Why are you doing it like that?

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I started doing what I do when I was a child.

My father would design and draw at home, so I watched what he was doing, and I was keen to help him. I wanted to do what he did. And so, in true father-and-son spirit, he would show me, and I would have a go.

As I grew up, I would ask him lots of questions, and he would answer them.

Many questions were straightforward, such as ‘what’s this for?’ and ‘how do you do this?’. To his eternal credit, he was always very patient and happy to explain everything to me. But the questions that I found most revealing, the ones that would elicit the most interesting answers, were invariably ‘why’ questions, particularly, ‘why are you doing it like that?’.

Unlike the answers to other questions, these were often preceded by long pauses while he thought about things. Usually they involved stories. Such as how he used to do things, or how his father had done them or what was standard practice in the industry and why he did things differently. How in the early days, things had been done one way, but now, with the advent of this device or that regulation, it was all different. Depending on what was being done, it could lead to all sorts of revelations, of battles won or lost and of characters that had helped or hindered.

That simple question was like a geologist’s hammer that, when applied with a gentle tap to the right rock, would split it apart to reveal a previously unseen world. Of course, when asked innocently and with curiosity, (rather than aggressively and critically) that question has embedded within it, some other, implied questions. For instance, ‘of all the ways that this could be done, why are you doing it this way?’, ‘you have thought about it, haven’t you?’, ‘you do know what you’re doing, don’t you?' and ‘you are sure that your way is the best way, aren’t you?’.

So it turns out that my simple, child-like question, asked in everyday terms, possibly preceded with, ‘Err, out of interest….’ or ‘I was just wondering….” or “I’m fascinated to know…..” is actually quite powerful. It simultaneously questions what we think, what we believe and what we do.

In the time since then, in my chosen field of architecture, I have asked that question many times. I’ve asked it of builders, craftsmen, consultants, regulators, clients and colleagues. I’ve learnt a lot in the process, and my experience is much the richer for it. The answers that I have received can be broadly assigned to two categories. There are those that follow the pattern of my father’s answers, ie considered, self-aware, and knowledgeable. And then there are those that can be summarised by the following often-heard responses:

‘It’s how I’ve always done it’.

‘It’s how I was told to do it’.

‘I don’t know’.

In the early part of my career, I tended to think that these two types of responses represented two different kinds of people. On the one hand you have skilled and expert professionals or craftsmen, knowledgeable and aware of their position within their trade. On the other, there are those that are not very good at what they do or have, to some extent, fallen asleep on the job.

But then, finding myself at the mid-point of my career, ‘life’ happened. Like most people, I suffered failure and setback as well as success and triumph. At various times I lost confidence in my ability to be as good as I wanted to be. Increasingly, self-doubt set in, and I frequently applied my question to myself. I thought about things, probably over-thinking them, and concluded that I too had nodded off on duty.

"To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction”. 
From ‘How to Think: A survival guide for a World at Odds’ by Alan Jacobs.

But I was wrong. Now that I am in, let’s say, the mature stage of my career I have a different view of things. I realise that, no matter how good we are at what we do, there are always vast subject areas that we take for granted. Knowledge about ways of doing things that are handed down to us without question, that are built into our training or that are generally accepted as the norm in our industry. It is impossible for us to be conscious of everything that we do and without shortcuts and cultural-conditioning, we just wouldn’t be able to function.

Which means that, depending on the subject at hand, we are all capable of delivering the two categories of response that I described earlier. But they shouldn’t be seen as signals of competence and rather than feel guilty about those things that we can’t explain, it is much better to become conscious of them; to see them as opportunities to explore and dig deeper; to brandish our geologists hammer and tap them to reveal previously unseen worlds.

Further resource:

How to get better at the things you care about – Eduardo Briceno, TedX Manhattan Beach November 2016