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Photograph by Diane Michaud Lowry

The Why

Vanessa Garber
Nov 20, 2014 · 5 min read

There is always a reason a project is started in the first place, some essential need being taken care of otherwise you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be doing it. The Why should be measurable, tangible and simple.

We have lots of little whys that we associate with our decisions but more often than not we don’t bother to think about the real Why. It is a straightforward and concise motive for doing something that supersedes all others. You should be able to easily provide one answer to the questions,

Why is this important?
Why should anyone care?

Doctor Why

Several years ago my friend Dr. Wendy Ingram had some trouble with an important paper that would help define her career. The science, she told me, was spot on but the paper wasn’t clearly depicting her research on toxoplasma gondii parasite (aka the catlady parasite). When she walked me through her paper there were many charts and graphs explaining what she had done, but there was no reason Why.

Without a clear Why her paper lacked focus. It would make sense to scientists, but would not convince them that it was important. I asked her, “Why bother researching toxo, who cares?”. At first she was intrigued, but Dr. Ingram kept telling me how toxo worked and what she had done and seemed to misunderstand my question. After many hours we both became curt and argumentative.

The next day Dr. Ingram and I went out for brunch and I started in with my question again. In a fit of rage over a mouthful of potatoes she tersely informed me that her research could change the way we understand western medicine and the after effects of parasitic infection. To her shock and my delight Dr. Ingram found the Why.

She and I were both reminded that, more often than not, there is a struggle to find the Why. It isn’t some pithy slogan you can pitch at an investor nor is it business jargon that vaguely describes your intentions. The Why is your underlying sincere reason for doing something. While toxo is fascinating, Dr. Ingram made it her life’s work because she could foresee the potential benefits of her research and finds it compelling.

Dr. Ingram’s Why was such a good one that not long after she presented her paper she caught the attention of The Huffington Post, ABC News, and the BBC to name a few.

Dr. Ingram’s realization was powerful because she was finally able to ignore the practice of doing science and focus on the Why. Both science and technology are too often discussed in terms of what things are or how they work. Her reason for her research was neither flimsy nor pedantic.

Think about the project you are working on, or soon will be, and ask yourself,

What am I doing and how am I doing it?
Why is this important?
Why should anyone care?

So, What Do You Really Want?

On errands as a kid I would spot a toy or snack I wanted and inform my mom or dad that I had to have it and it was the most important thing in the world. In that moment I was telling the truth.

As children we can experience true, unabashed desire and express that yearning without foreseeing consequences. It is what gives children the conviction to sit on the lap of a shopping mall Santa Claus and ask for a bike, pony, or Playstation. They are able to fixate on an object and imagine what their life will be like once they have it in a concrete and tangible way.

As we grow up we start to notice that sometimes bad things happen when you assumed it would be good. Eating too much chocolate causes you to gain weight; the pony is expensive and takes up a lot of space; all the money you invested in a company is gone. As we learn about consequences, we start to imagine what will happen before anything actually does. To mitigate risk, we obfuscate the truth of what we want and convince ourselves we want something else that seems less risky.

We talk ourselves into doing all sorts of things, sometimes with a very high cost only to learn we didn’t really want it — going to law school, starting a company, or launching a project. Fixating on what you want without knowing the Why can lead you to an unsavory conclusion. While it’s best to know the Why before you start, if you manage to figure out the Why a little later on, you can course correct along the way.

The Why as a Sieve

The Why helps you trim the fat, ignore the bad ideas, and filter for the good ones. We are constantly bombarded with ideas but not all of them are worth acting upon. Alternatively, you may have a great idea but not know how to articulate it’s importance, just like Dr. Ingram.

Too often I hear of an epiphany where someone had a dream or had a moment of inspiration that is immediately turned into an active project. You might have had a good idea, it may change the world, and ensure you take your rightful place as the next Steve Jobs. But if your idea is so good don’t just give it away, don’t tell everyone, don’t spoil the surprise. Write it down, think about it, question the heck out of it, and figure out the Why that makes your idea so darned special. Try partnering with someone you trust if you need help refining the idea. Figure out what makes it worth doing.

Finding the Why is Worth it

Figuring out the Why can be a lot of work, particularly when discussing a large project or pursuit related to your life goals. When it comes to every day communications and tasks, the Why has more to do with being aware and honest with yourself about your motives behind your actions.

An idea for a project, product, talk, meeting or even an offhand comment to a co-worker are always accompanied by the Why. It is inherent that you have a reason for engaging in these activities or you wouldn’t do it. If you don’t figure out the Why ahead of time you may find that others misunderstand your intentions, you wander off the original topic, or you end up spending too much time on other activities.

The Why is something everyone can understand and engage with. While you may be the thought leader behind it, the Why is autonomous and can be generally understood without you, or anyone, explaining it.

Hold onto the Why

As you launch projects, write papers and engage with others out in the world, don’t let go of the Why. VPs will come to you and tell you to add scope to your projects. Thought leaders will call you at night telling you to drop your current project in favor of another. You will find yourself pitching to investors who try and make your product do something else. If you have the Why, if you know it cold, you can navigate these conversations. Just remind them Why.

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