Your why

Last Friday at school our professional development centered on finding our whys. For we are not made of what we do; we’re made of why we do it.

In a YouTube video, comedian Michael Jr. puts it this way: “When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.” To illustrate the difference between knowing what and knowing why, he calls on a member of the audience (a school music director by the name of E. Daryl Duff) to sing a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Duff’s voice is resonant, beautiful. Michael Jr. then asks Duff to sing as if a couple of specific, tragic things had happened to him; the transformation is stunning. Duff sings in a higher key with a vibrato full of emotion and energy—see the “Know Your Why” video).

It’s a perfect example of how our power, our potential, lies in knowing why we do things.

So, my colleagues and I got to work on finding our whys. 

We were to map at least five peaks and valleys in our lives; if we needed help, we could use a memory prompt based on the work of Simon Sinek:

Our principal modeled the activity first (let us remember that good teaching and good writing have a primary rule in common: Show, don’t tell). The peaks and valleys didn’t necessarily have to be milestones in our lives, but experiences surrounded with much meaning or emotion, maybe turning points, times we gained knowledge that changed us. The more specific we could be in listing several significant life events or people that made an impact on us, the better we’d get to our why. 

Mulling the suggestions and the need for specificity, I chose these events, people, and moments that first came to mind as being beyond the norm:

Thinking of such experiences and writing them can be emotional, but sharing is where the emotion really kicks in.

Laughter. Tears. Reassuring hugs.

In pairs who were moderately comfortable with each other, but who didn’t know each other really well, we shared some of our peaks and valleys. We didn’t have to share everything we wrote, just the items we wanted to share. We told why we chose these points in our lives and what stood out about them. While one partner read, the other listened for connections or patterns in those life events, made notes, and then the roles switched.

We then shared what we discovered about one another.

In my case, my father’s sudden death (my lowest valley), reading “The Murder of Robbie Wayne, Age 6” in The Reader’s Digest when I was a young teen, my birthday party when my mother invited a boy who had bullied me, and a boy who did one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever seen back when we were in 5th grade (I wrote about it: The Valentine) all connect to my present notions of fairness, doing what’s right, and being an advocate.  My having asthma as a child, my husband’s loss of an eye to disease two years ago, and my return to college to finish after a span of many years have a common theme of overcoming. The others—my husband’s ministry, my grandmother’s belief in me, my volunteering to do a play with elementary students when I was still in high school, my blog, the professional development I’ve led in writing, my boys’ individual accomplishments in music and leadership, and the high school teacher who saved the lead role in The Matchmaker for me to read in class—are tied to inspiration.

Synthesizing all of this leads to drafting a why statement comprised of our contribution and our impact:

To _____________________ [contribution] so that ___________________________ [impact].

Mine, at the moment, is this (still working to tighten it further):

To inspire others so that they know they can overcome obstacles and setbacks.

This is why I do what I do; some of the whats are literacy coaching, encouraging others to write, and writing this blog.

I wonder, now, how many colleagues—how many people in the world, actually—have their whys and whats aligned. Seems to me there’d be incredible frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, imbalance, and utter lack of fulfillment when whys and whats aren’t aligned, when people don’t recognize their contribution or see the impact they can make. I think of people in jobs that don’t match their whys and how such dissonance makes for misery.

In The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar writes of a teacher struggling with classroom management. The man couldn’t bring order because, when he was in school, he suffered being stereotyped and devalued by a teacher. Being the authority figure for his students felt like he was doing the same to them. He went into teaching because he had a genuine love for the kids, but his core beliefs, his why, the very essence of who he was, wouldn’t allow him to establish the needed structure.

He couldn’t change his why; he could only change his what. He ended up leaving the teaching profession.

“When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.”

We are not what we do.

We are why we do it.

Knowing that, as Robert Frost might say, makes all the difference.

12 thoughts on “Your why

  1. As always Fran, your writing touches my heart and gives me much to think about. There is so much here to return to, but I believe very much in what you are saying about the whats and whys being aligned and dissonance when they are not. Your why is so inspiring and all the stories you shared, all that you did overcome on your way to helping others overcome obstacles.

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  2. Wow! Such a reflective piece! I love that your principal took center stage and exemplified “show, don’t tell.” This was a powerful step that I’m sure helped guide the staff to digging deeper during the experience. Thanks for sharing your why.

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  3. We read Simon Sinek’s “Start with the Why” as professional development, and it’s probably been the best book assigned as such. I’ve always felt I was on the right path with all of my jobs, but my current position allows me to laser-focus for the first time, because I truly believe that reading and information literacy lie at the heart of all learning. As a librarian, I get to support that “why” every single day, and it makes my heart sing. I’ll be doing this job for as long as they’ll let me!

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    • “Laser-focus” … “make my heart sing” … you nailed it again with your words! The essence, result of knowing one’s why … I am thinking just now of how individual whys influence relationships; there better be some alignment of whys there, as well.

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  4. It does make all the difference! We did why work at my school recently too– I so loved that Amazing Grace video: powerful! I hadn’t seen the Sinek list–what good writing ideas to keep the conversation going and the value of why in front. So important. Thanks for sharing and reminding us of whys power.

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  5. Such valuable work! Made me also think about your post on your dad. When you knew the why the what made more sense as to the issue of pet ownership. This post is something I need to marinate in my mind. As always I leave this space a little changed from when I began reading. 🙂

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  6. Knowing that, as Robert Frost might say, makes all the difference.

    One of my writings referred to this quote a couple of weeks ago. Again-another lovely read. You gave me a great idea of how to present a snapshot of a moment for my 4th graders tomorrow. I think you make an excellent point that your why and what must be aligned. It seems like you’re very much like my preacher because like her, you’ve given me something to think about for a week, two weeks, or sometimes her wisdom stays with me months after the sermon. You have the gift of prose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You, my friend, have the gift of encouragement. Have you been told that before? I am honored to be likened to your preacher. Thank you for telling me how you feel – this means much.

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  7. I’ve been working on this activity since yesterday. Naming my peaks and valleys was easy. Finding a common theme was easy. Strength, joy, and freedom were my themes for my peaks, while lack of control seemed to be the only theme for my valley. Coming up with the “why” was a challenge because I had five. 😁 I narrowed it down to: “To show my strength so that others can see that joy can come despite anxiety.” The more I read my statement, the more I could change it, but each statement basically has the same “what”. This was a fun activity!

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    • A powerful why statement! So glad you enjoyed the activity. It can be challenging but it’s fascinating. Sometimes it helps to have an objective person to help “see” things. I want to get my why statement as tight as Michael Jr.’s: To inspire others to walk in purpose (or so that they walk in purpose). His “whats” are stand-up comedy, writing books, etc. Still working on it …

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  8. Pingback: Peaks & Valleys |

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