Is It More Important To Know How Or To Know Why?

As an industry we’re more focused on how to do something than the why behind it. There are valid reasons for that, notably that knowing how to do something is more directly connected to your bank account than knowing why it works. Why is important though and I think we need more content online offering the why.

HOW Magazine open to an article
An article in HOW Magazine

Two Articles

As I finished writing last week’s post about what to learn next, I came across two posts reminding me of this how and why issue. My post touched on it as well.

The first article is from Tom Johnson of Old Guard. Tom’s post isn’t specifically addressing this question, but he talks about a tendency some have for thinking their way is the only way to do something. I think part of the reason that tendency exists is because we’re often too focused on the how of things without stopping to consider the why behind them

The second article is from Rian van der Merwe for Smashing Magazine. Rian’s post takes a look at some of the recent magazines being produced that focus more on the why, the meaning behind what we do as opposed to the how of what we do. Both are interesting reads.

Subway sign asking how and why questions

How and Why

Both how and why are important. I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the how isn’t important. In fact last week I mentioned that how without why will get you further than why without how. Each however, reinforces the other and a good grounding in both will lead you to places neither alone can take you.

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

In a sense how and why works a little like that.

Techniques (the how) give you fish. They give you a specific solution to a specific problem, but without more they don’t teach you to solve other problems or even customize the one solution. If you learn enough techniques you’ll certainly learn how to solve many problems in many ways. And if you spend some time digging into the how of a technique, you’ll certainly learn how to customize it.

That digging is part of the why. The problem with skipping the why is it leads to a tendency to copy and paste solutions. It lacks the understanding to determine if you’re copying a good solution.

Copying is where learning starts, but to truly understand how something works you need to understand why it works. You need to steal it. You need to study it. You need to tear it apart and put it back together. When you understand the why you can weave something of your own into the mix and better apply what you know in different variations and in different contexts.

HOW Magazine cover
Top of a HOW Magazine cover

How is Important

  • How is important — You need to know how to do something in order to do it.
  • How is easy — It’s a recipe. You can copy how and get it to work .
  • How can be automated — It’s an algoirhtm with repeatable steps. If you only know the how you can and probably will be easily replaced
  • How gives you tools — It gives you the ability to solve specific problems.
  • How is practical — We have problems. How gives us the means to solve them
  • How gives you experience — This is it’s greatest strength. You can study the why all you want, but there’s a level of understanding you can only get from doing and from experiencing something.

That last point can’t be stressed enough. I also want to point out that if you do the how again and again you do start to understand the why behind it. If all you do is copy and paste a bit of code here and there, you don’t get much of anything, but if you start to look deeper you can get quite a lot out of it.

hand holding a piece of paper with the question why?

Why is Important

  • Why is important — It teaches which how to apply and gives you the ability to create your own how.
  • Why is hard — It has no recipe to follow.
  • Why can’t be automated — It doesn’t have an algorithm. If you understand the why you become that much less replaceable.
  • Why is open to interpretation — It doesn’t always have a clear answer.
  • Why leads to deeper understanding — Having to continually question interpretations leads to new levels of understanding.
  • Why gives you the experience of others — This is why’s great strength. It keeps you from having to reinvent the wheel and gives you the context to understand and interpret your own experience.

Why gives you perspective. It gives you the big picture view. Where how is the trees, why is the forest. Why helps you make connections between different hows and shows you how to find your own how where one doesn’t yet exist. It sets you apart, because it’s not repeatable.

Both how and why are important and each should feed the other. As you learn how to do more things your experience should inform your thoughts about why it all works. As you learn more why let it inform the techniques you use in order to better choose them and invent new ones.

Summary

One more time I do hope it’s clear I think both how and why are important. Neither without the other is as strong as the two together. They reinforce each other and improve each other. More how gives you a deeper understanding of why and more why gives you a deeper understanding of how.

The reason for this post and my continual talking about theory is that we tend to focus on the how of things at the neglect of the why. Techniques gain attention because of their practicality. When you have a deadline you don’t necessarily care about why something works as long as it does.

The meaning of things is just as important as the doing, though. If you better understand the meaning behind the doing it’s likely you won’t be struggling to figure out how to do something at your next deadline.

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