Do you want only simple, specific tips, or something wider and deeper?

Worried little girl

It’s a very old journalistic cliché that stories should always contain answers to these six questions: What? Who? Where? When? How? Why? For example, a story about a murder could accomplish all of this in a single sentence: “Jones was murdered in his own home last evening by a neighbor using a shotgun in revenge for Jones’ insults to the neighbor’s wife.”

It seems to me that more and more articles on the web are leaving aside this pattern to move to the “x simple tips on how to do y” format. There’s nothing wrong with such an approach — indeed, it’s clearly popular — but it implies that you already know the answers to the other five questions. Only the “how?” item remains, since that is all such articles address.

In my own experience, this is rarely the case. Most often, people do not know the answers to the other questions. They are either ignored or blithely assumed to be obvious.

Questions for a New Year
With a New Year upon us, you may be thinking about resolutions. Will it be enough to address only the “how?” issues? I think that one of the reasons why so many resolutions fail to last beyond January is that they assume you have indeed answered all the other questions, when the reality is that none of them have been tackled.

My suggestion is this: that you make sure you ask yourself allthe other questions, deliberately and carefully, before even considering the “how” of anything, whether the ways be simple or not. Try this sequence:

  • What are the issues facing you in your life? Have you thought about them carefully enough to put them into some order of priority, assuming that tackling them all at once is likely to be more than you can handle? Are you clear about exactly what they are? Do you understand them as fully as possible?
  • Why does it matter that you should deal with any of them? Is there something you wish to achieve; or something you think you need to change? What is your purpose in taking action? Are you sure that it is a purpose you truly believe in and can stick with long enough?
  • When should you start? Is now the right time? Are circumstances favorable enough? Would it be better to wait and see how events turn out? Are you in danger of rushing into short-term action when a long-term approach is needed?
  • Where should you begin? Which aspect of the problem or change should be tackled first? Is it the most important or the most pressing, since these typically refer to two aspects of any problem, not one?
  • Whodo you need on your side? Who has to help you — or at least stand aside — if you are going to succeed? Few matters of any real importance can be dealt with without assistance from others.. . . and, finally . . .
  • How should you do it? What is the best approach? What skills or techniques will you need? What can you learn from others’ experiences to assist you?

Dealing with specifics

As journalists have found for hundreds of years, all six questions are essential. Missing any of them leaves a gap that must be filled by assumptions or imagination. Just so, relying entirely on “x simple tips on how to do y” is likely to leave you guessing on such key questions as whether it’s worth doing anyway, or worth doing right now.

Best of all, the six questions can be adapted easily to cover almost any situation. Considering a change of job or career? Try this sequence:

  • What would suit you better than what you have now?
  • Why do you want to change? Is it a good enough reason?
  • When is the best time to make a move? Should you wait to seek how things turn out in a few months? Is this the right time for your long-term career hopes to make a move?
  • Where might offer you a better position? Another company? Another location? Another type of work altogether?
  • Who else do you need to consider? Partner? Family? Friends? Colleagues? Who might be able to help you or put in a good word with a prospective employer?
  • How should you go about it, taking into account the answers to all the previous questions?

If you think through the sequence carefully, you’ll not only make a better career moves, you will have already prepared the answers to maybe 90% of interview questions.

Avoiding sound-bites and clichés

Don’t be seduced by attractive sound-bites or simple-sounding, ready-made answers, when what you need are time to consider your situation fully and thoughtful questions to help you do so.

Don’t jump to trying the “x simple ways” before you have spent sufficient time on deciding what you need to accomplish and why it matters.

There will be opportunity enough to work on the (purely tactical) “how?” after you have first dealt with the (strategic) issues the other five questions will raise for you. Time spent in reconnaissance, as the saying goes, is never wasted — especially if you want to come out on the winning side.

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