A 4-Year-Old’s Question That You Need to Answer

I’ve decided that our 4-year-old selves were on to something. Remember the questions that unlocked everything at that age? Why and Why Not? We asked them in rapid succession about anything and everything. They were the key to making sense of our life.

Why is the sky blue? Why do we have to get shots? Why?? And we can’t forget the all-powerful counterpoint. Why not? Why can’t we take a train to school? Why can’t we fly?

My children were masterful at these questions. But as parents, we tire of the repetition and often resort to “just because.” Now that I’m supposedly grown up, I’ve decided that these toddler questions are the key to both what drives us and what holds us back. And we are a little too comfortable with the “just because,” especially when talking about ourselves.

Think of the impact on the big problems in the world if they had had a big dose of “why?” or “why not?” The Madoff Ponzi scheme, the financial crisis or why the executive team faces all look the same. These two basic questions also work pretty well when we look in the mirror.

Why? If you are on a path, asking “why” (with multiple repeats) can be revealing. I just got a big dose of “why” in the last few months and it helped me know what to do. Like many others, I’ve been thinking and talking about writing a book for a number of years. When I shared my plan with a mentor, it went something like this…

Me: I think I’d really like to write a book.

Her: Interesting. Why?

Me: Because I can share my experiences and ideas with my clients.

Her: You don’t need a book to share your ideas with your clients—you are doing that now. Why do you want to write a book?

Me: I think my clients will be interested and it will complement the work that we do.

Her: That may be, but a book takes time and you don’t have much of it. Why do you think it fits with your goals? Why?

Me: OK!!! It’s on my bucket list! I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that I’ve shared some of what I think and know! And I’m willing to sacrifice some of my time to do it! My grandmother encouraged me at an early age and I love to write. (Ahhh, finally.) This was really over a couple of longer conversations, but you get the idea. She helped me get to my “why” and it has stuck with me. Knowing why is key for deep-down motivation and essential when we have to make sacrifices to do it.

Why not? We all have blinders and well-engrained habits that define what we think we can do. Asking “why not” pokes at those limitations, to see what’s real or just our own small view of ourselves.

A few years ago I was a mentor to a woman who wanted to start her own business, but she’d have to sell products and services to others to be successful. She quickly ruled it out because she felt she could never sell anything. After asking “why not” a few times she said she didn’t have the right relationships to sell.

Then the next big “why not” was that she didn’t have relationships because she didn’t spend time staying in touch with, or meeting new, people. She said it didn’t come naturally and, of course, relationships take special effort and time. We got to her core limiting belief.

Then it was her decision if she wanted to change or not. She did learn new habits and eventually conquered her fears. She has a growing business today.

“Why not” can help you go down to the ground and determine if the limitations are self-imposed and if you want to do something about it or not. I am working on my “why nots” daily, as there are many things I want to change and do in my life.

And, sometimes, the hill may be too big, but sometimes it’s not. It may just take working harder, getting help or reprioritizing.

“Why not” can help you figure that out. Now you have an excuse to have a cup of milk, revisit nap time and go back to those favorites from when you were 4. You might be surprised at what you can learn about yourself. After all, why not?

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Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.

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