Don’t Forget The Why


In case you have been living under a rock recently (or at least not visiting BuzzFeed at all), there are almost infinite “How To” articles on the internet.  They are consistently among the highest ranked on any “top articles” lists.  They are easy to read, easy to write, and easy to feel satisfied when done reading.  

Unfortunately, like eating Little Debbie cupcakes instead of an apple, these snackable articles leave many feeling less than fulfilled.  The dopamine rush of new information wears off, and all that is left is the desire to read more rather than do more.  So we look for the next “How To” articles, all the while sitting on our couch letting the hours slip by.  

So where does that leave us?  If new knowledge gained by a “How To” article will not motivate us to take action, then what will?  I think the answer has to come from within ourselves in the form of defining our Why.  

Focus on Why

My middle school science teacher, Mrs. Rosebrock, made a comment that has stuck with me for over 20 years.  She mentioned that so many people, both historical and modern, went searching for truth with one question on their lips.  “Why?”  

  • Why did the sun rise in the east?
  • Why does water expand when it freezes?
  • Why does a feather fall more slowly than a rock?

All of these questions can be answered by non-scientific answers, and for centuries, government leaders, powerful businessmen, and corrupt clergy answered those questions.  

  • Why? The government makes the rules.  
  • Why? Money talks.
  • Why? God ordains it.

However, when you shift your line of questioning to “How?”, you can start ignoring the noise and focus on reality.  You discover the true astronomic paths of the planets relative to the sun, the properties of materials, and invisible particles of air.  

Asking “How?” is crucial to raising children who can think for themselves, independent upon outside opinions.  However, “How?” does not answer some of the most personal questions that lead to the source of our decisions.  Instead, “Why?” must be asked, and that is a deeper hole than most realize.  


Fahrenheit 451

Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.

Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.

Pretty much everyone knows that burning books is bad, but Fahrenheit 451 is not about how firemen came to burn books, but rather why people did not care about it.  The quote above can be combined with the one below to give a better picture.  

Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.

All people wanted to do was feel good.  They did not want mental discomfort.  They did not want opposing views.  They did not want conflict.  And books presented all of those ideas and more.  So the general population went from avoiding pain to actively seeking its eradication.  From abandoning the library to burning it down.

How did they fight their pain?  By burning books.  Why did they burn books?  Because they wanted to seek happiness.  

Later in the book, Montag suggests printing so many books that people simply cannot ignore them again.  However, his colleagues remind him that it was not the presence of books that was the problem.  Rather, it was the lack of desire to read them.  They chose not to read.  

This is the same for you and me.  We must choose, every day, actions that will either move us forward or leave us stagnant.  

Action First, then Feelings

To follow up on the idea of choice, we oftentimes don’t make a good choice because we don’t feel like it.  How many times have you not exercised because you’re tired, you’re hungry, or you just plain don’t want to?  For me, too many times.  

However, what psychologists are finding is that emotions are sometimes not primary motivators.  On the contrary, emotions many times end up being a by product of action, not its source.  What we must understand is that there is a link among thoughts, emotions, and actions, illustrated by what is called the Cognitive Triangle.  

The Cognitive Triangle

So many times throughout our lives, we are told that actions are a reflection of our true feelings.  This overview of Cognitive Behavior Therapy includes an example of being afraid of dogs that describes just that.  

Let’s assume that you are afraid of dogs, like the person in the example.  

  • Thought: “This dog will bite me!”
  • Feeling: Fear
  • Behavior: Run away

Most likely, your feelings about dogs will not change first.  Thoughts or actions need to be changed, and feelings will follow.  

One suggestion is to change your direct thoughts about dogs.  Convince yourself that dogs are nice and will play with you.  Difficult, but possible.  

Another suggestion is to change your behavior.  Start playing with dogs while still being afraid, changing your mind about them in the process.  Once your behavior adjusts your thoughts to “Dogs are nice and will not kill me!”, your emotions start to change from fear to happiness.  

The idea behind acting first actually comes from introducing an overriding thought to the process, Thought #2.  This thought is somewhere along the lines of, “My fear of dogs is overly irrational and illogical.  While I am deathly afraid of them, my brain knows they will not chew my face off.”  

Acting on Thought #2 can be described by psychologists as many things, but it boils down to courage.  I have told my daughter many times that the definition of courage is doing something not because you do not have fear, but in spite of being afraid.  

Thought #2 can be introduced by doing a deep dive into why you want to be able to play with dogs.  Do you want to impress someone?  Did your parents get a dog after you moved out?  Do you just not want to be afraid anymore?  Finding out your why (which determines many of our thoughts) is a big step forward in adjusting your actions, which then make you feel better.  

This article from Psychology Today has a great history of action preceding feelings, espcially when used to treat depression.  

“Human beings, prone as they are to prefer immediate rewards, often respond to discomfort by withdrawal and avoidance. Withdrawal and avoidance reward us in the short run by eliminating discomfort, but they punish us in the long run by preventing us from learning how to obtain rewards in the environment. The correct reaction to failure is not to give up and shut yourself away, but to learn to act more skillfully and purposefully so as to reintroduce positive reinforcements into your life.”

Another great article about action can be found at the Art of Manliness.  Brett McKay talks about the numerous, mostly young men he meets never “feel” like a man, but just a boy in a man’s body.  His suggestion…start acting how you think a man should act, and you will start feeling like one.  

“But the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

The quote above is from Aristotle and referenced in Brett’s article.  Similar to the builder, I am becoming a writer by writing.  I am an engineer by trade but didn’t start out that way.  I learned calculus, mechanics, heat transfer, ethics, and everything else through years of trial and error.  Writing is no different.  

Lastly, all of this is not to discount your emotions.  You are allowed to feel your feels.  Just remember that your emotions are not the only aspect of your decision making matrix.  

5 Whys

Sometimes, just asking “Why?” once isn’t good enough.  It doesn’t go deep enough.  Answers can be so flippant that you have to get through the first couple of layers.  The solution to this is the 5 Whys.  

The method of asking 5 Whys started with the root cause analysis procedures at Toyota during the 1980’s.  The car company was doing some serious research into manufacturing and process efficiency, and one of the results was the 5 Whys.  An overview of the 5 Whys from Toyota can be found in this article, written by the founder of this process, Taiichi Ohno.  

On a personal level, you can use the 5 Whys to figure out the root cause of you thoughts, actions, and feelings.  An example is shown in the figure below.  

5 Whys
This is a straightforward example, with only one answer to each question.  However, life is not always that simple.  This other figure shows just how complicated this activity can get, especially when dealing with such non-linear ideas as emotions.  

5 Whys

Don’t get frustrated or overwhelmed.  Feel free to go down the rabbit hole!  Just make a note of any answers you come up with and explore them all.  Once you have written everything down, use another process improvement technique, the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule).  

Focus on the top one or two answers that give insight into your thoughts and behaviors, and adjust them first.  

Going deep into your 5 (or more) Whys helps you visualize and establish the underlying motivations for your thoughts and actions.  

Momentary, emotional motivation is fleeting.  Establishing your core beliefs, your self identity, will guide your decision making on a permanent basis.


Oftentimes, it feels like we are on a hamster wheel in life.  If we want to increase our cardiovascular abilities, then that’s fine.  Otherwise, we need to find out why we are on that wheel outside of just “That’s just what I do.”

Take some time to look back at your life and discover what led you to your personal beliefs.  You might be surprised and realize that it was many small choices that created your larger personality.  

There is a great book by Simon Sinek about companies and their purpose called Start With Why, based on a Tedx Talk he gave several years ago.  The main phrase for me was “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  The same can be said for individual relationships.  (I would highly recommend all of Simon’s books, including Leaders East Last and Find Your Why.)

I would love to hear of any examples you might have regarding taking action to change emotion.  Let me know in the comments below, or contact me.

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