was poor and blue paint was cheaper. (A cite for this in today’s internet wasn’t forthcoming, but the NYTimes is onto Picasso’s love for less expensive materials, noting that he was one of the first artists to switch from typical artist’s paint to the cheaper, more ubiquitous house paint. A different kind of why indeed.)

The implications

These days, in my practice of innovation methodologies, consulting, and complex problem solving, this span of “Whys” adds a huge range of new potential juice to exercises like The Five Whys, or even dialog in companies about “why” we do what we do.

One take on “why,” the diagnostic “why,” takes us deeper into an historic root, an internal root cause, an examination of cause and effect, typically from a “past,” “always,” “objective,” “fixed,” “scientific,” “testable,” or “externally validated” point of view.

This why SEEMS more fixed and credible at the outset, though in reality there are many situations in complex problem solving where we don’t ever get to know the full information, and where we relearn again and again that even the history we’re all agreed on as true turns out to have second, third, fourth dimensions as others involved with a particular decision or workflow add in their perspective or story.

In other words, the diagnostic “why” seems immediately delightful and drawing for its certainty — when, in reality, frequently this certainty turns out to be partial (or, worse yet, silently misleading or false).

This second type of “why,” however, a kind of why that asks, “to what end?” or “for what use?” — can ground us in the present and bubble up interesting hypotheses about the utility, motivations, benefits, extra perks, usability, advantages, or hidden reasons for existence of A Thing, without tending to go so far into the past. My friend’s reason “why” our feet draw up water not only gave him a cool brain fact to share, but made him wildly more confident at climbing on the rocks than I was – as it almost certainly had, for him, since a young age – and in doing so inspired him to practice more.

This “why” can give us awareness of superpowers we already possess, confidence, excitement to practice, and a cool inside scoop on the way things already work that we can pass along to new colleagues and friends.

It’s subjective and personal, perhaps, but it owns that subjectivity — the second you test it and disprove it, you’re still in active dialog with a present-day process, not caught in deep discomfort arguing over history with a fixed perspective while data’s no longer pulling for your side.


Next time you ask why, or find yourself spooling (United States of American-style) for a diagnostic and peace-makingly Certain explanation when someone ELSE asks you why, try letting go of this one definition in favor of the other.

Where could one versus the other lead you over the next 6-12 months?



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