Something in the persistent question “how?” expresses each person’s struggle between having confidence in their capacity to live a life of purpose and yielding to the daily demands of being practical. It is possible to spend our days engaged in activities that work well for us and achieve our objectives and still wonder whether we are making a difference in the world.
My premise is that this culture, and we as members of it, have yielded too quickly to what is doable, practical, and popular. In the process, we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts. We find ourselves giving in to our doubts and settling for what we know how to do or can soon learn to do instead of pursuing what most matters to us and living with the adventure and anxiety that this requires.
We often avoid the question of whether something is worth doing by going straight to the question, “How do we do it?” In fact, when we believe that something is definitely not worth doing, we are particularly eager to start asking How? We can look at what is worth doing at many different levels: As an individual, I can wonder whether I can be myself and do what I want and still make a living. For an organization, I can ask for whose sake does this organization exist, and does it exist for any larger purpose than to survive and be economically successful? As a society, have we replaced a sense of community and civic engagement for economic well-being and the pursuit of our private ambition?
Too often, when a discussion is dominated by questions of How? we risk overvaluing what is practical and doable and postponing the questions of larger purpose and collective well-being. With the question How? we risk aspiring to goals that are defined for us by the culture and by our institutions at the expense of pursuing purposes and intentions that arise from within ourselves.
While there are many positive values to our desire for concrete action and results, it does not ensure that what we are doing serves our own larger purpose or acts to create a world that we can believe in—in other words, a world that matters. Thus, the pursuit of How? can act to avoid more important questions, such as whether what we are doing is important to us, as opposed to being important to them. While we do create value when we pursue what is important to others, it is different from doing what is important to us.
If knowing How? offers us the possibility of more control and predictability, then we may have to sacrifice them to pursue what matters. The choice to worry about why we are doing something more than how we do something is risky business. It is risky for us as individuals, for our organizations, and for society.
Choosing to act on “what matters “is the choice to live a passionate existence, which is anything but controlled and predictable. The alternative to asking How? is saying Yes – not literally, but as a symbol of our stance toward the possibility of more meaningful change and change that promises real commitment to what draws us into what matters.
To commit to the course of acting on what matters, we postpone the How? questions and precede them with others that begins to shift us from “what works” to “what matters.” Taken in isolation and asked in the right context, all How? Questions are valid. But, when they become the primary questions, the controlling questions, or the defining questions, they create a world where operational attention drives out the human spirit.
How Question 1: How do you do it?
Yes Question 1: What refusal have I been postponing?
How Question 2: How long will it take?
Yes Question 2: What commitment am I willing to make?
How Question 3: How much does it cost?
Yes Question 3: What is the price I am willing to pay?
How Question 4: How do you get others to change?
Yes Question 4: What is my contribution to the problem I am concerned with?
How Question 5: How do we measure it?
Yes Question 5: What is the crossroad at which I find myself at this point in my work/life?
How Question 6: How are other people doing it successfully?
Yes Question 6: What do we want to create together?
When we look for tools and techniques which are part of the How? Question, we preempt other kinds of learning. If we want to know what really works, we must carefully decide which are the right questions for this moment. Picking the right question is the beginning of action on what matters, and this is what works. This is how we name the debate, by the questions we pursue, for all these questions are action steps. Good questions work on us; we don’t work on them. They are not a project to be completed but a doorway opening onto a greater depth of understanding and action that will take us into being more fully alive.
Written by Peter Block