The Importance of “Why” in Schools & Corporations

Growing up, we all form some sort of “mental model” of the path we are supposed to take in life.

And we each, consciously or unconsciously, have a reason for each step along the path in our head. It often goes something like this:

  1. Finish elementary school so that you can go to middle school
  2. Finish middle school so that you can go to high school
  3. Finish high school (and ideally, do really well) so that you can get into a great college
  4. Go to a great college (and ideally, do really well) so that you can get a great, high-paying, prestigious, and/or secure job, and/or hopefully “make a difference in the world”
  5. Do the job, so that you won’t have to worry about paying bills, so that people will like you, and so that, hopefully, you can make a difference in the world
  6. You don’t want to worry about paying bills, and you want people to like you, and you want to tell good stories and make a difference in the world so that you will be not worried, you will feel like you matter, and therefore be happy with your life
  7. Repeat said job, realize it’s not all that great after a few years, struggle to see the impact you are having and try to finish that job as fast as possible so that you can retire and therefore be done with this job that isn’t what you thought it would be and therefore happy with your life (Tim Ferriss does a great job countering this idea by advocating for “mini-retirements”—I am a fan and glad to see it gaining momentum).

After over a decade of coaching people along this entire chain — high school students, young professionals, mid-level managers, all the way up to advising and working with senior executives, some version of the example above is the most common one I hear when I ask the question, “What is the specific path you have chosen in life, and why?” and get honest responses. (Not everyone answers this way. Some people have a much different approach. But this is the median response.)

The problem is that the most common answer to the question of “why?” along each step of the path is at best, just ok, and at worst, completely detrimental to our performance. Because some reasons help us perform, and other reasons really, really hurt us.

But when we do things for reasons that are purely about learning, have intrinsic meaning to us, and/or are genuinely relevant to what we are doing, there’s a ton of data that suggests we do a whole, whole lot better, and therefore live a more productive and happier life.

Here’s the twist: The reasons that we choose the path we choose usually have much less to do with us as individuals being bad people, and much more to do with the infrastructure that we grow up in, and the messages that support that infrastructure.

As an example, at my MBA reunion this past weekend, I heard a professor share a really compelling example of the power of subtle messaging. There was an experiment that had two groups of people play a classic prisonner’s dilemma game. One group was told that they were playing “The Wall Street Game.” The other group was told that they were playing “The Community Game.” The rules of the game were otherwise identical. Those playing “The Wall Street Game” chose to act in their rational self-interest 70% of the time. Those playing “The Community Game” acted in the best interest of the community 70% of the time. How incredible is that? We are more likely to act — and have reasons for acting — based on even the most subtle variables around us.

The method of shifting the “why’s” across the entire professional supply chain for millions, even billions of people, is complicated, at best. And there is no silver bullet.

But it starts with a simple goal: To make learning relevant across the entire professional supply chain.

In schools, the “why” behind every class, every lecture, every micro-component and message in school, should not only be abundantly clear, it should be relevant to the student. Every student should know why they are learning what they are learning, and the why should be coming from the student.

In organizations and companies, the “why” behind every job description and role, every (usually stale) corporate training session, every task, project, and activity, should enable each person to do their best work because it makes sense to the person, it is connected to something of intrinsic value (e.g., learning), and it makes a difference to their customer, their team, their company, their society.

We owe it to ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, our communities, our world — to start by asking a simple question about the infrastructure we create, the organizations we lead, and the messages we share, every day: “What is the ‘why’ that this will inspire in others, and is that a ‘why’ that we should all believe in?”