Jul 122013
mind map, exploring why

What happens when I start why-chasing. Your methods, results and mileage may vary. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

“Sufferin’ catfish! All’s I wanna know is why?

That’s an expression an old girlfriend liked to use, usually after a couple of drinks. Even 25 years later I can picture her crying that out, with all the emotion and punctuation and everything. She was, of course, nuttier than squirrel scat.

But when you think about it, she was asking a really good question.

Maybe it’s just another version of my old practice of taking my brains out and playing with them (or insert your own descriptive phrase here), but I also want to know why.

Why do I do the things I do? Why do I write? Why do I play music? Why do I spend perfectly good hours with this blog?


While that’s one of the basic six questions every good journalist was trained to ask back in the day, the one they’re most likely to forget is why. Of the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, how and whatever), often the difference between a good reporter and a run-of-the-mill one was whether he got around to the why.


Asking the question

This Why thing keeps coming back to my attention. Blogger/speaker Michael Hyatt says it’s a key motivator. Many of the other high achievers I’ve been paying attention to lately get into that question. My older brother Rick, getting dizzyingly close to 60 as I write this, is also spending a lot of time with that same question.

Just plain why?

I’m gonna get personal here. I was in my mid-20s before I got around to college. Never was much of a student in high school; just going through the motions might have had something to do with it. But in college I practically tore the curriculum apart. Straight A’s, honor society, all that good stuff.

What happened here?

It’s that why thing, and it got real big.

See, I was absolutely fixed on the notion of becoming a newsman. It was something I realized I enjoyed, and I was good at it. At the time journalism seemed a whole lot better than my evening job as a delivery driver. I didn’t exactly have time on my side (at 26, what does a person know?). But that why was so real I could slap a coat of paint on it. I didn’t have to hunt it down. It was big enough on its own, thank you.

A little more than a year later I completed every journalism class the school offered and got a couple of part-time jobs writing. Pretty much nailed my why, so I started going through the motions in school again. My A average dropped to a midrange B, but I wasn’t worried.

Maybe losing track of the why was one of the factors in quitting journalism. Or maybe my own personal instability. Or a dozen other things.

But funny thing; that ‘why’ covers a multitude of negative factors.

That why is important stuff.


Playing with my brains again

Minutes before I started writing this post, I spent a bit of time at the whiteboard and in my journal chasing down some whys. It’s pretty revealing stuff. Maybe not as revealing as when Hank Williams Jr. examines himself (why must you live out the songs that you wrote?) but it’s interesting.

On music I wrote:

  • This is what I do.
  • Makes people smile.
  • Encourage people.
  • Burn off some of that good ol’ bipolar energy.
  • Ego, definitely.
  • Because I’m good.
  • ‘Cause I love it.
  • Born to boogie.
  • If I don’t, I go crazy.

That last one is especially important to me. John Lee Hooker said it best; ‘cause it’s in him and it has to come out.

On writing I put down:

  • It’s fun.
  • It was my occupation.
  • Ego, definitely.
  • This is what I do.
  • Because I love it.
  • Because I do good work.
  • If I don’t, I go crazy.

OK, not as strong and definitive as the music, but good enough to keep doing it.

As far as this blog and other creative&dangerous activities, I named names. The guy who picked up his tenor saxophone after storing it in his closet for 25 years. The friend who paints off and on, mostly off. Or even my own backstory of how I quit writing for more than a decade. Those stories stay with me and drive me along on this pursuit.

When the why is real clear, even this blog’s slow growth isn’t enough to derail things.

Just for grins, I looked at my biggest writing client and asked why again. Wasn’t so encouraging:

  • Making a living, I guess.
  • Getting my chops up.
  • Preparation for bigger and better stuff down the road.
  • It’s a job.

So what does this mean?

It means my future isn’t exactly there. If I concentrated on the short term (it’s a job), I’d go through the motions again. If I take that angle, might as well work at a gas station for all the good it does.

But if I focus on the longer-term stuff like working on my chops or building for the future, this makes a lot more sense. Working this client is worth it now, but less so if/when better things come along. So that becomes a goal.

I might mention, asking why is tough business. Dangerous, like defusing a bomb or something. You might come out sweating. It might take you places you don’t want to visit. It’s not for weenies. Maybe that’s what makes it worth the exercise.


Throwing down the challenge

That said, let’s try this sometime:

Write down the things you do, and start asking yourself why you do them.

This may include your occupation or how you spend your time. Hobbies — including the reading, TV watching or Facebook games are included, and they deserve a list on their own. I had four or five of them myself.

Any note-taking format is fine, and I really don’t care how you do it.

Sit down, free-associate, let your imagination run wild.

You’ll come up with something. I hope. If you can, boil it down to one sentence per list. I haven’t done that yet, but I reckon I will before too long.

C’mon. I double-dawg dare you.

When you find that why, grab hold of it. Stick it on your wall, inscribe it on your hand, carve it on your gateposts. It’s that powerful.


# # #

(Talk to me: Have you found some whys lately? Do they help push you along? Leave a comment below, and let’s kick it around some.)



Dec 072012

In 1997 I lost my heart.

Still don’t know where it went. Might have misplaced it in my other pants pocket. Maybe I left it in San Francisco, or maybe in Abilene with some other lady. But I found I could no longer write.

Didn’t have the heart for it.

For me, this was a particularly rough time. I wrote for a living, and when I felt I couldn’t do it any more, that left me with three courses of action:

a) Go through the motions, and maybe fake it until I find my heart again.

b) Tequila myself into a stand-up fossil.

c) Do something else.

Hey, I didn’t say these courses of action were necessarily good ones, now did I?

Anyway, I chose Option C. The way I’m wired, that was the only real option. I’m not a good enough BS artist to get away with Option A for very long, and I’m too cantankerous for B. So I did something else for a while, and more than a decade later I rediscovered my heart for writing.

That heart thing is important. More important than knowledge or skills. It’s that place where my dreams and passions hang out, as well as all the dragons and other beasties that wish to take me out of action. It’s an amazing place, and so crucial for the creative and the leader.

Like the physical ticker that’s in my chest, the heart has so much to do with my health. And like the physical heart, I need to guard it. I must be mindful of what goes in, because that’ll have a direct bearing on what comes out. If it gets gunked up, the results will show directly.

With a bad heart I get distant and aloof. Maybe demanding. Definitely whiny. Always critical. It’s one of those things that affects my mental health. With a good heart I’m more fully engaged in what I’m doing, connecting more with people, feeling more in my zone. Good things happen. The condition of my heart definitely affects my mental health.

This heart thing isn’t just a factor with individuals, but organizations as well. Which makes sense; organizations are made up of people. But the last full-time job I had working for someone else had a really strange culture. Everyone was afraid of making mistakes. When a problem developed, the emphasis was on which idiot screwed up this time, not what can be done about it.

See? Bad heart. Everyone clocked in, did the absolute minimum required to stay employed, clocked out, cashed the paycheck, went home to do it again. Everyone there worked without any heart in it. Since that’s not in my nature, I felt enormous pressure to get with the program. For me, this was a really toxic place to work.

You’ve gotta have heart

I’ve always liked athletes who played with heart. I’m thinking of David Eckstein, the runty little shortstop who played with the Angels and later the Cardinals a few years ago. He wasn’t big enough to fight or run a foot race. He had no talent to speak of. But he played with heart. Left something of himself on the field every game.

For a no-talent kid who looked about 12 years old, he had himself a great career. Ignited the 2002 Angels on their way to a World Series title. Did the same thing for the Cardinals a few years later, and got named the most valuable player of that series. Even if he went 0-for-4, he still helped his team win.

Eckstein was the epitome of heart. He was all in, every game, even if he looked like he doesn’t shave yet.

Have a heart, buddy!

It’s so easy to lose heart in this squirrel-cage world, which is why I have to watch mine. Partly because I’m so all-in all the time, burnout is always a threat with me. That’s why rest is so important.

But that’s a juggling act. Being self-employed and working at home — plus having a mind that’s going all the time — I need to be more careful of my on-times and my off-times. Ideally, when I work I work, and when I knock off I knock off, but that’s not always possible. But I do make sure I get a good seven hours of sleep every night, and stick with the same schedule every day. I try to do regular brain dumps and get all the stray thoughts down on paper, preferably written down with the first step to get things started.

I try to shut down one day a week, but I’m not there yet. The best thing is to have all electronics shut off, give my online connection a rest, and just chill. But too often I’m using that day off to scratch out a rough draft. But I’ll start my alleged day off by going over the week I just had, reflecting on what I got done, planning out the next week, and writing in my journal.

For the record I did take off with a few friends for a camping trip last weekend. My phone was shut off almost the whole time (did have some email to take care of although that really could have waited), I sketched out  a few story ideas in pencil by the campfire, but mostly relaxed.

Separating my work time from the rest of my life is one of those things I must do to guard my heart.

Getting to the heart of the matter

But probably the biggest thing for me, and the best way to keep my heart in things, is to revisit the “why.”

I try to remind myself why I’m doing what I do, and why it matters anyway.

Yeah, there’s a paycheck involved there somewhere, but that’s not the whole of it. I do it because … well, because this is what I do.

Because I like sharing my thoughts.

Because I like to encourage people.

Because I like to tell a good story.

That’s what keeps me going. The other things I mentioned keep my physically and mentally healthy, but the “why” is the thing that gets me standing and locked at my computer at 9 a.m. That’s the thing that drives me to getting my words out every day, with or without help from The Muse. It’s what makes the difference between wishing I was a writer and being a writer.

In 1997, I lost track of the “why.”

The heart went soon after that.

Connection? I think so.

Things like getting proper rest and recreation, reflection time, and building relationships are good ways to monitor my heart. But probably the best one is for me to keep the “why” in mind.