Why Do We Do It That Way? There’s A Time To Imitate And A Time To Question

A young James P. O’Shaughnessy was watching his mom prepare a ham for dinner and noticed she cut the edges off in a very particular way. Ever the curious one, he asked, “Why do you cut the ham like that?” Somewhat surprised she said, “I don’t actually know – that’s just the way MY mom did it.” Then, as curious kids tend to have curious parents, she called her older sister to see if she might know the answer to the riddle.

He listened as his mom asked the question. There was a pause while his aunt answered, and then his mom burst into laughter. She hung up the phone, turned to her son and said, “It was her pan. It was too small to fit the whole ham.” And so, here she was years later, carrying the confused tradition forward.

All of these years later, O’Shaughnessy draws a deeper lesson from the ham story worth pointing out. When facing a problem, we want to think about when to question it further, as he did with his mom, or when to imitate the solution, as his mom did with her mother. It’s simple, but it’s a critical crossroads we all regularly face: when do we question, and when do we imitate?

The upside to imitation is we don’t have to burn more mental calories figuring things out. Good enough for someone else is probably good enough for us. It’s an already proven strategy. There are lots of times we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

The upside to questioning is introspection. We might get a deeper understanding of the question we’re asking, or maybe we’ll find a brand new solution altogether. Once in a while, we might even uncover an error in our logic, like why we unnecessarily have been cutting the ends off our hams for years.

The downside to imitation is missing out on the upside of questioning. The downside of questioning is burning too many mental calories when we could just be imitating.

It’s a choice. We can question or we can imitate. Whatever we choose, we just want to make sure it’s in service of getting us closer to our goals. If the ham doesn’t fit, trim a little off the end. If there’s spare room, it’s ok to question mom’s way.

Hear James O’Shaughnessy tell this story to James Clear on the Infinite Loops Podcast.