Google Nailed the Word of the Year in 2020 — Here’s Why

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Every year I’m excited to see what Google’s “Year in Search’’ reveals about society. And in 2020 — the most tumultuous, uncertain time in recent history — search was dominated by a small but highly impactful word: WHY.

If you haven’t seen the video yet, take a look:

As a Design Thinker, the first line of the video resonates with me most: “The most human trait is to want to know why.”

Which gets me thinking: why is that?

Before you Google “Why why?” here are some answers.

When facing life’s uncertainties, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön advises, “Let your curiosity be greater than your fear.”

I believe this isn’t an idle wish but a guidepost that we can all use to navigate challenges, both personally and professionally. In 2020, with so much stripped away from our day-to-day lives, we were forced to confront the realities of the present moment. The pandemic brought values to the fore. Facing conflict, challenges, and contrast, we were awoken into a state of curiosity.

It’s no wonder, then, that why led the path forward for billions of people around the world who were seeking solutions. And many of us didn’t like the answers, which often were inconclusive, contradictory, and heart-wrenching.

I like what Chödrön says about the truth of curiosity:

“There is a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same. A much more interesting, kind, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet.”

In other words, follow your curiosity out of your comfort zone and into vital new directions. It’s how everyone from accidental entrepreneurs to fighter pilots and unicorn startup founders find inspiration in hardship by wielding wonder and asking questions.

Part of what the ingenious, provocative Google video did was walk us through the dominant emotions of 2020, which ranged from devastation and heartbreaking loss to empowerment, possibility, and redemption.

Playing against those emotions was the clack of a keyboard, typing questions in all languages into a search bar. What was interesting to me was that no results were shown — because that’s not what mattered. Curiosity isn’t satisfied in a nanosecond, which is why we must, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously advised, live the questions:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Asking the same question over and over again is not going to lead to a new answer. It’s not going to open the door to a new possibility. It’s not going to unlock progress. Continuously asking — and living — different questions helps you uncover purpose and gain momentum.

So ultimately, what I love about Google is what it stands for: the idea of search. The impetus to always be exploring is how we uncover new pathways. This is a good thing in life in general and in business. There’s always a better way to serve others, be it your family and friends, employees, clients, colleagues, or the general public.

This brings me to the one thing I disagree with Google about. “Why” isn’t just the word of 2020. If you’re interested in uplifting yourself and everyone around you, why should be your word every year.

So, while we don’t know the new challenges and solutions 2021 will bring, we can all agree it will be something that will change everything. Because of course, change is the only constant.

Lucky for all of us, the search continues.

Founder and Force-multiplier @digitalsurgeons. &

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