Embrace the power of why
Eric Schmidt, the former Executive Chairman of Google and Alphabet Inc. once said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” Schmidt believed that if you keep asking questions you can keep finding better answers.
Some of the most provocative questions start with the word “why.” Youngsters are notorious for using it — questioning everything from “Why is the sky blue?” to “Why do zebras have stripes?”. A 2013 study in the UK found that mothers of 4-year-old girls are asked one question nearly every two minutes of their waking day, totaling close to 400 inquisitive questions a day. Astonishing!
As children, we’re innately curious and aren’t afraid to question everything. It’s how we learn. And we all remember that age, don’t we? Then, as we mature, most of us stop asking why because we believe we know everything we need to know, so why ask why?
Instead, we gravitate towards what we know, assume, and accept as gospel. We’re so busy that we never stop to question why we do what we do, whether it’s at work, at home, or in our social lives. And when someone does question us, our actions, or decisions, we often react defensively or even get angry, don’t we?
But there are those rare and unique human beings who never stop asking why. Albert Einstein was one such man, as is Elon Musk. A proponent of first principles thinking, the self-made billionaire uses the power of why to break down complicated problems until all preconceived assumptions are proven to be true or false.
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy,” states Musk. “[With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”
By reducing arguments down to first principles, we open up our minds to new discoveries, new possibilities, and new thinking which inspires better decision making.
In the media world, digging deeper and solving the challenges facing our industry using first principles allows us to question the fundamentals of the fourth estate. This, to some incumbents, is a scary proposition, but I believe that if we can really get down to the core of why we exist as an industry (our mission) then we can better reinvent ourselves in what the World Economic Forum calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This era will be volatile, no doubt about it. To thrive in it we need to ask, why, and we need to ask it often.
For example, ask yourself, “Why do we need a website?”
Because that is where we want people to come to consume our content.
Because it’s easier for us to monetize our content there.
Because we haven’t been able to monetize our content successfully through other means.
You get the picture. Here are some other questions we should answer with first principle thinking.
• Why do we create content? Is it because we believe content to be a vital part of a democratic society or do we view it simply and solely as a vehicle for advertising?
• Why do we put behind a paywall newswire content that is already freely available online? Is it because we don’t have enough unique content on our own or that we need to have more pages to host more advertising?
• Why do journalists need publishers in what is becoming a zero marginal cost society — where the price of distributing and marketing content is tending towards nil?
• Why do newspapers need to be printed when the largest majority of our audiences own a smartphone or a tablet?
• If advertising dollars flow to highly-populated platforms, why don’t we join together to create our own platform and capitalize on the proven strategy that says: content + community = cash?
• Why do people comment on content? Why don’t content creators join in the conversation to grow engagement?
• Why should we care?
By constructively challenging convention, preconceived conceptions, and assumptions we can start to truly address the core problems our industry faces and start to make a real difference for ourselves and the people we serve. We need to deconstruct so we can reconstruct.
The same thinking goes for other consumer-facing industries. Why? Because people are the ultimate decision-makers now.
I hope you enjoy this issue of The Insider, where we try to answer a lot of why questions. I hope it inspires you as it did me when we were putting it together.