It is the ‘Why” not the “What” that Matters Most


This blog post is a sequel to the most recent one where I discussed ‘Being versus Doing”.  Not too long ago, a big self-help activity was defining your mission statement.  Corporations posted mission statements in their annual reports and on their walls for customers, shareholders and employees to read. Companies can invest years working on their mission statements, strategies and tactics which are the what and how pieces (their ‘doings’). They spend little or no time in developing the “Why” piece (their ‘being’).  In many cases it is not addressed because it is not something that can be constructed like a strategy or tactical plan.  It exists within the context of the organization and is discovered by discernment and reflection. If done right, that process can be long, tedious and perhaps painful.

I often use the example of JFK and NASA in the 1960s.  In his speech before Congress in 1961, Kennedy made the proclamation that we would put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade – a really big ‘what’.  History digs into this ‘what’ and NASA figuring out how that feat would be accomplished. However, what was more important and is seldom discussed is the underlying purpose that Kennedy had in this bold plan.  The Soviet Union was flexing its muscle and leading the Space Race so the culture and morale of our Country at that time needed this win, it was the ‘why’. 

In his speech to the graduating class of Rice University in 1962 JFK said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Without first setting the why, when things get hard it is easy to fold the tent and go home.

Goals are the “how” you achieve something. We all set goals; to lose weight, exercise every day, read the Bible, spend less time at work and the popular thing these days is to have a ‘bucket list’.  Without really thinking about the ‘why’ you want to achieve these goals are they merely activities or experiences? Never achieving them really isn’t a big deal.

In the book “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”, author Simon Sinek presents the idea that great leaders inspire others by putting the Why (the purpose) before the How (the process), or the What (the product). In a survey of 720 executives, companies seen as having a stronger identity and greater purpose (a better defined ‘why’) outperformed others by 25% in terms of average annual sales revenues between 2010 and 2013. Company leadership needs to ask itself why it exists (and it is not for profits; profits are the result). The answer needs to create value for its employees and other stakeholders.  Having worked for family owned companies, the “why” of honoring the family business may work for the family leadership, but it doesn’t necessarily motivate the employees.

To motivate action, you can either manipulate or inspire. Manipulation can include pay, promotions, fear, aspirations, peer pressure, and others’ endorsements. Manipulation works best for transactions that will likely only happen once, not building loyalty. Inspiring people and building loyalty requires a real purpose, a Why.

In my collection of quotes, I have two that take the what – “make a living”, “be happy” – and flip it into the why – “enrich the world”, “make a difference”.  Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living.  You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement.  You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” Leo Rosten, an American Humorist, stated, “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose in life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, and to be compassionate.  It is after all to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made a difference that you lived at all.”

Many of us live our lives by accident; we live as it happens.  Fulfillment comes when we live our lives on purpose. Eddie Cantor, an American Comedian popular in the early 1900s said, “Slow down and enjoy life.  It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast, you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.” How you can have a ‘why’ without reflection, discernment and your nose constantly stuck to a smartphone? There is a Japanese Proverb, “Vision without action is daydream. Action without vision is nightmare.”

The focus on Jesus’s ministry can revolve around His what’s and how’s – His miracles, His parables, teaching in the temple, dying on the cross, and rising from the grave.  The concepts that “He conquered death”, “He came to save us from our sins”, are all very important and significant ‘Whats and Hows’.  However, it is the Why that we need to pay more attention to.  Why did Jesus do all these things?

Jesus’s teachings and miracles place the focus and glory on His Father. He would always use His gift to glorify God and not Himself. He directed all credit and thanks to God. Christ never worked a miracle on His own behalf. His actions served to declare and prove God’s existence and sovereignty. In John 8:54; Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing; but it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’

Giving Glory to God is abundant throughout Christian teachings. Everyone who has seen the animated class=”=””ic ‘A Charlie Brown’s Christmas’ is familiar with Luke’s recounting of the birth of Jesus (2:14); “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” In the Old Testament Psalm 115 is a response to an enemy’s taunt, “This hymn to the glory of Israel’s God Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness.”  I like Steven Curtis Chapman’s hit song “Do Everything”, which reached #1 on the Billboard Christian Song list.  The lyrics note that whether you are a Mom, business man, missionary, student – “it all matters just as long as you do everything you do to the glory of the One who made you.”

Vision gives pain a purpose.  It gave Jesus the ability to endure the greatest pain man could inflict at the time. It can provide us our ‘why’ to endure life’s hardships. Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any how.” Ironic that one of the most famous reputed atheists nails exactly why we need Christ and Salvation as our ‘why’.

As I finish this blog post, I will be revisiting my personal goals and bucket list all the while asking myself about each one, ‘why’?

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