Why Your Purpose is a What not a Why.

Vision, intention, purpose, USP, mission, goal, outcome, output, values, objective… There are too many words to describe the point of what we do at work. And who knows what any of them really mean?

What’s the difference between mission, vision and values? Really? What’s the difference between what, how and why?

Here’s my answer: I basically don’t know and I basically don’t care.

Here’s the one word I think matters: what.

What are you doing? What are we here for? What’s in and what’s out?

When we talk about purpose, when we talk about values, when we talk about vision, this is always only ever what we’re actually talking about: what. I’ll happily use all the other words when they’re useful. When someone’s says they’re looking for their purpose, I can talk to them about their purpose. When they want to establish what their values are, I can talk to them about their values. But, when someone talks about those things, the reason I’m able to be helpful is because I know that all they’re really talking about is what.

What are you doing? What are we here for? What’s in and what’s out?

It becomes complicated when we start trying to navigate just using this cadre of poorly defined, semi-defined abstract nouns: “Well, I think our vision is this… Well, I think our core values are…” It’s easy to get lost.

Because when people try to explain the work they’re doing, they tend to switch into a kind of mysterious, semi-defined business vocabulary. Mission. Target. Purpose. Most often, these words are used largely interchangeably. Or worse, they’re used as if they all signify slightly different things — but without making any effort to establish what those different things might be — or what the impact of those differences might be. So, you get lost.

Because if we don’t know what the words mean and we don’t know how they relate to each other and we don’t know how they relate to the world, then that builds in a kind of unavoidable, undisciplined thinking — even before you start trying to think about what you’re trying to think about. How are you meant to define your purpose accurately when you haven’t even got clear on what purpose means?

So draw a picture.

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Let’s say you want to define what you’re doing. Here’s a picture of the task that needs to be done when you’re defining what you’re doing. You need to draw a clear line between what you’re doing and not doing. That way, when you need to make a decision, you can just check whether something is in or out.

Let’s say you manage to sum up that line in a sentence.

“Building a something-something that is able to deliver such-and-such faster than blah-blah-blah.”

That one-liner, that defining line, whatever it is — you can call that your purpose. Or your vision. Or your mission or your objective. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you call it: what matters is that the line is there, that the line is clearly defined, that the line is clearly understood and that you stick to it. That line shows what you are doing and what you are not doing. And when you have that line, what else do you need?

I can’t come up with anything else that I need apart from this one line. I can’t come up with anything that needs to be added to that drawing. Not a line on the side, or a graph divided into four quadrants or a hexagonal, eight-dimensional lattice. A circle is enough.

Just keep on talking about what

When people talk purpose and mission statements, it’s easy to get confused. It’s understandable that people get confused. But when the question is just ‘what?’ it’s almost impossible to get confused by that. Everyone know what what means.

Why, what, how

When I talk about purpose, I talk about what. But that’s not the word most people associate with purpose. Most people would equate purpose with why. And they treat why as a special category separate from what. But what is why if not another what? (That’s a clear sentence, right?)

If you were to try to add something to this drawing of a circle to represent why, where would you put it? A circle representing what — that’s pretty self-explanatory. But I see no option of adding some equally self-explanatory figure to stand for why. And I ‘d like to suggest that’s because there is no such thing as why.

Why and how are just other ways of looking at what. And all they do is to establish a hierarchy of whats. All they do is move you between different levels of what. All they represent is the option of moving between different timescales.

Here’s a diagram to explain it.

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If you’re talking about what you’re doing, you can start at any timescale. Let’s say someone just asks ‘What are you doing?” And they don’t specify what timescale they’re interested in and you reply, “I’m mending my car”. If what they really wanted was to ask about a longer timescale, then they can say, ‘Why?’ in order to extend the timeframe. “Oh,” you reply, “because I’m in the middle of completing my Atlantic-to-Pacific Pan-American road trip.” You’re still answering what. You’ve just expanded the time scale. You could easily have answered, “I’m completing a pan-American road trip.” the first time. Because what and why aren’t separate categories. Why is just a way of asking for a different kind of what.

You may well have been witness to a motivational Powerpoint presentation where someone rehashes a story of a man laying bricks in the Sistine chapel. You ask the guy laying bricks what he’s doing and he can either say, ‘I’m laying bricks’ or, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’ Neither answer is intrinsically better than the other. He’s just referring to different time scales — and the usefulness of the answer depends on the context. If you have a line of a hundred people who are all building a cathedral and you want to understand their jobs and you ask the bricklayer what he’s doing and he’s replies, “I’m building a cathedral.” then you’re going to say, “Yes, I know. That’s what we’re all doing. But how are you doing that?”

That’s the difference between what, how and why. All three are really about what. But why expands the timeframe out and how shrinks it down.

Just to really hammer this home, in order to exhaustingly, repetitively nag on in making my case of the primacy of what, here’s another diagram

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They are all what.

When I work with people to get clear on their very clear idea, all I’m trying to do is give them the means to articulate accurately what they’re doing. That normally starts with finding a not very clear, completely ungainly and inaccurate sentence to describe what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter. So long as you’ve got a starting point.

And, what I’ve discovered is that these sentences generally have a structure and that structure is critically important. And the structure is: using the word by to connect things.

This is the key word. By is how you travel from a completely vague all-encompassing and impossible intention all the way down to a concrete, actionable, concrete next step.

“What are you doing?”

“Worshipping the divine creator.”


“By providing a space where people can pray and sing and be together.”


“By building a cathedral.”


“By putting this brick on top of that brick.”

Each level is just another what. But if you start at the top, then you get all the other whats by asking how.

If you’re ever trying to accurately define what you’re doing, keep an eye out for the by’s. They’re priceless.

And you can go in the other direction too.

So, if you’re taking a concrete next step, but you want to know how it contributes to the bigger picture:

“What are you doing?”

“I’m putting this brick on top of that brick.”


“To build a cathedral.”


“To provide a space where people can pray and sing and be together.”


“To worship the divine creator.”

Each level is still just another what. It might look like it’s an answer to why, but it’s no more an answer to why now than it was an answer to how then. It’s always what — we just get to the what we want by asking how and why. Clear, right?

I call this (sometimes) the Why / By ladder. There, that’s snappy. You can call it that. The Why / By ladder.

So, if you want to bring some clarity and precision to the practice of defining your purpose, you might want to not use the word purpose. Or mission or outcome or anything. Just ask what?

And if you want to fill in the full picture, ask why and how in order to move up and down the ladder. In order to increase or shrink the scope of the question.

That’s why the most important word is what.

If you’d like to get clear on what you’re doing, get in touch: hello@charlesdavies.com.

Charles Davies has been helping artists, entrepreneurs and everyone get clear on what they’re doing at work for most of the last ten years. His process — Very Clear Ideas — is taught in business schools across Europe and is very, very quick.

Originally published at medium.com on November 7, 2015.

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