What, How, Why

Let’s talk about the stuff you do.

Stuff you do basically has three “levels,” and the understanding of that task at each level gives you different insights into what you can improve, what you can do better – or stop doing. Not everyone understands what they do at each of these levels, and especially when communicating about it with others, it’s valuable to do so.

“What” – This is the task. The physical components. If you’re mowing your lawn, the “what” is that you fill the lawnmower with gas, start it up, and push it around over the grass in straight lines so the blades cut the grass and blow the clippings into a bag, which you then empty into a trash can. “What” is detail-oriented. Talking about the “what” with other people will generally only be valuable if the other people also do this exact task and can transfer knowledge on this level. If someone else also mows lawns, you and they might get a lot out of discussing fuel types, blade brands, or what to do about hard-to-cut edges. You won’t get much out of trying to discuss the task at this level with the owner of the golf course who’s hired you to landscape it – and perhaps more importantly, that person won’t get much out of it, either. They won’t be impressed, because they generally won’t “get it.” So when you think about the “what,” think about solving problems or smoothing out issues and keep your chats to those who can help you do that.

“How” – This is the methodology. You physically mow the lawn as described under “what,” but the “how” is more strategic. It’s things like “I use a riding mower for the large open spaces, then I switch to the push mower for the more visible but smaller front spaces so there are no unsightly tire tracks, and then I do the edging with a hand-held weed wacker.” It’s also things like “I always mow early on a Saturday when I’m doing corporate landscaping because it doesn’t disturb anyone working and by the time anyone sees it again on Monday any uneven spots have had time to grow back in a little and the color will have returned some.” A lot of this is about context, fitting your “what” into a larger plan, a larger world. People who don’t know anything about mower brands will still be able to understand a fair bit of “how,” and therefore it’s a good communication tool for other people that don’t do the task themselves. The owner of the golf course doesn’t care what brand of weed wacker you use, but he appreciates that you’re smart enough to not schedule a mow on the day of the tournament.

“Why” – This is the level that many people don’t ever bother with at all, and that’s a shame. Because this is the level that can change your life. This is the level that can totally redefine your “how” and even your “what,” because it’s so fundamental. Why do you mow the lawn? And don’t say “because it needs to be cut.” I’m asking why you mow the lawn. Is it because you enjoy it, both the work and the end satisfaction, in a way that can’t be found anywhere else? Is it because you’re very good at it, and therefore it’s a valuable skill that allows you to earn a living on terms you enjoy? Or… is it because you mowed lawns last year and you didn’t really give any thought to whether or not you’d want to do it this year? I have a landscape guy who’s incredible. (Even though I actually really enjoy mowing the lawn, it isn’t worth it to me for a lot of reasons to do it myself.) He likes mowing lawns well enough. But his “why” was always “because this is a viable enterprise that people need and therefore is lucrative.” He’s in it as an entrepreneur, in other words. And once you land on that “why,” you realize that mowing the lawn yourself isn’t actually the best use of your time. It’s training others, securing business, and expanding the operation. And that’s just what he’s done. He no longer mows my lawn; one of his many well-trained employees does. I’m glad of it.

My original landscape guy used to talk to me about “how,” but never “what.” I didn’t really care “what,” and he knew I wouldn’t get most of it anyway, but we connected on “how” very well, which was more important to me as his customer. But he was also a great guy, so we connected on “why” – and I’m glad he talked to me about it. Now he talks about “how” with his employees so they’re better at their roles, but doesn’t talk too much about “what” because that level of micromanagement isn’t conducive to effective time management. They talk to each other about “what” to get better, too – because it’s good to have “shop talk” between experts on a task. And he thinks about “why” all the time, because that’s how he’ll grow.

Lawns are an easy analogy, but this is all about you, too. Go give it some thought.

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