The Ramifications of Listening, Part 1: Considering “Why don’t you just…?”

Why don’t you just…

We receive questions of this nature every day. How many times have you said it or heard it in the past week alone? You certainly can’t act on all of these suggestions, but how much advice do we really hear, or internalize, or act upon? To some of the bigger ideas, our automatic response may be, “That sounds amazing, but…” If you stop for a moment and think about why it sounds amazing, the “but…” may turn into “...and so I will.”

Here are just two examples of when someone said to me, “Why don’t you just...?” and I really listened. These two instances led to some interesting outcomes.

Why Don’t You Just Enter the Miss America Pageant?

As someone once nicknamed “Virus Girl,” when a friend asked me, “Why don’t you just enter the Miss America pageant?” my response was, “I don’t think so.” I was focused on academics. I loved to study, play music, and watch Star Trek. I could immediately think of several reasons I wouldn’t or shouldn’t enter a pageant. Being an introvert, just the thought of standing in front of thousands of people was traumatizing. And although I loved dressing up, I had yet to discover that clothes come in colors other than black and white. Entering a pageant was not an idea I would have come up with for myself. Yet, as I learned more about it, I decided this was a surprisingly good option for me. I committed to it.

There’s much more to pageants than showing up and wearing a pretty dress. When I entered the Miss Massachusetts pageant, I discovered many things, including the fact that clothes can be any color of the rainbow. I had to learn the process. I also needed to find the right people to help me. I routinely practiced many aspects of pageant competition, and strived to improve my speaking and presentation skills.

It took me three years to win the Miss Massachusetts title, and there was never a guarantee that I was going to win. But when I did, it was all worth it. Science education was my Miss America platform and as Miss Massachusetts, I was able to talk about STEM and share my passion for science education with many influential people.

Becoming Miss Massachusetts also brought me to new volunteer opportunities. I was attending a summer party at a VA hospital, playing cards with a group of patients, when someone asked me, “What are you going to do with your life?”

I replied, “Well, good question.” Of course, I had already been pondering this. I would either go to medical school or graduate school, but I was still working out the details.

Then he said, “There’s someone you have to meet.” And the someone he spoke of was Dr. Wayne Matson. Wayne had recently sold his biotech business and was doing research at the VA. I met him and loved him. He’s an amazing and wonderful individual, and I ended up doing a collaborative project with him for my PhD thesis. This leads me to the second big, “Why don’t you just...?”


Why Don’t You Just Start A Company?

Image: Why don't you just turn your Phd thesis into a company?“Why don’t you just start a company based on your PhD thesis?” my husband asked me. “Instead of publishing a million papers, if you two are passionate about personalized health care, why don’t you just start a business?”

These were good questions. The prospect seemed exciting but certainly not less difficult than “just” entering the Miss America pageant. By the end of our collaborative project, one of the things Wayne and I had discovered was that with a small volume of blood you can look at the health of the gut microbiome and see whether it is in good or bad shape. We also found that we could create personalized solutions to help individuals live healthier lives.

Starting a company based on our findings was a great idea. And, long story short, we did just that. Wayne and I are the co-founders of Ixcela. We work every day to empower people to take control of their wellness.

Addressing the Challenges

Just implies that a proposal will be simple. But if it’s a complex undertaking that’s worth accomplishing, it will probably not be simple. Here are some tips for considering big ideas.

  • Timing matters. Parse out your long-term and short-term goals. It’s OK to come to the conclusion that it’s actually a good idea—but for another time.

  • Be clear about your goals. Determine what you are really interested in and what’s important to you. What do you care about? Does this “Why don’t you…?” align with your goals?

  • Ask for help. Don’t let pride get in your way. You may need partners, information, and support even before you begin.

  • Don’t let lack of knowledge stop you. There’s always a way to learn the things you need to know.

  • Realize there are no guarantees and you may not figure it out on the first go. If the goal is worth it, be prepared to keep trying. Practice, re-do, re-try, and re-search.

  • Nothing exciting happens in your comfort zone. Stretch beyond what you’re used to and make a positive impact.

  • Stop and consider. Don’t automatically write off ideas just because they seem too lofty. Practice saying, “Let me process that.” And then think, “What if…?”

There are things we suggest to each other all the time, like “Just go eat lunch” or “Just clean your office.” There are wild ideas we joke about, like “Just sign up for the pageant,” or “Just build a robot.” And sometimes, the more you think about those wild ideas, they don’t seem so wild; they become plans. Those plans become actions, and if we’re really successful, our accomplishments can do some good in the world.

The next time you hear “Why don’t you…?” take a moment to really listen. It could be your first step toward something really exciting.


P.S. If you like this article, check out The Ramifications of Listening, Part 2: Underwater Roombas—and Ceviche 

P.S.S. Want to see me talk about the points in this article? Check out my talk from the Amazon re:MARS event in June 2019. 

erika_angleABOUT ERIKA 

Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.