“Why not”. Two syllables, one question, and a myriad of possibilities. To some, hearing these words may seem insignificant. For me, this simple question is incredibly powerful. It opens our minds to new ideas and cannot be asked enough. I believe that our words hold a tremendous amount of value. If they are thought-provoking, that value is immeasurable.
When our thoughts are challenged and our mind is tested, we are forced to think creatively. It’s in these moments that the magic truly happens. This is when ideas are formed, when problems are solved, when inventions are created, when revolutions are started, and when progress is realized. Asking this question helps us accesses our full capabilities.
They encouraged us to participate in their debates and ask them questions whenever we needed clarification. Apart from discussing the day’s affairs, dinner was often a time to present us with short lessons or teach us about whatever life had in store for us.
Any chance they got they would find a way to translate the issues they were dealing with into a version that we could relate to. While math and science were handled at school, I learned more about taxes, investments, philosophy, and life in general at the kitchen table than I did in any classroom.
One of the most influential lessons I learned during these talks was the importance of the phrase “why not.” A graduate of Cornell, MIT, and North Carolina State University, my father has received some of the best education this country has to offer. He first presented the wonder behind the phrase “why not” to me about ten years ago. After discussing one of my older brother’s psychology projects, my dad digressed a bit to recall one of the more memorable lessons he learned as an undergrad.
He began to tell us about one of the philosophy tests he took while attending Cornell. Like most of the tests he took in this class, this one was a short answer format. It had a series of essay questions, of which only one had to be answered. Among the possible problems was the shortest test question I’ve ever heard of, “Why?”
I couldn’t understand how a teacher could grade students on their response to such a vague question that seemingly had no definite answer (college has helped me grow a little more accustomed to such practices by professors). Sensing my confusion, my father continued the lesson by leaning towards me to ask, “What would you have written?” Determined to come up with the correct answer, my mind began racing through every possible answer.
After a few frantic moments, I accepted that my efforts were to no avail. I couldn’t wrap my head around what the question was asking. The question “Why what?” kept popping into my head. My only explanation was that it needed more clarification.
Defeated, I admitted that I was stumped and asked my dad what he had written. My father laughed and said that he had left it blank too. Out of thirty some odd students, only one had attempted to answer that question, and they did so in less than a minute. As you may have guessed, this student simply wrote down “Why not?”
Again I was shocked. But this time I was happy about it. At first it was only because I loved how bold the idea of walking out of a test after writing two words sounded. But as I thought more about it, I began to realize how incredible the response was and why my dad had told us that story. Although I didn’t fully understand the magnitude behind “why not” at the time, there were two aspects of the answer that really stood out to me.
The first was how profound it was. It’s not that it was particularly hard to grasp, it was just something I’d never given much thought to. Responding with “why not?” can be both a question and a challenge to authority. This becomes incredibly powerful when it is used to reject a conventional thought to explore new ideas.
The Wright Brothers said “why not?” when people told them it wasn’t possible to fly, Roger Bannister thought “why not?” when everyone said humans couldn’t run a four minute mile, and Steve Jobs didn’t hesitate to ask “why not?” when he was told he wouldn’t be able to compete with Microsoft. At some point, every great innovator starts with the simple question “why not?”
The second aspect that stood out was its simplicity. After I realized the depth behind the response, I was immediately impressed by how effortless it was to get there. But the more I thought about it, the more it just made sense. Why should we always accept what is presented to us? Why shouldn’t we ask for more? Why not?
At that point in my life, this was probably the greatest philosophical understanding I’d experienced. The fact that it had only taken an exchange of three words to get there was remarkable to me. My whole academic career, the value in the answers had progressed linearly with the complexity of the problems and the methods to get there. But this disregarded that rule. “Simple is beautiful”. I’d heard it before, but I hadn’t truly appreciated it until then.
The end of my fall semester marked a major transitional period in my life. Despite my performance in my classes, I was no longer interested in pursuing an engineering career. At the same time, I decided to step away from an Internet marketing business that I had spent well over a year building. On top of all this, my soccer career came to an end, a moment almost 18 years in the making. Seemingly overnight, my schedule changed drastically. At one point I was actually confused by the amount of free time I had. There was a massive void in my life to say the least.
After a few weeks of growing restless and not knowing what to do with myself, the remedy to my situation presented itself to me. While working on a problem set, one of my good friends Nick told me there was a small MMA club at our school and that he’d recently attended one of their training sessions. Thinking I might be interested in joining, he asked me if I wanted to go with him the next time he went. At the time I didn’t know much about MMA, but I knew it was a great way to stay in shape, so I said, “sure, why not.” Flash-forward to the following weekend.
The leader of the group, Sean had about 40 pounds on me and grew up learning Maui Thai. He takes personal ownership in not only training the club, but also in breaking in each new member to gauge their skillset. Needless to say I was a little concerned going into this fight. Fortunately I didn’t have much time to think about what might happen before the stopwatch started counting down.
Sean obviously held back and I actually landed a few good punches, but I got absolutely worked for three minutes. If I had to guess, watching that fight was probably similar to watching a dog chase a laser pointer, a good mix of comical and hopeless.
The next day I was in a world of hurt, but a beautiful thing had happened the day before. For those of you that have never fought, the first time you take a good strong punch is an eye-opening experience. At first you’re in a state of shock and panic. You can feel your nervous system trying to frantically figure out what’s going on. But the fight’s not over and you have to continue to deal with the next combination. Eventually you get used to it. When this happens, when your body finally adjusts to the concept of getting hit, your fear escapes you.
The only way to conquer your fear and to grow as a person is to get out of your comfort zone and to face whatever fears are holding you back.
After Sean’s first two punches, my brain had accepted that I could survive getting hit. It was a surreal feeling and it all stemmed from the question “why not?” That experience was a gentle reminder of just how important that question is to me.
From then on I took it upon myself to embrace those two words again. In doing so, I’ve beyond filled the void that once existed. Over the past few months I’ve done more than I ever imagined. I went snowboarding for the first time, I took up rock climbing, I took a ballroom dancing class, I became a weekday vegetarian, I found an internship outside of my major, I went off-roading at 6,500 ft., met Jay-Z, worked out with a Victoria’s Secret model, and had a cook-off with a world renowned chef.
I beat the house gambling, I explored Lake Tahoe, I played soccer in the U.S. Open Cup, I went bridge jumping, I back-flipped out of an airplane, I gave a speech in front of 400 people, I began teaching myself how to play the guitar, I rode some of the highest, fastest rollercoasters in the world, I began collaborating on a smartphone app, I raised money for a volunteer trip in Kenya, I became a licensed Realtor, and I wrote a published article. In the same time I’ve traveled to seven states and six major U.S. cities. Within the next two months I will travel to two more continents.
While none of these events are anything to marvel at, they are all things that many people, including me, long to experience. Unfortunately, they are also things that the same people often allow themselves not to experience. The only reason I ended up doing them is not because I’m some amazing human being (I can promise you I’m no different than the average Joe on the street), it’s because I made a conscious decision to ask myself “why not?” That’s it. That’s all it takes.
My challenge for you is to remember those two words. Ask yourself “why not?” as much as you can. Ask “why can’t we do this?” and “why shouldn’t I experience that?” This is not a call to spontaneity, or a request to blindly say yes to every opportunity that presents itself. It’s simply a matter of considering all of the options that are in front of you before you make your decision. There’s nothing to lose, and in my experience, there’s an incredible amount to be gained. So why not try it?