Awhile back I was pondering two questions that, if made a part of our usual routine, could help to keep our brains active. I suggested that, unlike puzzles, Sudoku and other things that require a pen and paper or a book, these two questions could exercise our brains anywhere and anytime. In fact, they help to make life easier.

The first one was "why?" I mentioned examples such as when I was standing in line in a bank, watching what was going on around me, it dawned on me that we call the people behind the bank counter "tellers." Why, when they don't "tell"? At least I hope they don't. I certainly wouldn't want them to tell other people about my finances.

The second question is "what if?" The obvious answer to that, in the case of the bank teller, is to find out why. "What if" I went to look it up? So I did, and I became a little more knowledgeable because of it.

According to, the word "teller" has two meanings. The first is "to count, reckon," and the second "to inform, narrate." The first meaning fell out of use, and now we are most familiar with the second. It came from an old English word, first used at the end of the 15th century. That word had originally come from the German word "tellan," meaning "to reckon, calculate, count, consider." According to Wikipedia, the word means "all told," or all counted. And according to Wacky Questions Examiner, in the United Kingdom, a teller is one who counts votes after an election.

Now that is useful "cocktail party knowledge," handy for sometime I am looking for a conversation starter. In one of those awkward silences, I can ask, "Have you ever thought about why bank tellers are called that? After all, I sure hope they don't tell!" Then I could talk about how I happened to be thinking about that, and asking about the "whys" and "what ifs" in life.

When I wrote about getting into the good habit of asking "why," I mentioned it might be productive to ask "why" about many rules. I used an example of the woman who was a night person and simply couldn't get to work by 8:30 in the morning. This drove her boss's boss bonkers, because he was really into rules. Flexibility, when necessary, was never an option for him.

This inflexible boss was also my boss. Because of the kind of work that we did, I thought it would be a great idea to go to flextime, which would ease the tension about the woman who could not get there on time in the morning. I also thought that we could go to a four-day workweek, rotating who was off on Fridays and who on Mondays.

But, not liking change even if it made great sense, and being inflexible, he did not agree. I decided that if I did nothing else while working for him, I would try to help him develop a sense of humor. I knew that would help him a lot in becoming more flexible. So, one time when he was on vacation, I was filling in for him for the two weeks he was gone.

First thing on the Monday morning of his return, I went to his office to tell him what had been happening in his absence and what decisions I had made. When I got to the bottom of my notes, I added, "I did decide to implement a four-day work-week. And oh, by the way, your secretary won't be in today because it is her regular day off." At first I thought he was going to have a heart attack right there in the office. But he soon saw that I was joking and actually started to laugh himself.

This boss had a weekend place on the Mississippi River, a fair drive from our office in Chicago, especially grueling on Friday evenings in get-out-of-Chicago traffic. Friday afternoons were very quiet for us, so I asked him why he didn't leave early, since nothing big ever happened in the office anyway. At first he wouldn't even consider it since it was outside of the "rules." But, after awhile, he started leaving an hour early, then two hours early. By the time I moved on from that job, he was sometimes leaving as early as right after lunch. He could justify that time off because, after all, he was always there an hour or more early every day anyway. He was becoming a little more flexible.

We did use the "what if" question, however, when he was leaving early. We planned ahead by saying what if this happened, or what if that happened. We tried to have Plan B for every possible big important thing that could come up. Fortunately, we never had to use a Plan B.

While the "why" question is great for improving what we know and stimulating curiosity and creativity, the "what if" question simply makes life easier. What if we need to be somewhere at a particular time, and we run into unexpected traffic or road construction?

"What if" prompts us to always have a Plan B and maybe a Plan C. And immediately looking for alternatives when we do encounter a problem gets us immediately looking for solutions. That keeps us from engaging in an emotional "woe is me!"

Why? What if? It's that easy.