The importance of knowing your why

Two years ago, my best friend was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. They are among the most optimistic people I’ve ever met and it has been incredible to watch them assess why they are undergoing the difficult surgeries, procedures, and daily efforts that have made up their treatment.

The thing that I’ve watched them do – more intentionally than I’ve ever seen someone practice before – is come up with specific reasons why they are going through those difficult procedures.

In order to change your own or someone else’s behavior you have to have a reason why you or they should change. The stronger the reason, the easier it is to do things that are otherwise out of reach.

Here are some habits to discover and reinforce your reasons why, whether in persuading someone else or trying to change your own behavior. 

Who is it for?

One of the simplest ways to strengthen your rationale for tackling any other audacious goal is to understand who you serve. 

When I started my old restaurant, Robin’s Cafe, I did so because I was very clear about the variety of reasons I had for building the business.

  • Employees – I deliberately created Robin’s Cafe as a great place to work 
  • Investors – I borrowed money from 5 different people to begin the restaurant. These people were literally invested in the success of the business.
  • Landlord – The landlord was also invested in the success of my business. If the restaurant performed poorly, that would reflect poorly on the landlord, and if it did well, they looked good, too.
  • Customers – Serving customers isn’t enough, by itself, to make a successful business. But it is a necessary component!
  • Me – Both financially and emotionally. If I was not earning enough from the business to keep going, I would have to shutter the company. But equally, I started the business for what I knew I would learn along the way.

I was only able to take on such an audacious undertaking by having lot of clear reasons why.

Habit: List out the different individual people or groups of people that would benefit from your things being successful.

Brainstorm a list of reasons

Since my friend’s cancer diagnosis, they have gone through two major surgeries and uncountable treatments. Many of those treatments, in turn, have caused additional problems, which require their own treatments.

Every few months, we sit down together and list out the reasons why they are spending all of their time and tens of thousands of dollars on treatments. We list out lots of things: their children, their spouse, serving as a role model, teaching others and staying alive until better testing and treatment becomes available.

Habit: Write out a list of reasons why you are trying to tackle this audacious undertaking.

Brainstorming isn’t the time for editing

I always have to remind myself that brainstorming isn’t the time to critique my ideas. I’m tempted to critique a list of brainstormed ideas even while I create them. But that negates the creative exercise.

Habit: When you are brainstorming, resist the temptation to censor or judge your ideas. List out reasons why, without considering if they are good or bad, or how true they might be.

Revisit your reasons regularly

After you’ve written out reasons why, come back to that list regularly. My friend, for example, found that celebrating their life in Puerto Rico and the beautiful views they wake up to each morning was a powerful reason for them to go through tough treatments. 

As they delved into this reason, in particular, they recognized both their joy during tough times and also their excitement for life post-cancer, when they could enjoy these things even more. Double bonus!

Habit: Revisit your reasons and rationales. When you find one that is particularly juicy, explore it further to strengthen your resolve.

Ask other people for creative ideas why

When I was at my lowest points building Robin’s Cafe – and there were many of them! – I would turn to other people for help. Restaurateurs who’d been through it before, entrepreneurs in other industries, family and friends. Even books, like famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table, which I gifted to each new employee. 

Each of these conversations would remind me of some aspect of the business I appreciated. Of a great employee or a great experience. To this day, my mother talks fondly of the avocado toast and gallery space at Robin’s Cafe! 

Habit: Ask for help with your reasons why. Listen to what people say, write down their suggestions.

Don’t Ask “Why Not”

Once I’ve settled on a course of action – for example, starting a new business – I purposefully don’t ask myself the question “why not.” Doing so – querying myself why I should not do something that I’ve already decided to do – leads to stagnation.

If the goal is to continue moving forward, then explore your reasons for that course of action, not against it.

Habit: Ask yourself why; don’t ask yourself “why not?” If you do feel the need to explore “why not,” do so deliberately and separately from your explorations of the reasons for the behavior you are wanting to take.

We found out this week that my friend is NED, or there is no evidence of disease. This is great news! And while there’s no causal proof, I’d bet anything that my friend’s optimism contributed. 

Whether your desire is to persuade someone you love, sell your services, or change your own behavior, the more clearly you have your reasons why, the easier it will be.

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