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Ask 5 "Whys" & The Fickle Nature of Expertise.

September 13, 2017


Ask Five "Whys"


This past week I read a New York Times story, "Relationship Problems? Try Getting More Sleep." The basic gist: lots of the most common (and sometimes devastating) relationship problems have a root cause of one or both players not getting enough sleep. The first take-away from this is to sleep! (That means 7-9 hours every night.) The second take-away, and one I want to explore a bit further, is that lots of problems have underlying causes that run deep.

A great technique to help you get to the bottom of a problem is to ask "why?" five times. While the answer isn't always "because I didn't get enough sleep," it is often something that, on its face, may seem far removed from the problem.

For example, let's say your struggling to work with a specific colleague at the office, or to coach a certain athlete. 

1) Why can't I work with this person? Because whatever I do or say, he just won't listen to me.
2) Why won't he listen to me? I'm actually not sure.
3) Why aren't I sure? I haven't asked him.
4) Why haven't I asked him? I'm a little nervous about confronting him.
5) Why am I nervous? Because I don't feel comfortable with confrontation. 

In this example, by asking 5 whys, now the hypothetical manager/coach has not only identified why he or she can't work with a particular person, but they've also identified an important leadership development area for themselves. 

This same strategy applies to nearly every problem you might face, from a sore back, to lackluster performance on a personal project, to difficulty dealing with a family member. Far too often, people focus on addressing a surface driver—the answer to "why" number one or two, for instance—when the real cause is buried a bit deeper out of sight.


The next time you're dealing with a thorny problem, keeping asking "why" until you find the real answer; you may be surprised that it's not what you thought you were looking for.



The Fickle Nature of Expertise

In 2000, coach Gerald Stewart guided Joey Harris to a 10.28 100-meter best, a time that would be the fastest of any American high school runner in the nation, and among the top 5 juniors (i.e., athletes under age 20) in the world. Coach Stewart was a sprinting guru. The man was a master of speed and acceleration. He could transform the running mechanics of just about any young athlete into a speed and power machine.

Fast forward three years, and Coach Stewart had another athlete at the top of the rankings list. Only this time it wasn't a sprint star, but a miler. That kid was me (Steve). During that year (2003), Coach Stewart not only had me leading the nation in the mile, but also a distance medley team that lead the nation and a 4xmile relay that ranked second. In three short years, coach Stewart had shifted from a sprint guru to a distance coaching extraordinaire. Of course, this "shift" was an artificial one.

In his fantastic coaching career, Stewart coached national-class high school runners in the sprints, distance, jumps, and beyond. Yet with every new athlete winning state championships or placing high at nationals, the perception of coach Stewart shifted. One year he was presenting at clinics on how to optimize the triple jump, the next year on how to develop the endurance for your 5k.

Coach Stewart was not a sprint or distance or jumps coach, but a simply a coach; a man who knew how to develop athletes and people.

Often in life, we succumb to the labels that are stuck on us. We become the 'quarterback guru' as a football coach, with the implication that you know little about the flip side (defensive coaching). The reality, though, is often different. To succeed at whatever endeavor we pursue, it is beneficial to resist the labeling and the forcing of our skills into one particular box. Instead, we should strive to master the entire scope of our work, making sure that if our work (or, in coaching, our talent pool) shifts, we have the skill set to shift along with it.


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