In my former life I used to be a bit of a process improvement nut and even qualified as a Lean Six Sigma green belt at one stage. You could be excused for thinking it’s some kind of martial art practised on skinny people, but no, it’s a methodology with super complex statistical analysis built in at each stage (for Brainy people, which is why I never got to Black Belt) which aims to Define, Measure, Analyse and then ultimately Improve and Control a system (DMAIC for short).
In the Analyse phase, there’s an approach you use called the ‘5 Whys’. It’s just as it appears, you posit a statement and ask Why? five times to drill down to the root cause. Although more strictly a problem-solving tool, I like to use this whenever I’m trying to understand better the reasons for anything. If you follow this metaphorical piece of frayed cotton thread you often uncover rich detail and see things with a whole lot more colour, as well as often understand yourself and other people better.
I think therefore I’m.. Greek?
The Six Sigma and other spin off methodologies such as the Toyota Way and Agile could be seen to be recent approaches, perhaps only truly coming into existence in the last century. But if you look deeper, you can see the genesis of this method of enquiry during the time of the Classical Greeks, where the ‘Socratic method’ of questioning and answering to either answer a problem or gain knowledge was in vogue.
Existential Moment: The Greeks didn’t have complex manufacturing or business processes with which to apply this method of critical thinking so spent a huge amount of time questioning what is the best way to live, what actually is ‘truth’, whether the mind and the body were two separate things (Descartes mind body duality gig) and generally mooching about in sandals scratching their heads. If they’d had Microsoft then all that amazing brain power would be diverted to wondering where the file they just saved had gone. Perhaps that’s why the philosophy of these men of 20 generations ago is still taught and still has relevance today.. because today many great philosophers focus their naturally curious minds on things that an economic society rewards more – the ability to make money for someone quicker and with fewer overheads. Ergo, process improvement rather than personal improvement.
My 5 Why’s. Brace yourself.
So, let’s take motorcycling. Why do I do it? Here are my reasons (in no order of priority and off the top of my head):
The observant among you will notice these are all individual answers and not connected, so they’re not drilling down very far, we’re at the varnish level of the real underlying reason for each question. To get to the undercoat then the substance beneath that you have to apply the Why? in each case.
Let’s apply the 5 Why's to my first answer as to why I ride a motorcycle;
Because it makes me feel happy.
Because I’m on the open road, I can choose my destination and I’m ‘in’ the world not just a spectator to it.
Because there is no glass window to separate me from outside, I can feel the wind buffeting me, smell the flowers, the rain, the heat, the cold. Because I see beautiful landscapes and nature. Because at any moment I can change direction and it will be purely my choice, independent of anyone else.
Because naturally from the moment we wake to the moment we sleep, we have responsibilities and a code of conduct to adhere to. Whether you’re a parent, a sibling, an employee, an employer, a friend. These are good things, the stuff of life and I love my family with all my heart, but life requires attention and curation and presence of mind whereas on the bike the mind is free, the body is free and it’s your window of time to be in complete control.
Because feeling in control is a fundamental need, to me it means safety, security, peace and true freedom.
Now I didn’t actually know where that was going to go when I started writing it. I’m a little surprised at the result. There were a few lines of reasoning I could have picked apart but I chose the last answer in each case. An important caveat here is that these are my own personal responses, they’re not necessarily the answer to all motorcyclists Why? questions and each person’s will be different. But some will be the same and perhaps more will concur than you may expect from a random sampling of people from society.
Because I'm a bit pedantic I'd actually have gone further. Why does being in control make me happy? Because I'm in a non-threat situation so my flight or fight hormone Cortisol is way reduced and my happy hormone Endorphin is circling around my body like a teenager who's just had their first kiss. I usually can dig down another two layers before I get stumped, but if I could answer the questions relating to the workings of the universe I would probably have a bigger twitter following.
Motorcyclists as modern philosophers?
I’d put those similarities down to motorcyclists being generally an open minded bunch, keen to experience new things and with common values. Perhaps even they are the philosophers of our time, not mooching about with white robes (although what you do in your spare time is your business), not spending every weekend and holiday indoors in front of screens or windows, not being closed to new experiences but sitting on white marble stone steps (our bike seat) contemplating.
Of course, I’m generalising. Some will have answers to their Why? question that go down the ‘Because I like to go fast’ route. For them, perhaps our common ground is my reason #2 Because there is a bit of danger. Or maybe they are competitive and want to be the best/fastest. Maybe the answer for them will drill down to ego. That’s not a dirty word, we all have it and that’s fine. It’s how you use it that matters, or how you let it use you.
I did it… My Why
The word Why? is probably the most important word in my life. From the age of about six I can remember asking Why? for all sorts of events in my life. Other’s and my own behaviour, how things worked, the stars, the concepts of time and reality, where does consciousness arise, why did I prefer chocolate and not strawberry sauce on my Mr Whippy? All these things felt connected to me, in particular I was interested in the tool that was asking – the mind. But it was never enough to just ask Why? once, I had to go deeper.
Eventually I saw a pattern emerging. I concluded that all things that happen are a result of either evolution, physics (inc. quantum mechanics, the ‘physics’ of the very small), biology or psychology (in particular neuropsychology – study of the functions of the brain, cognition, emotion etc). These are the things that I love to read, write and philosophise about after a lifetime of questioning.
Ummm. How long have you got?
people do not fail, processes do - Lean Six Sigma quote