4 Year Olds may not be right about many things. For example, hitting your siblings, throwing a tantrum when things aren’t going your way or picking your nose and eating it aren’t things that are generally considered as ‘right’. Not only is there little nutritional value in eating what comes out of your nose, but these are all forms of infantile behaviour that you probably should have left behind a long time ago. What 4 year olds are excellent at though, and us adults not so good, is playing the why game.
If you have ever experienced an annoying 4 year old, or played what is known as ‘the why game’ with someone, you will know that it can be pretty challenging. It might look a little something like this:
4YO: Why are you laughing at that man on the TV?
You: Because he said something funny.
You: Because it’s his job to make people laugh.
You: Because that’s what he is good at and so what he decided to.
You: Because he was born with that skill.
*explanation of genes, evolution and the cosmos to a small child*
You get the idea. That particular why game could go on forever and you either hit the boundary of your own human knowledge or you go for the classic ‘because it is’ because you either don’t know or are sick of playing the why game. It’s often a bit of both.
But what if the 4 year olds are onto something?
Obviously the example above was a bit of fun, but what playing the why game involves is getting right down to the bottom of a belief or a statement. When applied to other parts of life, its smart name is reasoning from first principles. It is not taking anything for a fact, placing the concept under a huge microscope and zooming in as far as you can go.
The Why Game – Business Application and General Terms
Playing the why game with business concepts and in general terms is not only a fun game to play while avoiding other responsibilities like essay deadlines and revision, but it can also be very useful in deconstructing and understanding how the world we know works, what the faults are and how it can be improved.
Take Elon Musk for an example, one of the best at being able to reason from first principles and mastering the why game. Here is a business example he used about batteries:
Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
This isn’t even genius thinking, it’s just original and rational thinking.
One of the most revolutionary business people of the the modern day, Ricardo Semler, has a rule in which if something doesn’t pass the test of 3 whys in a row, then it gets scrapped. Why are we spending money on advertising? Why do we only have one staff event a year? Why do we wear suits to work? If there aren’t 3 good, consecutive answers to why for each method, then they are out.
The why game can also be applied to any general concept, even things as simple as being scared of the dark. Here is another example from a young Elon:
When I was a little kid I was really scared of the dark, but then I came to understand that the dark just means an absence of photons in the visible wavelength: 400 to 700 nanometers.
Then I thought, well it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons, so I wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore after that.
Okay, admittedly I will most likely never reach the why game level of even a 4 year old Elon Musk, who I imagine exhausted the why game day in and day out. However, the concept and process remains the same. Zooming all of the way in until things make sense or most often, don’t make sense at all.
Try this as an example: Why am I afraid of spiders and/or any other type of insect? You might just develop a liking or at least a tolerance for the little guys. Its a win-win for you both.
The Why Game – The Bigger Game of Life
It has been pretty lighthearted up to this point, laughing at our annoying but seemingly interesting 4 year old selves. Applying the why game and first principles to general concepts such as why is the sky blue or why are batteries so expensive are relatively straightforward. It is all external looking, things that we can figure out from zooming in on external sources such as science, economics, politics etc.
But what happens when we apply the why game to our own lives?
This may seem simple too but to actually zoom in internally is an extremely diffcult concept. It is the why game that myself and most people struggle with and a game that I imagine I will, and probably should, be playing forever.
You can literally take any aspect of your life, from relationships, to values, to beliefs, to habits, to how you dress, to how you think about other groups/stereotypes and de-construct it using a series of whys. Doing this you are going to arrive at a few possible destinations:
True self – this is when after applying why after why, you arrive at the answer ‘because this is what I want/know based on my own experiences, independent thinking and reasoning from first principles’. This is extremely rare to arrive at immediately and should be what you aim to get in touch with sometime in the future.
Because x says so – if you are playing a brutally honest why game, this will be the most common finding and the most difficult to accept. Your ‘own experiences and thinking’ will often be disguised at the roots as a ‘because x says so’. Here are some you may stumble across:
Because my dad says so, because my religion says so, because my teacher says so, because the media says so, because my generation says so, because my friends say so, because my political party says so, because a celebrity I like says so, because the movies say so, because conventional wisdom says so…
For me personally, I see a lot of this in politics, where people accept a block of beliefs that are provided ‘ready-made’ for them by a particular party or group, with their impenetrable and unnegotiable castle walls up and reinforced by the people they choose to surround themselves with. This is done rather than taking what they believe to be true, asking a series of why questions and uncovering the real reasons for having that point of view or belief.
Or with conventional wisdom where there is just smoke and mirrors and ancient beliefs that are no longer relevant.
Tensions between generations where there is often not a whole lot of communication or empathy.
To be honest, it exists everywhere and I have noticed it as much in my own life as anywhere else.
The ‘us against them’ mentality is not only the most detrimental for societal progress, but also for personal progress and contentment. Reasoning from first principles, playing the why game and thinking for yourself all aim to combat and surmount these primal and damaging behaviours.
The Why Game – Actions to Take
As far as we know, we are the only creatures on this earth that are capable of asking the question ‘why?’. While ants go about their daily work, pandas eat their bamboo and birds make their nests, we have the opportunity to ask why we do what we do. This gives us the unique chance to not only consciously benefit our own lives, but the lives of others around us too.
Here’s how to get started and improve with your own why game:
- Start out small. Remember all that time ago where we covered the light-hearted why games with the comedian on the tv and why people wear suits? Try that level and see how many things we do that don’t make much sense. Why am I dressed like this today? Why do I wet my toothbrush after I put the toothpaste on? (you probably think you know, but do you?)
- When you are ready, try and get stuck into the harder stuff. Why do I think this way about x, y and z? Why am I on the path that I am now?
Once you have played the why game a while and unmask many of the beliefs and ideas that aren’t really your own, you arrive at a shitty-but-also-liberating part: nothing in this world makes that much sense and you don’t really know who you are anymore. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal and I anticipate many more existential crisis to come myself.
But at least now you will know that what is left is actually you and can start rebuilding the business world, your personal world, your own values and start living the most awesome life that there is: your own.