The What and How of Why

I don’t recall being a child that always asked the question “Why?”. I reckon I did though. And if you have children you may have experienced or are experiencing this type of incessant questioning from a curious mind.

Sometimes there is no clear answer to that question. Sometimes you just have to go on a bit of faith, to have a go, to experiment, before you can answer “Why” in any real and meaningful way.

Sometimes you need to stop looking for your why. Image courtesy of Melina McGrew, USA

Why’ is often synonymous with purpose. Simon Sinek has helped reinforce the notion that knowing your Why is crucial to building personal and professional success and happiness. Having clarity on what you and what you and others are working towards brings focus to the things you do and how you do them, and this makes sense. I agree with this view and endeavour to practice it individually and with others.

But, and there is a but, starting with why, or staying with why, can also be a debilitating and disempowering mental state that leads to lack of action and momentum. And it starts with your locus of control.

When we ask why, it is because we are trying to make sense of our contexts, our situation, of someone else’s behaviour. For those things we have a greater level of control and agency over, we know the why more implicitly as we have either designed our circumstance or been a co-constructor in it. This could be why you work where you do, why you spend time with the people in your life, and why you live where you live. You may not necessarily like your current circumstances completely, but you have a certain level of control over it.

For circumstances and contexts you have less control over, your brain works to understand this as quickly as possible. That’s its job. And we like that our brain looks after us. Mostly. Because as you ask the Why question over and over to satisfy this need to understand your circumstance, you may not get all the information you need to make sense of things and this can lead to frustration. And the less control of have over things, the more you will feel frustrated.

For example, this might be at work, where you have been asked to complete some tasks and you don’t have all the information and it hasn’t been made available to you, yet you are under pressure to deliver. Or it could be even more complex, where you are working on what your own purpose is in your personal or professional life and despite your intentions, still have not come up with a clear answer to your Why.

If you have found yourself in this situation of asking why, why, why, you have a choice. You can choose to continue asking, and likely get more frustrated, or accept that at that moment, you have all the information you are likely to get without changing your circumstances. Both solutions require you focus on the what and the how of the circumstances, and park the Why.

This doesn’t mean you give up on ever finding answers to your Why question. It just means you accept enough to then take action, to get momentum in a direction. The moment you start to do that, you create different circumstances that will give you more and different data to consider for your Why question. For example:

  • working with someone differently
  • working with different people
  • working in a different way to your norm
  • behaving differently in a relationship with you spouse, your family, your significant other and your friends
  • trying something new, such as volunteering for an organisation in a different industry or for an industry you have a passion for

I once heard an expression “Why is a crooked letter no one ever got straight”. Ask the question Why – to a point. Be sure to explore the what and the how around you. Sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for until you find it. And to find it you need to explore. Every exploration in the history of humankind has never travelled a straight path.


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