“Start With Why.” -Simon Sinek
“Merchants, thieves, assassins, wizards–all competed energetically in the race without really realising that it needn’t be a race at all, and certainly not trusting one another enough to stop and wonder who had marked out the course and was holding the starting flag.
The Patrician disliked the word ‘dictator.’ It affronted him.”
-Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
Because you are alive, you will spend the energy of your life working toward something. You might work towards keeping up with Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black. You might work towards programming streetlights, or growing tomatoes, or designing efficient batteries. There are all sorts of jobs, all sorts of movements, all sorts of goals. What’s your “Why”?
Sinek starts by imagining three levels: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Most people, he says, communicate (think, and look at the world) in that order–but you can turn the order around. You can start with why you want to do something, think through how you’re going pursue what matters to you, and then decide what you’ll do.
I think the danger comes when we forget that we pick our “why,” and focus on following a path without knowing whether it’s a path worth walking, or, worse, without realizing that it’s only one path. I have a friend who’s working for a company that does something cool and techie–we’ll call it designing bopalops. If there’s something my friend can do over the weekend to help with the bopalops, he’ll do it. In fact, he does, weekend after weekend. That extra work helps with the bopalops’ design; it also stresses him out, and disconnects him from himself and his loved ones. As we talked, he asked: “What’s my goal in working every weekend? What would happen if I didn’t?” He’s paid to design bopalops, but he doesn’t think bopalops are going to make the world better. It’s in his nature to work hard when he picks up a task, and there’s something beautiful in that–but in designing bopalops on Saturdays he’s not allowing himself that time to work on something else. What’s his why?
Later that day I talked to someone else I love. His goal is to support his family. That’s wonderful. And if that’s his “why”–“for my daughter, for my wife”–then he has a good yardstick by which to measure what he does. If the path he’s running (habits, work, goals) doesn’t lead in that direction, he doesn’t need to be running it.
Pratchett imagines a Patrician who set “our” finish line and waved “our” starting flag, and who doesn’t need to “control” us: he just watches as we force ourselves along the course he chose, yelling about how we’re free (or even winning!). As we run, we do the work he wants. (There could be such patricians: perhaps real power, these days, is less about what we do and more about what we think). At the same time, often enough, I think it’s our own pride, our own competitive spirit, our own thoughtlessness that arranges the race. I’m told of better, and I want to be better. I’m told of win, and I want to win. It’s hard for me to stop running long enough to see the fields that stretch beyond my little race track.
Everything that matters to me–friendship, compassion, love, art, science, knowledge, community, safety, justice–is not a race. It’s a world we amble into, a world that we change and that changes us. Each of us will spend the work of our lives–however deep and however wide that is–in supporting the tasks we choose.
What do I choose?