Joan Didion on Why I Write

…it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.

Joan Didion


Thanks to Brain Pickings for reminding me of this quote. It's such a delicious quote about a IMG 1201 300x300 Joan Didion on Why I Writetopic I care deeply about. I too am a writer, compelled to pick up pencil and put to paper or to furiously type on a keyboard daily. Since I was a kid I've enjoyed many hours enamored with words on paper. While I've held a number of titles throughout my life–project manager, executive coach, CMO-for-Hire, buying assistant–being a writer is something that I am everyday regardless of my title. It's just a part of my genetic makeup. I simply can't help myself.

I have this notion that each of us have something that is so endemic to who we are that we are compelled to do it; a compulsion that comes within the deepest part of who you are. For me arranging words on paper is my compulsion. It helps me process my thoughts and to understand the world around me. When I am in my deepest despair you'll often find me curled into a corner of a library or bookstore. Once I've sorted through my thoughts I feel much more at ease. I suddenly know how to approach a problem or take a creative approach to a project. If I don't write for a day I just don't quite feel like myself.

Writing? It's just a part of who I am.

What is your compulsion? And what compels you to do it?

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The Problem Of Why

As a writer, marketer and community builder I've spent most of my professional life centered around the questions of Who, What, When, Where, How and Why. When I’m working with clients one of my favorite questions to lob at them that is “Why is that important?” or it’s twin, “Why does that matter?” Of course I liberally use other questions like “What do you want to accomplish?” or “How will this benefit you or your business?” but Why is a critical one. Given this you must wonder how on this planet I came up with the title for this blog post.

See, Why can actually be a very tricky word.

When Using Why Works
One of the first words a young child learns is invariably “Why?” This is a critical word for a wee one trying to make sense of a unfamiliar world even when they don’t understand that there is a world. When we’re sincerely looking for information Why can be one of the most useful conduits available to us. This very direct searching question can bore a hole through any piece of emotional or mental concrete to help you get to the core of something.

Answering the Whys are critical when it comes to building a business, a product or a life. This sort of Why question can uncover extremely useful information especially when confronted with a decision point. For example, if you’re building an app and you need to decide what the next features are going to be then asking “Why are we building this? Why will people use it over other apps?” is highly appropriate. If you want to decide what to do next with your career there are other apropos Why questions like “Why do I get out of bed in the morning? What excites me?” These are exceptionally good ways to use this power adverb.

The Problem Of Using Why In Feedback
There are times when asking Why is a much more tricky proposition. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in situations where things may not be going quite as you hoped or when direct feedback is needed.

When I trained to become an Executive Coach one of the things I was told to eliminate from my vocabulary was the question Why. The reasoning was that it would send someone into a different part of their brain where answers were harder to access. As coached more and more people over the next 10 years I found another reason to take care with the word Why. This type of question can have a distinctly critical feel to it setting people on a much more self-critical path of thinking when not applied appropriately. 

“Why aren’t you further with your goals?”
"Why aren’t you mak
ing more moneyIMG 1277 764x1024 The Problem Of Why?”
“Why did you do that?"

  Even without emoticons or a tone of voice providing cues you just sense the judgement inherent in these questions right?   While these questions may get directly at the source of friction within a person or a business they are also more likely to bring in the shame factor. Sometimes they’re not even really questions–more statements of fact aimed at blasting, humiliating or venting at the offending party–whether we aim them at ourselves or someone else. This kind of judgment has a way of wrapping its tendrils around a person's heart shutting off the flow. There are many things I don’t know but I do know that Shame is one of the least productive emotions out there. It’s one to be avoided at all costs. Often adopting this word as a form of judgment unnecessary drama. You don't need more of that now do you?

Know When & How to Use This Power Adverb
In some cases Why can be used effectively along with a tone that moves it more into the productive rather than the shame territory. When talking with others this is most easily and effectively achieved in person where a person can more readily feel, see and understand your tone. In written word take care when asking a question with a Why in it.

And sometimes really it’s about choosing a different word. To take the potential stinging shame that can accompany the big Why. To open someone up to what might be vulnerable questions rather than slamming their ego shut try one of the other power W’s.

“How can you achieve more of your goals?”
“What can you do to make more money?”
“Help me understand what motivates you."

This approach leads to a much more expansive conversation that asks the person to reflect and plumb the depths of their psyche for new insights that moves them much closer to their goals. People being happier, fulfilling long-held dreams, developing novel ideas that just might change the world–that’s what you want right?

If you want to be powerful in your interactions with others you must know when and how to use this power word.

Use it wisely.


Why You Need Engineers In Your Life

In my house we’re a bit sentimental about cars. My parents loved road trips so much that by the age of 16 I’d been to to every continental state but one. Our family car had a name: Bessie. We’d say “Do you think Bessie can get up this hill?” when in the mountains or “Bessie is a bit overheated and needs to rest.” when encountered with the blazing hot desert sun for too many hours. No matter which car we had her name was always Bessie. And when a car had to go to graveyard in the sky we’d mourn her as if we’d lost a member of the family. You might think we anthropomorphize our cars a bit too much but see, my dad is an engineer. For 30+ years he developed prototypes for GM. He worked on the really innovative, progressive stuff that often never saw the light of day but would advance the field with every project he undertook. Because he was an engineer who was also a mechanic, he loved to tinker on cars which meant we never drove new cars except for the company car he was given to drive.

When I 16 learned how to drive a car. Along with braking, blinkers and the value of bumpers I was taught three additional things:
1. How to drive a stick shift
2. How to dutifully write down the mileage and amount of gas at each fill-up
3. How to listen to your car

Although all three have been very useful in my driving history it’s the third one that has had the biggest impact on my life. When I got my first car, a 1979 dark blue hatch back Aster, my dad sat me down to talk to me about listening to my car.

“Listen for an unusual noise.”

“Like what?”

“Well, that can vary but mostly listen for a new noise.”
“ok. Listen for new noises and then tell dad.”

“Now, when you’re telling me about a new noise don’t tell me “The clutch is broken.” Tell me what it sounds like. For instance, when I accelerate I hear a loud noise on passenger side of the car near the front wheel.”

“OK. So I describe the noise or condition I am experiencing.”


And on and on this went. At the time frankly I thought my dad was a bit nuts and I hated driving old cars. I wished he did something else for a living like say be a banker so we’d have lots of money or be an artist because he’d be the coolest dad in the neighborhood. But alas, he was a born engineer. His predilection for this way of diagnosing actually started when I was probably no more thaTrans Axle 22 743x1024 Why You Need Engineers In Your Lifen 6 or 7. If I was sick he’d ask me a number of questions that required deeply listening to what my body was saying before I asked him to take me to the doctor. “Does it feel worse in the morning or at night?” “Is the pain getting worse or better?” “Is it a scratchy feeling like sandpaper or more like you have a big golf ball stuck in your throat?"

 When you have an engineer for a father you get cool drawings like this in your inbox with a request to talk about the potential problem with your trans axle when you have a few minutes.

What an Engineer Knows
As I got older and I moved into my career I began to feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I was finally able to see that what my dad gave me was far more valuable than an expensive designer purse or having that “cool" factor. He taught me how to listen and how to diagnose. I learned how to listen deeply. How to decipher the serious from the mundane. How to pull a part a problem to tell if there was more than one condition present. I learned how to not make assumptions but rather to observe first.

Although I work with people and organizations rather than cars, the training he gave me as a young child has become very critical to my career success. When someone comes to me with some sort of people, organizational and promotional challenge, I begin by listening and observing. I pay attention to what they say. I hear what they don’t say. I look out for nuances. I try to separate out complexities of a challenge and break them down into more manageable chunks. Now my mantra is:

Seek to understand then seek to be understood.

Stephen Covey

Why You Should Be Friendly With An Engineer
Growing up with a proudly geek dad is why I find myself most at ease with developers and other engineer types. Even though we speak different languages, me the language of emotional intelligence and organizational behavior, and they of machine behavior, we seem to process the world using a similar map. As an adult I am thrilled that I grew up with an engineer for a father. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you’re an engineer of any sort–thank you for using your talents to make our world a better, more workable place. If you're not one but know an engineer, take a minute to get to know the way they think.

You're sure to learn something new about problem solving. And that's a mighty powerful thing.