Reason Why or Thinking How?

Earl R. Smith II. PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

Some of my mentoring engagements focus on the personal tendencies of my clients. Those journeys take us into very personal areas; many of which have been either avoided or ignored for many years. One of the most productive assaults centers around a tendency that is ubiquitous among humans – enabled by the human capacity for selective memory.

Explanations instead of solutions: There are many self-help gurus who insist that the secret to present behavior is to be found in your past experiences – ‘the past is prologue’. Most forms of analysis are centered on this idea. The theory is that, if you can come to terms with why you are doing something – behaving in certain self-destructive or self-limiting ways – you will be able to change those behaviors. There is a fundamental flaw here. If it was true then historians would be making current history as they analyze the past. But they aren’t.

The problem is that analysis tends to generate explanations rather than solutions. You may end up knowing ‘why’ you are behaving in a self-destructive way and find that, having the explanation, you are not able to make the changes necessary to stop the behavior.


This is an important and very subtle point that merits careful reflection. All self-destructive or self-limiting behaviors interpenetrate attempts to analyze them. Following the observation ‘no matter where you go, there you are’, the tendency to be this way or that cannot be left behind when thinking about the tendency to be this way or that.


The Simplistic Holistic: Another weakness of analysis of the past as a foundation for changing the future is that it tends to focus too broadly. It ignores the ancient wisdom – a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In fact, too much reflection on the past can result in analysis paralysis. Life becomes like those nightmares that we all experience at least once – of being rooted in a spot and dreading the approach of some calamity. Many forms of analysis only serve to increase the dread. They give you no guidance that can be translated into effective action.

‘How’ Not ‘Why’: You see, the question that you need to ask begins with ‘how’ rather than ‘why’. I remember working with a client a few years back. Sam was a very successful, well educated and literate senior executive. He had a tendency to self-sabotage that was very frustrating. Sam had built, or participated in the building of, several companies. He was widely recognized as someone who could ‘pull it together and make it work’. But, sooner or later, his tendencies began to destabilize the companies.

As our sessions began, it was clear that Sam had a very good grasp of the history and impact of his behaviors. He could talk for hours about how he behaved and why he thought that he behaved that way. But it quickly became clear that he had no idea about how to stop behaving that way. He was an expert on ‘why’ he behaved as he did but could not answer the question ‘how’ do I behave differently.

The Simplistic Holistic Revisited: As we worked through our sessions, I began to challenge Sam to come up with ideas – ways that he could change his behavior. At first, the conversations tended to return to the analysis. The habit of substituting reflection for action was strongly rooted in his personality. But we persisted. Things got so hot a number of times that I was almost fired as his coach. Once he actually fired me. But he learned that I was more dedicated to his success than he was and, slightly embarrassed at the time, he returned to the engagement.

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