I believe it was Simon Sinek who coined the term “Start With Why”, and first brought the idea of the importance of connecting to your deeper ‘Why’ into mainstream culture. It’s become a sort of catchphrase or household term over the last few years. Whatever we do in life typically revolves around our purpose, or our desire to put value into the world, and the idea with this question is that we need to understand what that purpose is beyond just wanting to do the thing. It’s a really beautiful idea, and these days, most people know immediately what you mean when you ask some version of “what’s your Why?”. However, in its becoming commonplace, it’s lost some nuance, and taken on some unconscious meanings that I don’t think always serve us in our real inquiry into our Deeper Why.
We don’t have just one Why
The first issue that I think has stemmed from the normalization of this question in our daily lives is the notion that we have one Why – one Purpose – a singular, deeper, more meaningful Why, for each thing we do.
Sometimes choosing just one (as a focus) is helpful. It can be a good exercise in prioritization, in understanding ourselves, and in recognizing our motives, without diluting what’s true by adding All The Things. But that’s just an exercise; I actually believe that assuming we only have one Why for each venture in our lives is usually incorrect.
When we subscribe to this idea that we must have just one Why, this often leads to the idea that this One Why must be big, profound, and have the deepest spiritual meaning possible.
Not every Why has to be profound
When this question was first put into the world, I think there was a significant value in taking things that might have existed on the surface and tethering them to our deeper values. Understanding the reasons why we were putting things forth into the world in certain ways was valuable for discovering our purpose and finding happiness in that. But the truth is, not all of our Whys are big and deep and profound. This perspective means our Whys get conceptualized into more abstract ideas, such as “I want to help the world”, or “I want to serve”. Often, this becomes abstract to the point that it no longer has meaning and none of us really know what our unique, individual, and personal Why is. We need to take a step back, or maybe forward, into ourselves, and discover where our Why’s come from in ourselves, specifically.
There are many ways this conversation could go for you. You could find that your Why developed from your experience being raised by a single mother, being on food stamps as a child, being drawn to a particular thing that you found beauty in, having experienced discrimination, or experiencing great loss in your life. Some of our most painful experiences are what shape our perspectives of what matters most to us in the world.
This being said, our Whys don’t have to stem from a negative or painful experience. For example, as a child I loved to play dress up. We had very little money, and I had very few toys, but one of the things I had was a huge bag of dress up clothes. In some way, I used this as an escape. I could live other lives, and insert myself in other worlds, and I could be creative in unlimited ways. I see now, as an adult, how this experience informs a lot of my work in the world and influences a lot of my perspectives. These experiences touch my deeper Why’s, and ground them in specificity: My Why’s are not just ‘to serve’, but ‘to serve in ways that offer people access to a wider range of what they consider authentic, through full expression, so that every person feels free to be who they truly are’.
We can better understand ourselves, and better understand that which we want to put into the world, by not just abstracting out into the highest, or deepest, level of how we want to change the world or serve people, but to instead ask, what is interesting, weird, and unique about me? As a child, how did I cope? What were the big events that shaped my life? What lenses do I look through today as a result? These are also our Why’s.
Accept your weird little selfish Why’s
It is important to not just default to the Why’s that we think are good, or deep, or big. Ask yourself, what are the little ones? Which ones are a little bit selfish? Which ones are about us finding belonging or acceptance in the world? These questions can give us a more honest perspective about ourselves and our desires. They can also help us speak better to the world, to other people who might want what we want too. We often want to hide those more selfish, non-altruistic things about ourselves, and we put forth this bigger idea that we think makes us look better. But, if we put forth these weird little selfish Why’s, others are actually able to see themselves within our words. They recognize a bit of themselves in those feelings and expressions.
It’s important to note that it is also okay for money to be a Why. There’s often an undercurrent in these conversations that we shouldn’t ‘do it for the money’. There have even been many times in my life where I’ve said, if I never needed money again in my life, what would I change? And the answer has been: pretty much nothing, I’d just be a little less stressed. However, there have also been times when money has absolutely been a factor, and I’ve felt that if I didn’t need money, then I wouldn’t do my work anymore. It is OK for your Why to include money! And hiding that (usually from ourselves first), will only convolute and confuse people.
Take this conversation into your life in a tangible way
The concept of understanding your Why is an ongoing process. It’s important to allow our Why’s to ebb and flow, and to change and evolve over time.
As we enter a New Year, there’s a force of momentum we can harness, as we collectively think about what we want to let go of, celebrate, and create in the new year. You might also find that your birthday is a time of powerful reflection. These are important reflections and questions to bring in anytime you begin a new project – not just ‘who is this for?’ but ‘why is this for me to do?’
I invite you to include these Why’s in your reflections as you think through this. And if you want help figuring this out, or better understanding where your Whys come from, feel free to reach out to me: https://www.kendracunov.com/connect/
I also go into this topic with a lot more depth in this video: