If your childhood was anything like mine you had a natural curiosity to understand why things happen. Before Wikipedia, we went to grown-ups for answers and received a variety of perplexing responses. The three responses I remember most were: “because Y is a crooked letter,” “because I said so,” and “because life is not fair.” Although we are now older, and presumably wiser, we still ask questions from the “grown-ups” around us and get similar responses. Ask a question of your supervisor at work, colleague, professor, spouse, or friend and see if these types of responses still apply. One would hope that our adult selves are able to deal with these responses in a more sophisticated manner than the tantrums we threw as a child
“Because Y is a crooked letter.”
I always found this answer to be an odd response to a simple question. It was most used when the question had very little relevance to the overall situation at hand. When given a response of this type you are being told that the matter you are raising is not worth validation at the present time. Why is the sky blue? There has to be a scientific answer to that question. I am sure it is not because “Y is a crooked letter.” When the sky-color question is asked while the family is packing up the car to leave on a trip you will most likely get the response above.
In one of my first jobs, I guided a team of student volunteers charged with helping college students fill out their advising/registration forms. Immediately I noticed that the duplicate layered form was entirely white and the school provided black pens to fill them out. Institutional practice was to retain the top layer in the student file and give the duplicate to the student. By using a black pen the original and duplicate would be indistinguishable. What would happen if an original was returned to the student and a copy was kept on file? Something had to be done before it was too late! Luckily, I spotted a senior staff member and brought the matter to her attention immediately. Why were black pens provided to the students? Why didn’t anyone think to buy blue pens? I was instantly deflated when the senior staff member told me that this was an irrelevant detail to the overall process. She told me to stop wasting time on this minutia and spend my time overseeing the volunteers and helping the students. That was her professional way of answering me with “because Y is a crooked letter.” Next time you ask a question take a moment to reflect if it is the right time to bring it up or does the question greatly impact the larger picture?
“Because I said so.”
I asked my son when the last time was I responded to one of his questions with the answer “because I said so.” His last recollection was the time he asked why he needs a bedtime. The reason he needs a bedtime is so he gets the proper rest to perform better in school, to allow his body to recharge, and to allow me a few hours of peace before I go to bed. If he gets less than ideal sleep he will be a mess the next day. Why didn’t I just give him the full answer instead of “because I said so”? The reason my son got a short answer is that his input was not relevant to the decision. His job is to follow the direction of those in charge. His bedtime is a matter that I gave a lot of thought to and consulted with the other senior stakeholder in this matter (my wife), and the directive was given to him to follow through on. Sometimes in life we need to accept that we are not always part of the decision-making process. Unless something is unethical or illegal, we are bound to follow top-down instructions. We need to assume, rightly or wrongly, that those above our pay grade gave some thought to the decision, consulted with others at their level, and are giving us a reasonable directive. As a loyal employee you need to follow the directive and own your follow-through. You can learn from both positive and negative results.
“Because life is not fair.”
I may never have been paid to be a professional musician, but an experience in my elementary school band felt like my first professional setback. Jimmy got chosen to play drums at a performance while I got stuck playing the xylophone. It was not fair that I got stuck with the job because I was the only percussion player who could read music and play the xylophone. I couldn’t accept the answer the band director gave me of “life is not always fair.” Looking back, I realize that band needed me on the xylophone and that was the best role for me. I admit now that Jimmy was a better drummer than I was and perhaps the band director chose a song with a xylophone solo so I would have an opportunity to shine.
In the workplace we have all felt that someone else is being favored over us, we were wrongfully passed over for a promotion we deserve, or someone else kept their job while our position got eliminated. Life is not fair. Things happen that are beyond our control. Could we have done something different that would have changed things? Perhaps. We cannot go back in time and see all the factors that went into a decision. All we can do is accept that life is not fair and grow from our experiences.
Stop wasting our time questioning why things happen and focus on moving forward? Easier said than done! In one of my jobs I was livid about why a decision was made and was pressing my supervisor to explain why it happened. After listening to me rant for 15 minutes about why the situation made no sense, why it was bad for the institution, and why it was not fair to me, he gently responded, “I don’t do why’s.” At first that statement infuriated me and I had to leave his office before I lost my composure. The next day I calmly asked him what he meant by “I don’t do why’s.” This wise sage (whom I consider my mentor today) asked me how much energy I expended trying to figure out why this decision was made. I sheepishly admitted that it had been consuming me since I left his office. He then presented me with the following challenge: “When you leave my office take the next 24 hours to focus on how we can best deal with the decision presented to us in order to move forward in a positive fashion.” This challenge was more complex than it seemed.
In order to meet the challenge of moving forward I needed to change my outlook from a reflective “why” to a proactive “how.” As an analytical person I needed to quiet my need for a “why” to be able to hear the “how” in the situation. I needed to accept the decision that I viewed as flawed and use it as a foundation to build on. When I let go of the “whys,” the “hows” took center stage. I felt empowered. I was presented with a clean slate to draw a future plan. My creative juices were flowing and I couldn’t wait for my meeting the next day. With a clear head and organized mind my supervisor and I mapped out some viable options to move the department forward based on a decision that was beyond our control.
As we go through our lives we will be faced with many situations that are beyond our control. When these challenges/opportunities present themselves we need to focus on how to make the best of our situation and avoid falling into the trap of needing to know why. Just like we avoid crooked people in our lives, we need to begin to avoid the crooked letter “why.”
Bradley Karasik, Ph.D. is a resident of Bergenfield and currently the Director of Recruitment, Admissions, and Enrollment Management at the Touro Graduate School of Social Work.
He also served as the Associate Dean of Students at Yeshiva University and as Director of Youth Services and Programs at the National Council of Young Israel. He received his MA degree in Higher Education Administration from New York University and his PhD in Social Welfare from Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
By Bradley Karasik, Ph.D.