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Donn King


How to Find Your Core Why

Chances are anyone reading this has heard of Simon Sinek and his insight to find your why before you worry about your what and your how. But for a lot of people it can be difficult to surface that. "I need to make money." "I need to pay for a house." "I want to change the world." All good, but that's not your core why. Recognizing the need to drill down, Taiichi Ohno came up with the Five Whys technique. But that can still leave you with a relatively shallow answer that provides little or no motivation.

I have found that following the same self-discipline a three-year-old practices can help you drill down to the why that matters. In this list, I share things to look for that help you find your core why, which I call your Three-Year-Old Why.


    1. Look for the "so that."

    One of the first jokes we learn as kids is: Why did the chicken cross the road? The answer, of course, is, "To get to the other side." But nobody except a three-year-old asks the followup: why did she want to get to the other side? Did she have a bunch of starving little chicks waiting for her? Was she trying to escape Colonel Sanders? Was that where she needed to catch her bus? "So that" can lead you to the next why.

    2. Look for the emotion.

    Without emotion, there is no motion. I do not move until I am moved. You can get all the way through the Five Whys and still be stuck in gray emotionless intellect. Keep digging until you come across something that gets an emotional reaction.

    3. Look for the lightbulb.

    All it takes to keep me going as a teacher is for one or two students to have an "aha!" moment, to see the lightbulb go on for them. What this means in finding your why: look for the "aha!" That's often the moment you cross from an intellectual why to a deeply motivating why.


    4. Look for the story.

    Stories are more than "this happened, and then this happened," etc. They are concrete and specific, dealing with a "once upon a time," and they feature a focal character facing a challenge who in the process grows. Good stories, therefore, always involve conflict. Earlier whys might just be a single sentence, but when you reach the motivating emotion, almost certainly you wind up telling a story—often, some sort of origin story.

    5. Use the story to tie it all together.

    Once you have found the story that leads to the emotion (which is what leads to motion), you will find that the story ties all the previous whys together. Almost everybody will say, for instance, "To make money." But there are thousands of ways to make money. What leads you to this way? Ultimately, you will likely find that answer in the story.

    6. Tell the story to yourself.

    Stories are how humans make sense of their experience. Another way to think of "story" is that of explanation. It's not what happens to you, but what you think about what happens to you that determines your experience.

    I knew twin boys at one point. One of them was always loving and supportive with his kids because their father had been a rascal who neglected them. He was a model dependable employee because their father had never been able to hold a job. He was married to his first wife of 40 years at the time and devoted to her because their father had cheated on their mother. He wouldn't touch alcohol because their father had been an abusive alcoholic.

    The other twin had multiple children from several women but was absent from their lives because their father had been a rascal who neglected them and had cheated on their mother. He was always broke and between jobs because their father had never been able to hold a job. He drank all the time because their father had been an abusive alcoholic.

    See the pattern? With very similar DNA, having been raised in the same environment, even claiming the same reasons for their respective choices, they lived very differently because they each told themselves a different story about what their experience meant.

    So choose your story wisely.

    7. Tell the story to other people.

    Don't obsess about this, but as you have opportunity, tell your story to other people. Share the origin story, let the emotion come through. It will help you connect on a heart level to other people, which will not only reinforce your why but help you find your tribe, those people who want to help you pursue your why.


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