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?

Why?

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.

 

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(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.)