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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

How people learn from experience: Causation versus Purpose

Conventional wisdom tells us that leaders learn by being self-aware and reflecting on how they deal with challenges. Introspection about their reactions to various situations helps leaders continuously improve themselves. Yet, most of us tend to be introspective in a way that disables us.

In a fascinating TED Talk, social psychologist Tasha Eurich reports that people tend to reflect on situations by asking themselves two distinct questions: some ask "Why” looking for causation, and others “What” choosing to focus on their purpose. As it turns out, these two questions lead to significantly different results.

Asking ‘why’ is to look for an explanation of what happened: the equivalent of looking in the rear-view mirror. Focusing one’s introspection on ‘why’ leaves you at a dead end: it is nearly impossible to trace back your thoughts and accurately identify the cause. On the other hand, reflecting on “what” is forward-oriented and enables pursuing a concrete course of action that will eventually lead us to a meaningful response. The learning that flows from asking ‘What’ stems allows us to experiment with different answers to achieve our intent. This approach helps us shape and own our choices.

Here are examples of ‘Why’ questions:

How did that happen?

Why did I react this way?

What made me think this was the way to go?

Why did I not see this coming?

I know better; how did I fall into this trap?

Here are examples of ‘What’ questions:

How do I position myself to be at my best?

What do I want to achieve in my interactions with others?

How do I bring a presence that helps others be at their best?

How do I reframe or reposition situations in a way that helps me be more effective?

How do I reinforce how I can best realize my intent?

Tasha Eurich’s research focuses on self-awareness. But the enabling impact of asking oneself ‘What’ also has significant implications for learning. Eurich reports that only 10-15% of people reflect on ‘What’ instead of Why” – in other words, most of us are introspective in a way that potentially disables us. Essentially, this is how most of us systematically sabotage our learning. The good news is that this is easy to correct: be aware of your thinking and change course if you are digging a “causation hole” for yourself. Instead, focusing on your intent/purpose will propel your learning.


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