Knowing Why Beats Knowing How

Last year around this time, I started following an eating plan called The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. At the same time, I was feverishly traveling the globe presenting my talk Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX.

Midway through the book, Tim begins a chapter with a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson that draws a surprising parallel between his philosophy on eating right and my philosophy on designing right.

“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a few short sentences, Emerson encapsulated exactly why I felt the message of my talk was such a crucial one to tell:

In order to figure out how, you need to know why.

Put bluntly: strategy always outperforms skill.

Purpose makes perfect.

This is the theme that exists across all of my talks, especially the one I’ve been giving this year, What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects.

All the more so, it is the philosophy by which I live my life. I don’t aim to be the smartest, the fastest, the richest, or the first. I aim for wisdom. I dig for the deeper meaning and look for lessons in every experience. I want to know why things work the way they do, not just how to do them (though my boyfriend who has been struggling to teach me how to drive stick would beg to differ).

Best practices in business, just like in life, are shortcuts that are often totally misapplied. If we don’t know the reasoning behind why something works, for whom, and under what conditions, our assumptions will fail us every time.

Emerson is known as the father of Transcendentalism, defined as:

“any philosophy based upon the doctrine that the principles of reality are to be discovered by the study of the processes of thought, or a philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical”

or as:

“a [philosophy] based on the idea that, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience”

This is in many ways the foundation of the User Experience discipline. UX practitioners advocate for understanding the needs of their target audiences before crafting products for them to use. Why? Because each person’s experiences are filtered through their own lens through which they see the world. And in order to create something that matters to them, we must first discover what matters to them and why.

We can never know everything there is to know about each one of our customers, and we can never predict every single one of their future needs and how we intend to meet them. But understanding their attitudes, motivations, behaviors and frustrations helps us to create a sketch of the principles by which they live their lives. And furthermore understanding our team’s attitudes, motivations, behaviors and frustrations helps us to create a sketch of our own principles — and the principles by which we want to run our business.

Emerson died 100 years before I was born, and yet it still seems that we live in a world where medals and awards and diplomas are bestowed upon those who demonstrate superior skill, and not extraordinary purpose.

The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. I think Emerson was referring to a very different type of prize than the one our society seems to value most.

My mission is to help companies discover their own philosophy and develop a set of principles to govern their decisions. Not only so that they can be more financially successful, but so that they can be more morally successful, and forge a much deeper connection with the other human beings they wake up every day to serve.

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  1. says

    Thanks for such a nice, succinct articulation on the merits of purpose-driven practice.

    For me, purpose is a discrete but wholly necessary variable in UX practice; Sometimes its empathy focused into outcomes, other times its solutions guided by ethics. How many paths can be taken when one has a purpose!

    Regardless, since my core purpose as a UXer is to provide moments of contextual meaning for people I’ll never know personally, I must see this world with as much of a compound eye as I can handle. If I weren’t inherently empathetic, I’d never be able to pull this off. It’s not enough to claim you give a shit, you have to prove it.

    Without a philosophic stance such as this, strategic thinking, planning and execution just seems overly consumed by transactional I/O. It should be no surprise to hear that I feel that we could all stand a good deal less strategy and a good deal more philosophy at the heart of contemporary design endeavors. A willingness on all sides to loosen up about perceived expertise and get more comfortable with not having everything figured out is exactly where an ethical, purposeful (moral?) ambition becomes a differentiating quality within the design process.

    Until recently, floating this perspective to potential clients has been challenging to say the least, which is one reason I appreciate you stepping forward to discuss these topics openly. As you point out, these are not new concepts at all but they’ve largely slipped out of the collective consciousness it seems. Perhaps it is the realization that people in these ‘target’ audiences are anything but homogenous, predictable data points is opening the door to ‘softer’ dynamics like these. I’m largely optimistic —we all have so much room to grow.

    • says

      Emanuel, I cannot fully express just how much your comment meant to me. You beautifully articulated something I have felt for a long time and written about here extensively, but never so eloquently as you. Thank you for doing that here. I always advocate for strategy first, but you are right: it’s more like philosophy first. Strategies fail. It’s then that you have to fall back on your morals. And when you don’t have those, you’re willing to do just about anything — whether it’s right or wrong.

      The practice of empathy building within the corporate environment is a topic I’ve become obsessed with. I look forward to hearing your insights as I explore this area more deeply. Thank you!

  2. says

    Hey Whitney. The other day when I read your post it struck me how the general concept you describe is something that has irked me for a while in my own field, type design. Formalized type design education on a post-graduate level is relatively new and many designers are more or less autodidactic practicioners. The predominant way to get into it is through the study of historical pecedent, in other words, by looking at a lot of work by other designers. This way the aspiring designer is sampling existing solutions for common problems that will occur over and over again. Combine this with a certain level of mastery of the software (RoboFont, Glyps or FontLab) and voilà, a type designer is born. The majority of the instructional literature actually follows this rational.

    The drawback here is that these solutions will appear interchangeable. They become equally valid options, isolated from the overall design, up for grabs and ready for the remix. For example, a common approach is to offer different shapes of serifs that can be attached to just any kind of typeface. This ignores that the serif expresses the amount and the nature of thick-thin contrast that is responsible for the rest of an alphabet’s letter shapes.

    To return to the point you were making, looking at existing letter shapes will only tell you the how and not the why. Specifically in design education, examining the underlying reasons for design decisions will create autonomous designers, equipped with the ability to construct visual worlds with functioning laws of nature. Whereas teaching merely the craft, how to create fonts will churn out worker bees with a sharp sense of style and historic context but without the gift to envision the original.

    • says

      Hannes, I’m thrilled that you wrote such an extensive comment to educate us on the similar issues you face in the practice of type design. It’s such an important reminder that we aren’t the first ones who’ve grappled with these issues, and we need to constantly be looking at other related (and seemingly unrelated) fields for inspiration on how to overcome everyday challenges in human communication.

      I hope as I continue to write about what I see in my immediate surroundings that you continue to shed a light on how these things manifest themselves in yours. Thank you again.

  3. says

    Hi Whitney – thanks for a great blog. I’m one of those pesky VCs you wrote about in your most recent post. I like to think I’m already doing most of the things on your wish list, maybe because I’m a social scientist. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself :)

    Either way I’m going to write something and link back to you. Hope that’s ok.


  4. says

    I’ve been a fan of Emerson for a long time, and I enjoyed seeing you draw the lines that connect him to more modern concerns.
    I see this same thing play out in the software development space. For example, there are many people who know how to write tests, and who write them before they write their features. But they are not really doing test-driven development because they have misunderstood *why* they are writing the tests first. This misunderstanding ripples through the entire application, and negates many of the benefits that would have come with a proper understanding of both how and why.
    Another thing I notice often is people who manufacture their own ‘why’ to rationalize the ‘how’ that they have chosen. It can be really hard to get such folks to see things from another perspective.
    I’m currently trying to figure out how to communicate such philosophies to people in a way that they can become relevant to day-to-day practices and not just good ideas sitting on a shelf, ignored amidst all the chaos of urgent work.


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