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The Five Whys

Obstacles, problems, and failure are inevitable. They may cause you pain as you experience them. This is all fine and dandy so long as you’re able to learn from them and prevent similar mishaps from occurring. A great way to do this is by recognizing the root cause of a problem with an exercise called The Five Whys. (I originally heard this concept from Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup in the context of product development.)

Recently I forgot about a phone call that I had scheduled on my calendar and wasn’t even at my phone when it came time to take the call. A minor failure in the grand scheme of things, but a failure nonetheless. The Five Whys for this situation go as follows:

I missed a call.

  1. Why? I wasn’t paying attention to my phone.
  2. Why? I didn’t think I needed to.
  3. Why? I was at lunch with some friends during the time I was scheduled to take the call.
  4. Why? I forgot to put the call on my calendar.
  5. Why? I told myself that I could remember it and didn’t need a calendar.

Five whys later, and I’ve arrived at a pretty solid root cause. This gives me an actionable item for next time: put every event on your calendar, even if you think you will remember it. This will make sure that I don’t fall into the same situation again. That’s a way to solve a problem or at least identify what is the problem.

Another example:

I failed my math test.

  1. Why? I did not understand the material.
  2. Why? I did not pay attention during class.
  3. Why? I have no practical application for this material.
  4. Why? Nobody has attempted to explain why any of this matters.
  5. Why? My teacher cares more about whether or not I write the work down than if I understand why it matters.

Root cause: Education is failing to adequately explain itself and create significance for students.

Again, identifying the root cause is imperative to solving the problem. If we only tried to solve the problem of a kid not understanding the material, but we haven’t fixed the fact that the kid feels no reason to learn or pay attention to this material, then when the next unit or test comes around, they will fail again, and the process will repeat endlessly. That’s a problem.

This exercise must be done cautiously: it can very quickly turn into a blame game: I don’t have time, I don’t have money, somebody did me wrong,” all sorts of reasons for a problem that don’t lead you any closer to a solution. The goal here is to solve, not to complain. Listing all of your excuses isn’t useful. This should only come down to what you can change for next time. Remember the big question: What’s your remedy?

Here is the exact same situation examined through The Five Whys, one of which is just a list of excuses, while the other is a rational look at the problem to uphold personal accountability. First, the excuse version:

I am unhappy with my life.

  1. Why? I am not creating meaningful and positive change for myself and people around me.
  2. Why? I don’t have the time.
  3. Why? School and work take up all of my time.
  4. Why? My boss and my teachers are out to get me and don’t want me to succeed.
  5. Why? They’re mean people and I think they should be fired.

This is clearly turning into a list of excuses at lines three, four, and five. What good is that? Luckily, this is an entirely irrational analysis of your problem and is untrue, but even if it was true that your boss and teachers wanted you to fail completely and that’s why they gave you a shift at work and homework, and that’s why you don’t have any time…what’s your remedy? There isn’t much of one. Look at it a different way, and you’ll find a remedy and soon a way to solve the problem:

I am unhappy with my life.

  1. Why? I am not creating meaningful and positive change for myself and people around me.
  2. Why? I’m not using my time effectively.
  3. Why? I have not relentlessly removed distractions to free up my time to do better things.
  4. Why? I have been reluctant to change and have not held myself accountable to the standards that I know I should live up to.
  5. Why? Change is scary and I’m not sure how to get over it.

This leads to an entirely different conclusion. The problem is no longer the problem of everyone else. Now, it’s something that you can change or ask others for help with. It comes down to your own actions and state of mind that will lead you to be happy with your life. This shouldn’t depress you: it’s not that it’s all your fault, but it is all up to you. There’s a difference: even blaming yourself for your problems and using statements like I always screw things up,” or I’m horrible at everything, and that’s why I fail,” does not get you anywhere either. That’s just playing the blame game.

Take control where you can and hope for the best. Put yourself in the best positions to succeed by finding the root causes of your problems and distractions and getting rid of them. Find a remedy.

In some cases, the problem will not come down to you no matter how you slice it. If you did everything that you needed to do, educated yourself, got a degree, had an excellent professional network, saved up as much as you could, and then a 2008-like depression hit the economy, then there’s just not much you can do, and that’s okay. The least you can do is try, and that’s why we have tools like this one in our toolbox.