I love words. I tried to read the dictionary when I was 9 (yes, I was a big geek then too. I made it through the B’s.). My favorite board game, the only board game I will ever play, is Scrabble. I love how the right words strung together sounds like shimmering, cascading rhythms. And when those words move people to think or act? As MasterCard would say, Priceless!
So you can imagine that choosing the one, most powerful word was a challenging task indeed. It’s not “no.” It’s not “think,” or “me,” or “butt” as my kids had hoped. The most powerful word in the world is…
Think about it. It’s the one word that sparks dread in the heart of parents everywhere when their child utters it for the five millionth time. Political and religious regimes must experience a similar dread when even one person asks–openly or not–“why” about a practice or belief that has been held for so long, no one even thinks about it anymore, let alone questions it.
It’s a word that can illuminate new ideas. Open minds to new possibilities. Open hearts to accept what is unacceptable. Some will do everything in their power to quash anyone from ever uttering this word lest their whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
“Why” is one of the first words that pops into the mind upon hearing bad news: illness, loss, death. Why? we ask. Why me? Why her? Why him? Why now? Why why why? Funny how we never say that when good things happen, say, winning the lottery or getting a promotion. Then we say, “I never have to work again!” “Cool!” “I earned it!” We don’t question why. We know.
Many religions say it is not our place to ask why. It’s God’s will, they say. We are all entitled to our beliefs. But I’d like to propose that the word “why” be used to do more good than evil. It’s a powerful word because it can move obstacles out of our way. It can move us out of our own way.
If you are a marketer or own a business or need to understand how to motivate people, you must start by asking “why.” This is contrary to how many people think, those who like to start with the “what.” What will this campaign look like? What trinket will we send people? What do we want to say? But first, you need take a big step back and ask why: why are we doing this? Why should people care? The who, what, where, when and how will all evolve from there.
Creative professionals understand the power of Why. The other day I was discussing a new project with a graphic artist. I described the image we wanted to create for a project, how it had to instantly convey motion, energy, change. I mentioned that I had not come up with any copy for him to work into the visual, and he said, why do we need any?
In my mind, I saw the image telling a story. But I was stuck trying to figure out the words for that story. When the artist questioned why it had to say anything, it freed me to let go of my preconceived notion of what this creative piece should be or do. Why indeed?
Discussing creative ideas is like trying to catch air in your hand. Ideas are a nebulous, fluid, vaporous thing. Not everyone is comfortable with talking about things that you can’t see or touch. Rules and rigidity, walls and fences are built for a reason, they say. If we’re going to make everything open concept, all hell will break loose, they fear.
Living with “why” is like living by the seat of your pants. It’s not second-nature to everyone. But it is for creative people. We are constantly asking why this, why that, why why why. (We have this in common with toddlers, apparently.) We have to. It’s how we are hardwired. And if you don’t think of yourself as creative, well, you can learn to be more open to Why. You may never love it. You may never live it. But you will know when you get stuck that sometimes, it helps to ask why.
What if more people had asked, Why should we buy a bigger house? Why do I need to buy the expensive car/purse/shoes/stuff/stuff/and more stuff? Why do I need to eat unhealthy food? Why don’t I try a new career? Why do we have to live in this town? Why does my story have to end this way? Why does my character have to twitch his eyebrows? Why do my kids have to look perfect every time they walk out the door? Why do I think it’s a sin to be gay? Why am I so closed-minded? Why do I steal? Why do I cheat? Why do I lie? Why do I hate myself? Why do I feel like I’ve lost my mojo? Why am I here?
Thinking and contemplating aren’t typically high on society’s list of to-do’s. Stopping to ask why isn’t always fun. It can be annoying for people who like rules and fences or hate change. But it’s important to question, to test the boundaries, to see what other options exist. To make sure you are seeing the whole landscape and not just your favorite flower.
So the next time you are stuck at an impasse in your work or relationship, try using the most powerful word in the world on yourself. Journal it. Talk it out with someone you trust. You might be surprised at the answers you find–and the creativity and freedom that come from one tiny, three-letter word.