5 whys, or decompressing another person’s experience

A few years ago Ilya Krasinky (the godfather of the Russian unit economics, the CEO & Founder at Rick.ai) told me about the “Why is it so hard?” question which helps to get to the bottom of an interviewee’s emotional motivation during problem exploration interviews.

Here’s a part of such an interview:

A young woman tells about her problem: “Sometimes the garbage collectors are nasty”.

  • The interviewer asks: “Why is it so hard for you?”
  • The interviewer’s inner voice goes loco: “What the hell was that?”
  • YW: “Well, I’m upset that all the garbage from separate bins goes into one container”.
  • I: “Has this actually happened?”
  • YW: “Yes, I’ve noticed this once, so I got mad and confronted them. Since then on every garbage collection day I sit waiting for the sound of their truck coming, and as soon as I hear it, I run to watch them emptying the bins”.
  • I: “So what is so hard for you in the fact they empty all the bins into one container?”
  • I’s inner voice: “Bro, are you dumb?”
  • YW: “Well, I’m anxious because I’m polluting the planet. The whole building makes an effort to avoid that, and these ***s undo it. As a result, it’s my garbage damaging the planet”.

Fast forward to the real pain points of this young woman:

  • She’s 8/10 angry once a month when the garbage collectors empty all the bins into one container;
  • She’s 5/10 anxious twice a week that the garbage collectors don’t do their job properly when she sits waiting for the truck sounds and rushes to her window to watch them.

Great, we’ve got to the heart of the problem, and now we can polish our service so that this user segment (as long as YW is representative, of course) doesn’t face this problem.

In other words, at the very beginning of the interview all we heard was “our garbage collectors are nasty”, but there was nothing we could do with this information. This was a compressed sentiment, and we’ve managed to decompress it by asking “why is it (so) hard?” – so we’ve learned something useful.

Now to the uselessness of wise quotes about life.

Let’s take a typical example–Seneca’s words: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. It’s clear, it’s elegant, it’s inspiring.

Five years ago this quote had no influence over my life, no matter how many times I’d read it.

I just couldn't grasp the concept of wise quotes:

  1. They usually are coined by really smart guys: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Einstein, Feynman, Jobs… So they must be legit.
  2. Once you’ve dedicated a considerable part of your life to a certain skill/profession/aspect of life, and then you come across relevant quotes, something inside you clicks. You are filled with the excitement of your insight, and your inner voice screams: “Yeesss dude! This is SOO TRUE!”
  3. However, if you’ve just set your foot on this shore, this quote rings no bells for you.
  4. Still, writers and bloggers love reinforcing their ideas by quoting wise men.

Then it struck me: these quotes are lapidary to the point of being so compressed that we can’t grasp their wisdom without having considerable experience in the relevant field. Just like it happened with those interviewee’s remarks.

Writers and bloggers do have the relevant experience, and they aspire to drive their point home by adding a Seneca’s quote, but they are mistaken.

Human levels of compression are as follows:

  1. Wise quote
  2. Article
  3. Book
  4. Real-life observation
  5. First-hand experience

Here’s my proprietary heuristic:

  1. Don’t expect wise quotes to change you if you haven’t had any relevant life experience.
  2. If I know of a person with experience that interests me, I should try to go deeper by reading their books or communicating with them directly.
  3. If I catch a scent of an interesting experience, I can try to decompress it by asking “Why?”