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Finding Your Why

I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment in Ulcinj, Montenegro, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The sound of small construction echoed through the valley as men worked on roofs and inside houses preparing for the big tourist season that was just around the corner.

I looked over at one of the workers on a neighboring roof and wondered, what's his 'why'? Why is he doing what he's doing right now? He likely wants to earn money to feed himself or his family or to provide himself or his family shelter.

What are his 'whats'? What does he do that backs up and reinforces his why?

Well, he spends large amounts of his time doing work that is laborious and difficult. He travels whatever distance is necessary to get to that work and he acquires the tools necessary to complete the work.

I've been listening to the audio version of Simeon Sinek's book, Start With Why, and the insights are fantastic. I highly recommend it. The premise of the book is that everything starts with why and that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." But this principle extends much further than just business. In fact, it applies to everything in life.

Everything starts with why.

This got me thinking about my own 'why'. Why do I do what I do? At first, the answer seemed obvious. But in reality, this is exactly the trap that nearly all businesses in the world fall into: they confuse their why with their what and their how. (Simeon gives many real-world examples in his book, all of which are quite eye-opening.)

I decided to make two small lists in a text file on my laptop, a list of my whys and a list of my whats. I didn't bother with the hows immediately but instead focused on making sure that only real whys were put on the why list. Here are my raw, unedited lists:

WHY'S (Why do I do it?)

  • I believe in living deeply
  • I believe in thinking beyond myself
  • I believe that technology will unite humanity
  • I believe in living and thinking deeply beyond myself
  • I believe technology empowers human evolution
  • I believe that technology is a catalyst for human progress

WHAT'S (What do I do?)

  • Write
  • Publish and share things online
  • Value quality, strength, durability, thoroughness, thoughtfulness
  • Seek other perspectives
  • Remain realistically optimistic
  • Dig deeper
  • Ask Why
  • Helpful
  • Think deeply
  • Think deeply about what matters most in life
  • Question the status quo
  • Seek change
  • Learn new things and share what I learn
  • Live minimally, while maximizing the potential of available tools
  • Think sustainably
  • Ponder the future
  • Ask what role technology plays in human evolution

The whats list came surprisingly easy, but the whys list was hard! I started adding things to my what list and it kept growing. Every time I thought that I had a why to add to the why list, I realized after a bit of thought that it was actually a what, not a why. It was something that reinforced my why, not the why itself.

Eventually the real whys began to emerge and I was easily able to cross-check them. From Simeon's book, I knew that whats should always reenforce whys, so I was able to take any of the whys and ask myself, "do my whats reenforce this?" If the answer was no, then I knew immediately that it wasn't really my why. (Asking myself that question assumes that what I do is already in alignment with my why, which I feel that it is, or at least that it's pretty close.)

If you're interested in trying this exercise, take a few minutes and follow these steps:

  1. Make a list with two headers: "WHAT'S" and "WHY'S"
  2. Start with listing what you do, the things that you love doing in your spare time and that you see yourself always doing in the future.
  3. After you have 10-15 items on the list, start looking for patterns and overarching themes. Start asking yourself, "why do I do these things? Why do they matter to me?"
  4. Now slowly, but cautiously (remember, whats are easy to confuse for whys) add things to the whats list. If you come up with something that seems like a why but ends up being a what, simply transfer it to the what list.

(If you try this exercise and you're willing to share the results with me, I've love to see them.)

I certainly haven't figured out all of my whys or all of my whats, but I do feel a lot closer. I will continue with this exercise and add a third list of hows. Then I'll keep revisiting this and checking if what I'm doing in my life properly reflects my core why.

Exercises like these can be helpful for everyone in many ways. They help clarify why we wake up in the morning, why we do the work we do, and why we make the choices we make. But it's easy to miss the why. If you go back and re-analyze the construction worker that I mentioned earlier, you'll discover that even his whys go much deeper than food and shelter.

If we get more clear about our why, then we can make better decisions and better choices and live more productive, happy, and harmonious lives.

For some additional reading on this topic, check out How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love.

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