“Why” before “How”

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Those seeking change look toward the mountain ahead, ambivalent to whether or not they should make the trek. They want to get to the top, but are comfortable and safe. Torn between these two competing desires, one may seek out professional advice on mountain-climbing, buy all the top-notch gear, and painstakingly plan their route, perpetually putting off the climb. This is the danger of putting the “how” before the “why”.

We all know people who’ve procrastinated by planning perfectionist plots, while never getting to the hard work of actually making a change. The problem with this approach is that it continues indefinitely, leaving the person wanting the end-goal, yet not having the level of motivation required to take action. The reason for this lack of motivation is the lack of focus on why one is pursuing a goal in the first place. When we connect with our own reasons for taking a particular course of action, we become motivated on a core emotional-level, providing the necessary fuel for action.

When someone comes to us looking for advice on how to make a change, we need to pause before jumping in and offering our assistance. Is this person stuck in perpetual planning? Perhaps they already know the answer and are seeking advice in place of taking action, giving them a false sense of accomplishment without having to start the hard work of change. We all love to help others and feel important when someone asks for our advice, but perhaps we need to take a step back sometimes and ask them why they want to make this change.

In practical terms, the conversation may look like this:

Friend: “I’m having some financial difficulties and think I need to stop going to the casino, what should I do to get back on track?”
You: “It looks like you are interested in making some important changes, can you first tell me more about your reasons for making this change? What are some things that really matter to you?

Possible reasons that may surface during the conversation may include the ability to properly care for family/loved-ones, the ability to build a specific career, or perhaps spiritual/religious reasons. Whatever the reason, rather than jumping to advice, you can help them better by first having a conversation about their reasons for change.

What are some of the mountains in your own life? Do you find yourself becoming a perpetual planner? Also, if you’ve been able to begin the trek, what are your reasons for doing so? Feel free to share you own experiences below.

Remember, the best map is useless if you’re not ready to make the trek. As stated by Friedrich Nietzsche, we can overcome almost any how by first connecting with our why.

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  1. True. We must find our WHY…. ‘How’ is none of our concern because if you know the why, your heart will automatically be animated. Resources are there. They are not the problem. The problem is the way to seek them. Seek them with the heart not with the mind because passion comes from the heart.
    I liked it very much. Thanks and live fully.

  2. Hi Steve!
    Your blog comes at the right time for us ,
    I just turned 70 this Feb and we are ready to take on the NEW WORLD, down in the Sunshine State of Florida. We will sell everything that we own, all the materialistic memories, and other dust collectors that we do not need for the new world . We are planning to sell Wisconsin Cheese at a few farmers markets, 3 days a week for our sons business, to have extra spending cash or gas money .
    I am also a self-taught artist, started to paint in 2010 and love to do seascapes, landscapes and hope to sell them at markets also for cash, but painting? it is not a job, it is a pleasure for me .
    Well as you can see, we are not the Why or the How’s. We are the doer’s and we will be (DOING IT) and we will make it work for us . We are very excited about the adventurer to the NEW World and the new life’s adventures that God will guide us too, and what may come along, that is our why and god is our how.
    I think that if you ask yourself Why or How you may miss out on the new ,so just do it, and it will keep you on the young side of all things to come. You say how about the money ? if you dream it will come, and one more thing how much you need is based on what you plan to do we will be heading up the eastern seaboard, for our first years adventures, for us it will be Nova Scotia, or some wear close, and we will be camping all summer along the way in a small pull camper. We will do the same each year but, the older we get the drive will get shorter also, to and from our new home.

    PS. this is the plane for today, you will live it tomorrow. Thanks for the writings that you do all the time they are always a great motoo vat er for meeeeeee.

  3. You don’t mention the time factor, but long-term goals require long-term plans and patience. These work best in a process-oriented mode, where incremental steps become crucial. For instance, the mountain trek could not be accomplished without appropriate equipment, so the “how” becomes integral to the “why.” For instance, “I’m buying this heavy-duty down sleeping bag because I want to be warm in camp at night.”

    Maybe other people lose the “why,” but I know why I do most things, and can usually give several reasons. I tend to get stuck on the “how”s, like “How can I get the mice out of my crawl space without poisoning or hurting my chickens?” I’ve looked into rat snakes (which eat the eggs but not the mature chickens), but they are illegal. Forget the cat. She watches the mice eat her food.

    1. Thank you for this comment. I agree that planning is necessary. Planning is like the map. Without it, you won’t know where you are going. But the “why” is like the fuel. Without it, you won’t be able to get there.

  4. It’s worth noting that this is just as true of groups as it is of individuals. A lot of my job is really change management in churches, and much of that is about helping communities re-connect with their reason for existence.

    The challenge, of course, is that groups can reinforce the resistance to change of individuals within them, and progress is almost inevitably slow…

    1. Thank you for sharing this experience! I completely agree that this same dynamic works for groups. As in the military, the strong sense of communal purpose fuels the mission.

  5. I deeply appreciate this post. Sometimes I forget to connect to the deepest desire that motivates me, and instead just run a motivational track that goes “Do it!” and then “Why aren’t you doing it?!” When I meditate regularly, I am more constantly and consciously connected to the “Why” of things.

  6. I love your writing style and the depth and substance you provide to each topic. I wrote a blog that it’s not the “why” but it is “who.” I just lost my job of 22 years weeks after I wrote it. Now, it truly applies to me. My “why’s” can be many and endless but there’s only one “who.” Thank you for your blog and I love the bow tie. (Now I have time to teach myself how to do it.)

  7. This was the perfect time to hear this – thank you! I’m definitely a perpetual planner, and this has reminded me to concentrate on doing my best in the task in front of me, rather than always thinking about what is coming next 🙂 Love your writing by the way

  8. Steve, the decision making–comfort over goals is an interesting one and, I believe, the surrounding theory seems to be invading many fields. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading “The Undoing Project”, by Michael Lewis.

    Psychology, especially decision-making has made inroads into many other fields: the Israeli Army; the Financial Markets; and how physicians base their evaluations, treatments and review outcomes.

    1. Thank you for sharing. This area of psychology is applicable to a broad range of areas, helping people recognize that the core of motivation is not necessarily just “will-power,” but rather a deeper emotional connection to one’s core values/reasons.

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