Why? What if? Why not?

Three questions that precipitate change.

The year was 1961. Steve Walden was 13 years old, working at a surfboard shop in Southern California, shaping surfboards by hand to learn more about the sport that had captured his heart. He found himself asking questions about the surfboards he was working on: Why are they so much shorter than the surfboards that were used in the past? What if modern materials and techniques were applied to the older, longer boards? Why not experiment with longer boards and shapes?

His questions changed surfing forever when in 1966 at age 18 he championed the reintroduction of longboards into surfing. Once again he started asking questions: Why do you think your shortboard is better than a longboard? What if the longboard gives you a better ride? Why not give the longboard a try?

Steve listened and watched and experimented and asked more questions. As he learned, he made his boards longer and longer until he discovered what he considered optimal performance length, weight, size, and shape. His new longboards dramatically outperformed other boards in competition. He became known as “The Father of the Modern Longboard” even as other designers started asking their own questions and making their own longboards.

Steve Walden opened his first surfboard business in the early 1970s, and he estimates that since that time he has hand shaped more than 20,000 boards. And he’s still at it, designing new boards that he wants to ride—designs prompted by asking why, what if, and why not—and listening carefully to the answers provided by surfing on them.

When we ask “Why?” it helps us to better understand the current situation and to challenge the status quo or the conventional wisdom. When we ask “What if?” the possibility of new ideas opens before us and we can explore the impact of change and new ideas. And when we ask “Why not?” the constraints come out in the open and we can evaluate what we’ve learned even as we begin to recognize those things that might limit positive changes.

They say that a good question is better than a worn out answer. Perhaps it is worn out questions that limit our capacity. Why don’t we go beyond just the questions that are required and explore the unknown? What if we approached every situation as an opportunity to stretch and grow? Why not seek out further ways to approach our work and fulfill our mission?

The questions that we ask are fateful; they shape, and even determine, the answers. The things that are of greatest value—most likely to be sustained, to be adopted into our culture, to become a part of how we carry out our work—often start with a few simple questions. Questions that make all the difference.