In this episode, Steli and Hiten talk about the book The Answer to How is Yes. Steli is currently reading the book and believes it has a powerful message that can impact one’s decision making. Listen as Steli and Hiten discuss the question “how” and the implications this one question can have on our daily decisions in life and in business.  

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:30 – Steli introduces the book
  • 00:57 – Steli is currently reading the book The Answer to How is Yes
  • 02:10 – The core thesis explained
  • 02:15 – We live in a world that is currently deterministic, utilitarian, and wanting to be useful to an extreme to where it’s not serving us well
  • 02:38 – The book attacks the question: “how?”
  • 03:14 – When we suggest an idea, instead of asking what the idea is, people directly go to the “how” questions; for example, “How are we going to do that? How are we going to get people on board? etc.”
  • 03:50 – People ask the question “how” as a defense mechanism for not acting
  • 05:03 – Hiten searched for the book online
  • 05:20 – If something has to be done, it should be done – no questions asked
  • 06:10 – Hiten focuses more on the right thing to do rather than how something is done
  • 06:45 – You can answer the question “how” after you have made the decision to do it
  • 07:51 – Steli has been self-reflecting while reading the book
  • 08:30 – Sometimes, asking the question “how” can make you unproductive
  • 09:40 – What stands out to Steli from the book is how people use the “how” question as a defense mechanism because the task may be too difficult
  • 11:00 – The question of “how” can be a pragmatic and practical thing
  • 11:50 – Hiten has a lot of practice in answering the question “how”
  • 12:50 – Hiten flips the conversation and would rather ask what is the right thing to do
  • 13:58 – Answering the question “how” is also overwhelming
  • 14:30 – Hiten has always been told by his dad to be an entrepreneur
  • 14:56 – Hiten decided it was the right thing to do without really knowing how to do it
  • 15:40 – Hiten and his co-founder never talked about how to get something done, they just do it
  • 17:00 – Hiten shares how he survived through issues that arose by making an agreement to do the right thing
  • 18:12 – Steli highly recommends the book The Answer to How is Yes
  • 19:50 – In every situation, you just decide to do it—then you tackle the question “how”
  • 21:25 – Tweet Hiten and Steli about a time when you used the book’s advice or how the book has impacted your decision making
  • 21:53 – The author is Peter Block of the book The Answer to How is Yes

3 Key Points:

  1. If something has to be done, get it done – no questions asked.
  2. Asking the question “how” can be a defense mechanism for a difficult task. First, decide to do the task, and then work out the “how”.  
  3. When you’re faced with a problem or a new challenge, ask yourself, “What is the right thing to do?” and go from there.

Hiten: Hi, this is Hiten Shah.


Steli: And this Steli Efti. And in today’s episode of The Startup Chat, I actually wanna do something unusual. I don’t think we’ve ever done this, which is talk a little bit about a book I’m currently reading. So we’ve talked about books and why we love reading, and I think it’s very apparent to most people that know us and have listened to the podcast for a while that we are passionate readers. But I don’t think we’ve ever reviewed a book. And I don’t wanna do that today, because I’m still kind of in the middle of reading it. But I wanna discuss some core ideas I’m picking up out of this book with you, because I’m dying to hear your thoughts on this. So the book that I’m currently reading is written by Peter Block, and it’s called The Answer to How is Yes.


Hiten: Okay. I haven’t read it.


Steli: You have already read it?


Hiten: No, I have not.


Steli: Ah, okay. So I don’t think this is a very well-known or super popular book. It is, I think, older. Let me actually – it’s published 2003. So this is 14 years old book. But, there are – and I’m still kind of in the middle of it, so I’ve not yet finished it, but some of the core – the core idea, I think, has already been communicated to me. And it’s an interesting one. I have never thought about it the way that the author writes about it. And whenever I am exposed to what I would claim or tag as original thought, like something I’ve not heard discussed and explored lots and lots in other places, it fascinates me. First, because I’m like how did this person think about this exact idea, but then I’m also trying to really work with it. So let me summarize what the key thesis is, I think in my own words. And then I’d love to hear your thoughts, and discuss and explore it a little bit with you.


Hiten: Awesome. Yeah.


Steli: Okay, so what Peter Block is saying here, The Answer to How is Yes, what he is, the core thesis of the book, summarized in Steli Efti’s own way would be that we live in a world that’s incredibly deterministic, and as people we try to be practical and utilitarian and useful, and that’s awesome. But if pushed to – it’s been pushed to the extreme to where it’s not serving us well. And one manifestation of us is that he’s really attacking the question how, asking the question how to do something, how something gets done, how much it will cost, how much time it will take, how we gonna get people to be involved. The how question is kind of his thing to attack, but it’s more than just the question how. And to give this in two practical examples, he’ll say that we ask the question how too early too many times, so instead of trying to figure out is this something we should be doing in the first place or not, we’re jumping instinctively too quickly in how to do it, if that makes sense. Right?


Hiten: Right.


Steli: Whenever an idea is proposed, instead of debating the merits of the idea, if that is truly what we should be doing, we tend, as humans, to very quickly go from the idea to how to implement the idea. And that that leads us down the path of working on things that we should have never worked on. And the second thing that he proposes and this is something I’ve never thought about, right? So that’s why I’m so fascinated by it. He says, or he proposed in the book, that another big and possibly very negative reason to ask the question how is as a defense mechanism against doing it in the first place. Right?


Because when it’s something that’s daunting, when it’s something that is challenging, when it’s something we’re afraid of, asking the question how is an easy way out, because the question how will now bring up all kinds of other problems. It will showcase that this is gonna be complicated, or difficult, or expensive, or take a lot of time, or that there’s no way we know how to do this. So there’s gonna be confusion. So asking how can be a defense mechanism against doing things that we should be doing. Just like it can be a trap into doing things that we shouldn’t be doing at all. So I could go and on, but I don’t know how confusing I am, or how much sense all this makes. But what’s your first, initial reaction to this; because I’m pretty sure you’re gonna have one?


Hiten: Yeah, well I mean, while you were talking I was googling it, and I actually don’t think your explanation is wrong. I think it’s just a heady subject. I did find some really great reviews of the book, and already kind of went through them as you were talking just to ramp up.


Steli: In true Hiten fashion, you’re already reading.


Hiten: Oh yeah. Hell yeah. I mean, you’re like, “New book!”  And you liked it? I’m like, all right, what is this book? And I was reading through it, and I think it’s really profound. It’s actually very interesting. And I was thinking through myself, and how I think about a lot of this stuff. And it’s interesting, and in myself, I don’t know why yet, but I don’t really ask how. I just don’t bother. I don’t even – it’s like, if it should be done, it will be done. There’s no point in wondering how it’s gonna be done, because that happens after you decide that you’re gonna do it. I think the way I would say this is for many people, they ask how, because they haven’t decided that they’re gonna do it. So they wanna know all the different ways to get something done, or what they should do with their lives.


Instead, the approach I’ve always taken, and I think it’s either natural, or something I saw growing up, is if it’s right, and if I wanna do it, I’ll get it done. It’s almost like where there’s a will, there’s a way. So if you have the will to do something, then the how just comes as you do it. So I guess what I’m saying is a lot of people wanna know everything about something before they decide to do it. I’m the opposite. I actually don’t care about knowing everything about it. I focus on is this the right thing to do. And the how of doing it doesn’t actually apply. It’s more like is this the right thing to do. What’s the right thing to do. Because I really believe that I can make it happen, regardless of what it is.


And I’ve had to do this many times in my life. Life. For example, we gave this example in the last episode that we were talking about, so it’s fresh in my mind, but when we were building software, Neil and I,  my co-founder and I, we never thought about how were we gonna build software. We just decided we need to build software. It is the right thing to do. And then the how and all that came after the decisions. So, if I’m not mistaken, I’d love t hear what you have to say because you read the book, I dind’t. I’m just reading what you’re saying, and some of these reviews of it, but it’s that we take too much, we spend too much time thinking about how we’re gonna do something, instead of taking the time to think about what we should do. And we kind of conflate the two. So for me, it’s like if I decide that it’s gonna happen, the how comes in the execution of making it happen, not in the decision making of what I should do.


Steli: Yes. So I think that for me, one of the reasons – so that’s true. The thesis here is we don’t first decide what we want to do and why it matters, why it truly matters, and is the right thing to do, before we move on to the question to how to do it. We either combine these two, as in if we don’t know how, then maybe we can’t either decide to do this thing, or we jump to how even before we decide if we should do something or not. I’m not surprised to hear that that’s not a question you ask. I often, you know, because you’re a very wise man. For me, you know it’s funny, since I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been kind of self-observing myself, and it’s a mixed bag with me.


So there’s times where I feel like I’m very focused on the what is truly important here, and I’m not getting – some people will tell me that I’m very good at thinking about big picture, and not getting sucked into the details, or not getting lost into things that don’t matter, and being really good at prioritizing things. But I have, since I’ve been reading this book, I’ve noticed way too many times, scary amount of times, me asking a how question, when it actually was not productive. And it kind of sucked – it moved us in a direction that was kind of useless. So somebody tells me about some numbers that they’ve generated in the business, and then in the email thread, I ask how will we know if these numbers do x, y, and z? And it’s just a curiosity. It’s not even that important.


But I just instinctively ask the how, and then the entire discussion was derailed by that how question, because the person responded with all these things we could do to track these other things, and then I went, and then we went down this rabbit hole that was totally unproductive. And I only noticed it and stopped it because I was reading the book. So I was like oh, there’s times when I’m mindlessly asking how to do something, and I can derail the debate or the discussion, or push people in directions that are not productive. So I definitely have noticed that I’m asking how quite often, and not always, or many times, not in the best possible way. So that’s been one big part of it.


But the other one, the more powerful thing for me, Hiten, is that second part, which is the one that you already described, but I’m not quite sure how to put this in words, it’s something that’s daunting, or something that is difficult, and because it’s something that’s kind of pushing your buttons, or you’re afraid of, or people are unsure about, they’re fully focusing on the how question in order to not have to do it, or in order to, as a defense mechanism. Or even seeing people ask, “Well, yeah, but how are we gonna do this?” as a defense mechanism to doing it. Not, “Well, but is this really the right thing to do?” but rather, “Well, but how exactly are we going to do it?” and then the other person in the debate or discussion doesn’t have all the answers to the how, right, doesn’t have the perfect game plan.


And just because they don’t have it, they’ve lost the argument now. And kind of the room has decided that we’re not doing this. Right? Although it’s still the right thing to do. So that, I’ve never paid as much attention to the dynamic when people are arguing or discuss thing, when somebody brings up how we’re going to do this, not just mere as a practical and pragmatic way of looking at the world, but as a defensive way of looking at the world. I never thought of how as a defensive question, potentially. Although it’s so obvious to me now, and I’ve now observed it multiple times in discussions, because I’m reading the book and I’m looking at the world through those lenses.


I’ve never thought that how – for me, how are we going to do something, or the question of how, was always a very pragmatic and practical thing. But now I see that sometimes it’s used as a very defensive thing, and you can win arguments with asking how and kind of making the other side look stupid or unprepared, and taking away the strength of the argument from the other side. Although you shouldn’t, because just because they don’t how to do it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.


Hiten: Yeah, so I don’t know – some people would probably say, “Oh, Hiten, this is your super power,” or whatever, or something like that, but if someone asks me how on any topic, I’ll give them a damn answer. So what I’ve done in those situations myself, and I wouldn’t suggest this to everybody, because it’s like, I used to get it – actually, I never really got it wrong. I’d always like bullshit my way through it, but now I don’t even bullshit. I actually will tell you how. Because I have a lot of practice telling people how, just ‘cause. Anyone asks me how, and I’ll have an answer.


And I know that’s not a good answer for anybody listening, you know, but you know, part of it is like I was talking to someone actually at the conference that I was at a couple days ago, and we were talking about something, and they kept like kind of wondering like, “How do you just do that? Like how are you just prepared like that?”  And the conclusion we just came to was like you’ll just always have an answer, and it’ll be damn good. And I’ll be like, “Yeah, but I’m just thinking about it, and bringing it back to the basics.”  And I can do that without any up front work. So we were actually talking about it, because it was actually about management, and how do you manage a person who you might think is unmanageable, how do you decide if you micromanage them or manage them without micromanaging it.


And since you went into this topic and you were talking about your team and losing arguments, for me, what it boiled down to was if you’re gonna come talk to me, I’m not necessarily gonna ask you how, but I will ask you why you think that’s right. And so I just flip the conversation over and basically say, “Let’s not get into the how. I don’t think that’s important yet. Let’s go figure out what the right thing to do is, because,” and this is the most empowering statement I think you can say to your team, “because no matter what it is, I know that we can figure it out.”  


So the how is less important than us having a ton of conviction that it’s the right thing to do. So I basically just bring it back to is it the right thing to do. Because if we can all align on the right thing to do, the how we will figure out collectively. If we’re not aligned on the right thing to do, then yeah, we’re all gonna debate the how. We’re all gonna be like, “Oh, we can’t do this,” or “We can do this.”  But here’s the thing. You’re talking about decision making, and you’re talking about life decisions, you’re talking about – I mean, from the book, what I can tell is this applies to decision making in any kind of decision you wanna make.


Steli: Right.


Hiten: And so if we spend so much time thinking about the how, we get scared. We just get scared. It’s just like oh, we can’t do it! There’s so much work to do. We don’t know how to do it. Right?


Steli: Yeah, we get overwhelmed. We get overwhelmed. Most –


Hiten: Yeah. Don’t trigger fear.


Steli: most human –


Hiten: You’re triggering fear.


Steli: Yeah. Most human endeavors that are worthwhile pursuing, we would, in many cases not pursue if we knew how hard, how much time, and how much more effort it took than we thought originally, right? I mean –


Hiten: Yeah, especially starting a company.


Steli: Especially starting a company.


Hiten: Especially with those kind of decisions, yeah.


Steli: Yeah.


Hiten: I don’t ask how. I don’t ask how before I start the company. I’m like, “Yeah, I need to start a company. This corporate job sucks. I don’t want anyone to be my boss.”


Steli: So you –


Hiten: Yeah?


Steli: Oh go ahead, go ahead.


Hiten: Oh, I was just gonna say for me, I just figured out where it came from. My dad, since I was about four years old said, “You should be an entrepreneur. You should work for yourself.”  And then over time, that’s all I knew. So if that’s all you know, then you’re doing the impossible, as many would say, where you’re like, “Okay, I have to think about how to start something from scratch.”  Well, how do I start something from scratch without knowing anything about it? I juts decide that it’s the right thing to do, and I go, and the how figures itself out, because I have decided.


Steli: I love it. I love it. He’s a quote that really relates to this from the book, which is “The most common rationalization for doing things we do not believe in is that what we really desire either takes too much time, it takes too long, costs too much, or will be too difficult.”  All right?


Hiten: Yeah, there you go.


Steli: There you go. There you go.


Hiten: Yeah. It’s like no it won’t. No it won’t. Like let’s not, let’s just, I mean, I would implore everybody, like just forget about how something needs to be done, or forget about any of that, and just focus on is it the right thing to do. Actually, my co-founder and I use this constantly. Constantly, without knowing it. You know? So, thank you for sharing Steli. Like, it really is enlightening. But Neal and I, when we get in a conversation, we don’t talk about how to get it done, ever.


Steli: I love it. That’s so empow –


Hiten: ever


Steli: And the quote that you said earlier, which was like the most empowering thing you can say to your people is that if we decide that something needs to get done –


Hiten: It’ll get done.


Steli: we will figure out, we will get it done, we will find a way.


Hiten: Yeah. I –


Steli: Right. I love that.


Hiten: Yeah. When we were going through a lawsuit, and it was terrible, we actually had the lowest amount of attrition in the company of the history of the company. Since then, there’s been a lot of attrition. Before that, there’s definitely not that much attrition. It was a small team, but like there was a lot of dissent. After we had the lawsuit, I had to give a few speeches, type of things, or motivational things, or whatever. I didn’t think of them. I was just like fuck, like we’re screwed. We gotta figure this out, right? But all I knew was we’re gonna get through this. As long as we all agree that we’re not shutting this thing down and we’re gonna get through it, that’s all we needed alignment on. The company’s still alive, so that’s the evidence that we got through it.


Right or wrong, whether we should have shut it down or not is for a whole ‘nother episode, but – and I might have talked about it a little bit – but at the end of the day, we decided are gonna survive. We didn’t worry about the how, because we knew that we would do it. And I have to say things like what you just said. Like, “Look, we’re a team. This is a start-up. Things change. We’re gonna have to deal with that.” And our Glass Door ratings at that time, like if you look at Glass Door and all that, and since then, until I stopped being CEO, I’m not touting my own horn, there’s facts here, we’re really hot. It’s because anytime there was an issue, I would always focus on – have we decided? Is this the right thing to do? Great! Then let’s just align on that.


And if anyone disagrees, let’s talk about it right now, because until we get in agreement and this alignment, this is probably where my whole thing about alignment comes from, we don’t need, we’re good. As long as we get that alignment, we’re good. We don’t need to worry about it. If we need to hire someone new, if people need to be switched around, I mean, at our company, we had someone who came in as marketing, ended up running customer success, and then went back to marketing after that project was done, or after a couple years, and then he left. Right? But we didn’t worry about it. We didn’t care. We knew that we could get it done, and everyone that was on the team was on board for that, and knew that they would be ready to do whatever it took. They would be ready for the how, as long as we all decided. And every time it worked. It’s just like one of those universal things. What an interesting book.


Steli: Yeah, dude, I highly recommend it. There’s like almost every – as I said, I’m only halfway through it, but every page or two there’s a sentence. It’s written really well. It’s very thoughtful and every second page or so, I have to stop and think about what was just said to me, and search through it and work through it. And I read so many books, and it’s so rare that I pick up a book that truly asks different questions or proposes ideas in ways that I hadn’t thought about before, and that kind of influences me in ways where every day I kind of look at situations where I go, “Oh, shit, look at all these people asking how, and look at how the dynamic changes, and what happens.”  And I’m noticing these things in different ways that I didn’t pay attention to before. So so far I’m really impressed, and I’m really in love with this.


Hiten: That’s awesome.


Steli: And I knew asking you – I knew whenever I have something I’m fascinated by, I just have to start a conversation with you about it, and some new gold nuggets will pop up for, at least the two of us, but most of the time, people tell us for them as well. All right, so –


Hiten: Yeah, hopefully somebody else cares, right?


Steli: So, let’s wrap it up. I don’t even wanna have a tip for this, necessarily. I think that, I mean, for some people they might pick up the book, and read it, inspired by our discussion.


Hiten: Yeah.


Steli: But I think the real, the core message here is knowing the utility of when to ask how but also knowing that asking it as the first line of defense, or as the first decision-making filter is probably a really bad idea. And noticing when people ask how as a defense not to do something because it’s daunting, it’s challenging, it’s difficult. And not knowing the how is not a good enough reason not to do something. And I think the last thing you said, we’re gonna have to do an episode about, which is the you just, in certain situations, you decide first and then the answers come, right? And I think it –


Hiten: I, honestly, in every situation –


Steli: in every situation


Hiten: I can pretty much use that.


Steli: Yeah, yeah.


Hiten: I don’t think it’s certain. I think it’s like if you start using that in every situation, you’re gonna get rid of that fear, you’re gonna get rid of that ego issue, you’re gonna get rid of so many issues. So it’s probably a whole episode.


Steli: Yeah.


Hiten: Yeah. I –


Steli: And I think that a lot of people can think back to – everybody can think back to a time when that happened. I can think of many times, because I’ve been through many challenging situations, just like you, where you decide first, and then the answers pop up, and then the how appears or develops. And I think that having – that comes back to that self-belief. We will figure out a way. Once we decided that this is the right thing to do, we will come up with the how as a second step. But let’s not worry about that. Let’s first decide that that’s what’s gonna happen.


Hiten: Okay. So before we end, I have some requests for the audience on this one.


Steli: Oooh.


Hiten: So Steli, at the end, after I’m done, I would like you to repeat the book name, the author, and obviously where they can get it. We all know where. And so we should do that. And if you don’t wanna buy the book, you just google the title and everything that Steli said in Google Summary, because I read a bunch of these, and there’s one PDF out there, this will be the first treasure hunt on our podcast, I guess. But if you find that PDF, it’s like four or five pages, it is so good, about this book. But I don’t wanna cheat, because people should buy the book. It sounds amazing.


Steli: Yeah.


Hiten: So read it, or get the concept we’re talking about. You could even just listen to this podcast and answer this, and then start tweeting at us. @steli, S T E L I, and @hnshah, H N S H A H, on Twitter. And let us know about a time when you used it or a time when you didn’t, and/or how this has impacted your decision-making since you understood this. Anything you have on this, I think this is one of the most important topics we’ve talked about, to be honest, and we really wanna hear from you.


Steli: Absolutely. So, okay, the author is Peter Block, B L O C K, Peter Block, and the book title is The Answer to How is Yes:  Acting on What Matters. If you type in the answer to how is yes, you’ll find it top result, you can find it obviously on Amazon, get the Kindle or the hard copy version of this, or you can find a bunch of summaries online that are really good. Yeah, read about this topic and share your questions, your answers, your examples with us. This is a super powerful one that we should all explore together more.


Hiten: Yep.


Steli: That’s it from us. Bye-bye.


Hiten: Bye.