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My intention with each of these posts is that you’re challenged to interrupt the noise and routine in your life, just for a moment, to think more deeply about what really matters in life… your relationship with yourself and with others in your professional and personal life.

In the year 1957, long before Simon Sinek’s brilliant and practical 2009 ‘Start With Why’ TEDx talk, in her book titled Intention, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, G.E.M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe, highlighted the importance of not only considering WHAT or HOW a person is doing or has done, but also to consider WHY the person is doing it or has done it.

Sound familiar?

Anscombe wrote this: “Intentional actions are ones to which a certain sense of the question ‘why?’ has application.”

To be honest, even though at the time Anscombe published her work, the then Professor of Philosophy at the University of California is quoted as saying “Anscombe’s ‘Intention’ is the most important treatment of action since Aristotle”, I personally found her book to be one of the most difficult and challenging books I have read.

A deeper look into Intention

I first stumbled on Anscombe’s work in the late 1990’s while studying for my Master degree in Professional Ethics.

It was a combination of Aristotle’s philosophical approach to the ethics of character, and Anscombe’s work on the meaning of intentional actions, that were the genesis of my fascination, both academically and experientially on the importance and impact that our intentions have on living authentically and the impact of our intentional choices and actions on the levels of trust we experience in our professional and personal lives.

What we know is this. Trust impacts almost every measure of success in our professional and personal lives.

That means, if we want to increase our success, we need to become more intentional about our choices and actions.

In Sinek’s ‘Start with WHY’ talk he said this:

“People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.”

Unlike Anscombe’s original book on Intention which is little-known outside of academia, Sinek’s talks, presentations, and books have inspired an enormous amount of people, and leaders throughout all levels of organisations to pursue and discover their WHY. (At the time of writing, his TEDx talk on Start with WHY has almost 55 million views alone).

From Organisational to Personal WHY

I have no doubt in my mind that Sinek’s work has resonated for at least two reasons: The first is he puts things so eloquently into understandable language. The second is he is just so authentic when he speaks and shares his wisdom.

Sinek’s original work was targeted toward organisations tapping into their ‘WHY’ – the real purpose of their organisation (other than the reality goals of profit and return to shareholders) … a purpose that others (customers, employees and other stakeholders) will ‘buy into’ and become advocates for.

However, at the same time, his message has been adopted by many on a much more personal level to individually reflect, pursue, discover and live by their own WHY – their own purpose for being on this earth.

The good news on the pursuit of WHY

There is a vast array of scientific evidence 1 that validates people who have found purpose or meaning in their lives report higher levels of well-being in their lives than those who have not found purpose or meaning in their lives.

The not-so-good news on the pursuit of WHY

Importantly as well, there is also evidence that suggests, when overtime an unsuccessful pursuit of purpose or meaning can lead people to feeling anxious, depressed, and unfulfilled.2

This is often the reality because many people on their pursuit of WHY get caught up in social comparisons and think their personal WHY needs to compare to the lofty purposes and meanings of world changers.

One solution to this, again supported by evidence-based research findings, is to be more present in your existing work and personal life roles.

For example, rather than searching for a larger purpose or meaning, focusing intentionally on being the best parent, the best partner, the best worker, best friend, or the best colleague, is shown to bring a sense of heightened purpose and meaning to people’s lives.

In addition, in being intentionally and mindfully present and focusing on being the best version of yourself in your various life roles, often, other opportunities present themselves (while you’re not in pursuit of them), that can lead to even more meaning and purpose in your life.

So, the pursuit of WHY can at times be unhelpful by distracting us from living in the here and now.

The other not-so-good news on the pursuit of WHY

Another way the pursuit of WHY can be unhelpful and detrimental to our well-being is the reality that sometimes ‘stuff’ happens in our lives that we have little or no control over.

Sure, most of us understand we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we react and respond to it.

However, if something happens to us or to others, and we get locked into endless search for WHY this has happened, when in reality there is no answer to WHY it happened, we can get lost in that pursuit of WHY … and it is an endless pursuit that can sap our psychological and physical energy away from more appropriate actions that will help us live more authentic, meaningful, flourishing and prosperous lives.

Some things we have no control over, and we are far better to focus on the things we have more control over.

One practical approach is to use a T-Ledger.

On the left of the ledger you list the things at the moment that you’re struggling with, but are in your control to do something about.

On the right side of the ledger you list the things at the moment that you’re struggling with, but in reality, you have little or no control over.

With the list you create on the left of the ledger, the things within you’re control, decide on what positive and appropriate action(s) you can take to progress toward achieving the goals and life you want.

With the list you create on the right of the ledger, reflect on how much time, effort and energy you’re dedicating to things that are outside of your control.

Ask yourself this question:

“What am I not doing now, that if I did it, could move me closer to my goals and the life I want to live?”

Also, with what you’ve listed on the right of the ledger, decide on whether in reality there is anything you can do about each or any of what you’ve listed, or perhaps if there is anyone else who can help you with what you’ve listed.

Otherwise, accept that you have no control over what you’ve listed, and decide on what positive and appropriate action(s) you can take to progress toward achieving the goals and life you want.

Life isn’t supposed to be always easy, happy, or positive

Most if not all of us have some sort of ‘back-stories’ where tragedy of some kind has occurred.

In my own life, when tragic events have happened within my family, close friends, or even more broadly in our community or world at large, I know that I have at times been on the path of the unhelpful pursuit of WHY … and at times, this has had a significantly detrimental impact on my well-being.

In sharing this with you, my intention for you is that you just check in with yourself right now … how much time, energy, and effort might you be spending on the unhelpful pursuit of WHY, and if you were to accept that there might not be an answer to why, how much time, energy, and effort might you be now able to invest in a more helpful and positive pursuit of goal supportive choices and actions.

  1. Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in Life. In Lopez, S. J. & Snyder, C. R. (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. 2nd edition. Pgs 679-687. Oxford University Press. New York.
  2. Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in Life. In Lopez, S. J. & Snyder, C. R. (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. 2nd edition. Pgs 679-687. Oxford University Press. New York.

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