Your ego’s favorite three-letter word

Let’s say you’re on a cross-country road trip, from New York to California, for example. You program your destination in the GPS and then, at some point, you realize you’ve taken a wrong turn and are now going in the wrong direction. 

The GPS doesn’t say, “Well, that was stupid. Why did you do that? Why can’t you follow simple instructions? You got lost last week too. And two years ago, when you were going to that offsite with that important client. Why do you always screw up?” 

No, the GPS simply says, “recalculating,” and figures out what you have to do to get back to the right route.

“Okay,” you’re thinking. “That’s a cute analogy but my life is a little more complex than a road trip. Shouldn’t I be reflecting on why I am the way I am? Why I feel and do certain things?”

The short answer is: yes, reflection and introspection are good. It’s just that most people aren’t doing it right.

Our brain is like an obedient search engine: it will look for the answers to questions we ask.

And too often, when we introspect, our ego mind asks the wrong questions: “Why did this happen to me?” “Why doesn’t anything ever go right?” 

Here’s the thing: Research has shown that we simply don’t have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motivations we’re searching for. But ego is convinced if we just keep asking we can figure it out, and we end up inventing answers that feel true — “I’m just not good at managing people” — but are actually irrational and full of biases. 

The key lies in changing just one word.

Organizational psychologist Tascha Eurich and her research team found that highly self-aware people do introspection differently: In reviewing their interview transcripts, they found the word “why” appeared less than 150 times while the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.

Instead of “Why do I feel so awful?”, self-aware people ask “What are the situations that make me feel awful, and what do they have in common?”

Instead of responding to negative feedback with “Why did you say this about me?” they ask “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?”

Instead of self-flagellating and asking “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” when their business fails, they ask  “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?”

“Why” takes us into the past, swimming in murky emotional waters. “What” keeps us focused on the future and productive actions we can take going forward. 

So go ahead, send your brain on that search. Just ask what, not why.