02 Dec

Why, Not What

Chicken in the road

Most of us focus on what we want, not why.
But the why is everything.

Here’s the thing: success is contextual, but we make it absolute. We make it about money. Or fame. Or follower counts. But when we focus only on what we (think we) want, we turn success into a very narrowly defined thing, one that closes our eyes to the possibilities sitting just beyond that narrowed view.

Focusing on why we want what we want, on the other hand, means that even if we don’t achieve some big, hairy, audacious goal, we still succeed—because our success is tied to something higher. Focusing on the why means the what can change. That a million more options are open to us. That we see success in terms of degrees, as steps in a process…not an all-or-nothing destination.

So why do we focus on the what? Because it’s easier. Because the what is outside of us, separate from us, and therefore easier to blame on others if it doesn’t come to pass. Because we can follow the crowd of others’ expectations. Because following the what means we don’t have to do the very hard work of figuring out what our ownexpectations are of ourselves—and the even harder work of cleaving to that unwaveringly. And that’s scary.

Figuring out the why brings clarity and coherence. It ties together all the things you do and wraps them in meaning. Call it a mission. Call it a purpose. Call it vision. Call it core competencies.

Whatever you call it, figuring out the why means you’ve got a reason for doing what you’re doing, one that survives the inevitable pitfalls and wrong turns. It gives you a basis for prioritization, for deciding what—when you have to make the hard choices—are the things you will and won’t make time for.

How do you figure out the why? Look at the evidence. Look at where you’ve been happiest. Look at what ties it all together. Look at where you find that enviable intersection between your talents and the challenges you face—the place where the work (the what) falls away and you’re blind to what it’s taking to get there.

I figured out a long time ago that I’m here to make things better. It would be easy for me to get lost in what I do, or what I’ve done. Titles. Roles. Tools. It took a very unhappy work experience, combined with a major life change, for me to figure out that the what is immaterial. At most, it’s a means to an end. I don’t have to be a [insert title here] to be happy. I don’t have to make $[XX] dollars.

At the end of the day, I just need to know I made things better.

That’s my why. What’s yours?

Note: this post originally appeared on Round the Square