Linking the 'What' to the 'Why'

All my fellow idealists out there: This blog is for you.

This 4-minute video that is the perfect example of the importance of knowing why you do what you do. Check it out:

Let's bring this back to you.

You got into this work for reasons that are best known to you. Everyone has a variety of reasons and motivations, but there's a big chance you got into your work, at least in part, to make a positive difference at whatever level and in whatever area you felt most passionate about or best suited.

But there's something that happens along the way, and it happens to most of us. And I don't mean 20 or 30 percent...I mean most of us who have been in it a while. We get tired. We get frustrated. Then we get angry. If that anger doesn't get expressed in a constructive way, sometimes we turn that anger and frustration inward upon ourselves. We get to feeling cynical and hopeless. We start questioning, maybe asking ourselves the hard or ugly questions that never seemed to be allowed during our early years for fear of not being seen as committed or dedicated enough. We don't want to face those questions, and we don't want our boss and colleagues to know they're there, either.

But there comes a time when the questions inside are too strong to be ignored or pushed down anymore. They keep arising and, quite frankly, they can be embarrassing. We feel ashamed, and sad too, that the painful, despairing questions are now stronger inside us than the hope we used to feel.

Perhaps the hardest part is that the questions reveal a lot about who you've become and -- perhaps more importantly -- who you might no longer be.

I've been there.

Just speaking from my own life experience with this: If I sit with that reality long enough -- the fact that my dark questions revealed a lot about who I'd become and also about who I wasn't anymore -- it doesn't take long for me to feel that pang in my heart, the constricting of my throat as the tears well up. It's happening right now as I write this. Because I clearly remember the first season in my late 20's when those questions assaulted me, forcing me to deal with them...and I remember what it did to my perception of my identity.

And it wasn't fun.

In fact, it was one of the most painful transformative processes I've gone through yet. That was almost 10 years ago, and my emotions are still affected today by remembering that season. It was the beginning of the end of the strong idealist in me.

I loved that idealist. I missed her terribly once I found out she'd left one night under the cover of darkness. I woke up one day, and she was gone. And I grieved her absence.

Maybe something similar is happening or has happened with you? You surely wouldn't be the only one.

You were powered by that idealist, the voice of hope and life inside you that provided the fuel for so many of your dreams. But now, years in, it's been a while since you saw or heard from that person. If that idealist is still present, maybe it's stuck in a back office not seeing the light of day. Or maybe that side of you is bound and gagged somewhere, stifled by your survivor/realist/practical alter ego...or by your boss...or by the weighed-down structure in which you find yourself laboring which hasn't "budgeted" the nourishment and resources that the idealist needs to keep going strong.

It's a very difficult thing to come to terms with the hampered or disappeared idealist.

And this is why, in my opinion, it is so fundamental, so absolutely critical, to know exactly why we continue to do what we do. 

The What can take a thousand different forms, all of which can be helpful to some degree...but not to the same degree as when we have a powerful, compelling Why. The lack of a crystal-clear Why motivation behind the What of our work then makes it empty energy expended. (Really, watch the video if you didn't watch it at the beginning.) Our What becomes empty resources being spent. The wheels are spinning to propel an empty vehicle.

The man singing in the video -- his What song was OK. You may have even thought it was quite good...until he brought forth his Why song! Wow!

That is when people sit up and take notice. It's then that people get energized and inspired. Then you're part of an energy that actually gets people up out of their chairs. And then we can really start talking about impact.

Keeping your Why in front of you can keep you successful in the field, and in your life in general. Losing it can turn you into a shell of a person. The same applies to organizations.

My experience inside one large notable INGO left me with the distinct feeling that there's plenty of What in the system, but there's a serious lack of Why to fuel the important task at hand. And this is a big problem.

I think a lot of us don't even realize what a big problem it is.

This lack of a passionate, enduring Why to fuel the What is, I feel, what has led so many outsiders and onlookers to be frustrated by the international aid and development sector. Excessive bureaucracy, questionable management of funds, flippant mistreatment of employees through the systematic (conscious or subconscious) neglect of their needs -- perhaps you have firsthand experience with some of these?  There are a thousand realities that the onlooking world sees in the current "humanitarian" system that, combined, lead to a lack of faith on the part of so many people inside the system and outside it.

It could be that we as a sector are prioritizing the What over the Why. We may not realize how it has happened or how to put things right, but it doesn't mean we aren't suffering from the effects.

In my view, we start to lose our Why when we fail to deal with the ugly questions that rise up to painfully challenge what we thought we knew, what we believed about our work. We continue plowing ahead with the What -- I mean, we don't just throw it all away and go home when there's still good work to be done in the world, right? -- but undealt with, the questions continue eating away at the Why, ultimately crippling it.

It takes an exceptional person to know exactly what to do with the ugly questions when they arise. It's confusing, difficult, exhausting work. Besides, we truly don't see the peril that comes from the risk of losing our Why. So most of us respond by telling ourselves that there are other more important things in life on which to focus our limited energy. And we consistently fail to prioritize getting the satisfying answers to the questions that our Why needs to stay strong.

The problem is, the questions aren't going to go away because we simply ignore them. Yeah, they get in the way of our work -- a lot. But we disregard and discard them to our detriment. 

Because, rather than disappear, they sit there in the room with you until they are addressed. 

They will not be ignored indefinitely.

In a work context in an organization or community, it looks like this: Every single person brings their own ignored ugly questions, and some people have an entire stack of them. So as the ignored questions are stacked up in the corner, like heavy file boxes, they form stacks and stacks, rows and rows, until they actually start crowding out you and your team, the very people who need to operate out of that office to do meaningful things.

We think it's OK to place the questions in the corner, they're not a priority. And then before you know it, the onslaught of unaddressed questions has crowded us out of the room and has made life totally dysfunctional. We're being crowded out of our own mental and emotional working space, and we don't even realize how it got that way.

Deal with your questions. If you've lost the Why, it's alright. Go out and find it. Get it back. Take the time and energy to do so. Because you're spinning your wheels (and, dare I say it: you might not be doing as much good as you think you are?) until you have that Why firmly back in place.

It might take a long time. Are you willing to prioritize it?

At this point, there exists another possible dynamic: There's a strong chance that reestablishing a strong Why will look different from your original Why when you started out years ago. It can be scary to say goodbye to the original Why, but there's actually some really good stuff going on inside if that's your case.

The issue isn't that you recover your original Why; in fact, blindly clinging to the original can actually sometimes get in the way of maturity and transformation. (That's a whole other story!)

But whatever your case: Please don't keep on merely functioning without a strong Why. The world needs better, from you, from me, from all of us.

And you as an important individual within that world also deserve more.