“What if ?” – Rory Miller


If you have kids, you know some of the stages. The “no” stage and the “mine” stage. And the why stage. The why stage can be infuriating and there is always a sneaky suspicion that the kid is playing a game, pulling you to the end of your rope: Why is the sky blue? “Because the gasses in the atmosphere absorb more yellow and red light?” Why? “All substances reflect and absorb different electromagnetic wavelengths differently.” If I’m very, very lucky here, the kid will switch from the “why” to the “what question: “Whats electromagnetic?”

The kid asking why is NOT trying to punk you out, not trying to dominate you, not trying to humiliate you with how shallow your knowledge really is. The kid doesn’t know and desperately wants to know. More than that, kids want to understand, and you can’t understand jack shit with just surface knowledge. So they push deeper, and “why” is a question that pushes deeper. If you can honestly track why to the source, you will find the principles that underly everything you do. The principles of the physical art that you study or the principles of your own ethics. All same/same. You just have to keep asking the question and answer honestly.

It’s not the “what if” game. Every instructor knows the “what if monkey.” For every situation or technique, there’s the, “What if he counter attacks with the right hand?” “What if he has a knife concealed in his boot?” “What if he has a friend?” “What if the guy attacking you is a midget with a BJJ background?” “What if you’re suddenly attacked by 37 ninjas?”

Because it follows a similar pattern (the same question repeated over and over, always based on the last answer) and because both patterns can be annoying and because both patterns inevitably lead beyond your ability to answer* it is possible to see these as related. But they aren’t They absolutely aren’t.

The questioning of “why” uses the wisdom of a child to get deeper, to understand things, to get the principles out in the open. The questioning of “what if” makes things more technical, more about the surface. If you understand a deep why, you can use that understanding in a thousand different situations. If you get a great answer on a what if question, you have one thing that you can only use in one ridiculously specific situation.

* Inevitably. All “what if” questions eventually grow into situations that can’t be handled. And all why questions eventually dig down to physics so esoteric that no one knows the real answer. Our knowledge is limited, own that.


Commentary by Erik Kondo

Intelligence and imagination go hand in hand. A smart person “sees” possibilities that others don’t – both problems and solutions. For example, “What if instead of doing it this way, we try to do it this way?”
On the other hand, “What if…” is also a tool of the not-so-bright. When a teacher is explaining how to do something in a certain situation, and the student interrupts with “What if …”, many times the student is not exhibiting deep insight. The student is looking for an answer, not a solution.

What many students don’t understand is that the purpose of teaching is to provide students with the ability to find solutions for themselves. Effective teaching does not provide answers which are then regurgitated by the student. In the real world, there are few answers, but many solutions.

When students who are looking for answers encounter a teacher that believes that he or she has all the answers, effective learning is unlikely to occur.

Commentary by Garry Smith

 I was asked some what if questions by a young student last night. He has recently moved up to ‘big’ secondary school and there are quite a few fights taking place around him. I had to explain that finding the perfect answer is like finding the golden ticket in Willy Wonkas Chocolate Factory.

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