Why do you do anything?

March 5, 2024

This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, tentatively titled, Motivate to Move. In it I talk about what is necessary to be motivated to accomplish something you desire. I teach that there are three games that we must master to be motivated daily. They are the psychological game, the mental game and the action game.

I would appreciate any comments on this excerpt as it will help me improve the book. This is a selection from the chapter, The Mental Game.

The Mental Game

The mental game is simply strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is the overall goal you or your organization wants to obtain. For example, the major strategic objective of the Allies in WWII was to defeat the Axis powers. The next step down in the strategic objective is to unite the efforts of the Allies so that they act in a concerted fashion. To do this requires certain kinds of structures including agreement on command and control of the war machinery. It also means helping the Allies to keep the wellbeing of their citizenry as good as can be done. Notice that this says nothing about how you are going to do each of these. This stage is to make as clear as possible the major goals you want to achieve and in what order. This sounds easy, after the fact, but in general this is so difficult that most major corporations have given up on this kind of thinking and planning. There has been an enormous amount of material created on how to do strategic thinking and planning. As I said, corporations don’t do it much anymore, but as individuals dedicated to making ourselves the best we can be, we can use this material for our benefit.

The nice thing about working as individuals is we don’t have to fight with a lot of people with competing ideas of what is the highest goal. We decide what we are going to chase. It doesn’t mean it is easy to get there. It takes focus and commitment to decide the goal you will dedicate time and energy to. I will take you through a process that I think works. I will use material from what strategic thinkers in corporations used and abandoned. As I do that I will talk about their successes and failures. I will also explain why they quit doing it. Once I’ve explained the process you will have the tools to design your own strategic goals. In the appendix is a design sheet you can use to help navigate the process.

The Why

Let’s start defining your goal. As the title of this book is about motivating you to exercise daily let’s assume that is your goal. (Clearly you can choose any goal. These techniques work for any goal). So, write that down. Use the worksheets from the appendix if you want or design your own. The first thing to determine is why? Without a strong why this becomes a meaningless pantomime.

Have you ever determined to do something? It could be as simple as losing some weight or as complicated as becoming competent in Tensor Analysis. How long did you work on this? If you’re like most people you ‘tried’ for about a month. The something happened. You were too tired to exercise as part of weight loss. You told yourself you’re just too old to do higher level math. All these excuses that turn into not doing what you say you want. Why is that happening to you? Because you never figured out why you wanted to accomplish it.

The first principle of systems engineering is knowing what the desired outcome is. This is the top-level question you always ask before starting to design or build a new device. The personal analog to this is why do I want this goal? What will I become if I accomplish this goal? Who will I be if I lose this weight or master Tensor Analysis? This is the picture you hold in your head about your desired outcome.

When you ask this question of why for a new goal, some of you will have quick strong answers. Some of you will feel very strongly that this is what you want but aren’t sure what your why is. So, you will have to journal it to find out what the why is and who you desire to be. This may take some time. Let it. It’s better to get a strong why than to finish something quickly that doesn’t resonate for you. This story should make clear what I am talking about.

One of my sons called me towards the end of his sophomore year in college. He was a dual major in software engineering and pre-med. He was busy and doing well. After we talked for a while and caught up, he said, “Dad I think I want to become a SEAL.” Now this shocked me as my wife is a birth right Quaker. Quakers don’t believe in war. My son and his older brother had been raised as Quakers. We weren’t fanatical about it but this announcement shocked me. I said to him, “Why do you want to do this?” He went on to give me a bunch of reasons that were more platitudes than thought out convictions. After chatting about this for a bit I said, “You know these aren’t reasons. None of them will keep you moving forward in the cold light of 3 am. You need to come up with better reasons. I’m not going to talk with your Mom until you’ve thought it out better.”

He said, “How do I do that?”

“Remember all those notebooks I have in the library?”

“Yeah, there are shelves of them.”

“That’s how I talk to myself and figure things out,” I replied. “Get yourself a notebook and start writing. Figure out your why. Until you do that it doesn’t mean much. If you can’t do this, how are you going to react when you have to swim in the surf off San Diego where the water is cold and miserable?”

We ended our conversation and for about 2 years he never talked about it, and I didn’t ask. But in the spring of his Senior year, he called me again. He said, “Dad, I know my why and I’m going to do it.”

“How did you do it? “I asked.

“I did what you said. I wrote in my notebook for all this time. I filled one and a half notebooks talking to myself about why it was necessary, you know, all the stuff we talked about it. I have it clear in my head now.”

“You’re sure,” I asked.


“Okay, I’ll talk with your Mom. Good luck.”

The conversation with my wife was not fun. My son went on his journey. The SEAL stuff didn’t work out, but he did become a Special Forces soldier, a green beret. After he came back from Afghanistan, he told me that when he went through the Q course to become a Green Beret if he hadn’t done the exercises I’d asked him to do he would never have made it. It was the why that kept him going no matter what.

Knowing your why is the single most important strategy you must have. It requires deep thought and deep emotional commitment. Without it you will quit. My son told me stories of guys just quitting because, “I don’t need this bullshit.” Their whys were not strong enough. It’s the reason the training is so hard. Without that commitment they don’t want you.

This act of determining your why is a creative act. After all, you aren’t the person you will become, yet. You must see yourself as someone new; a different person from who you are now. Whatever goal you are striving for is a change of who you are. It is scary to contemplate this change. You are probably comfortable with who you are now so becoming a different you is threatening. But first you must get that image of the new you clear. To do that we ask questions and answer them. Here they are.

What do I look like once I accomplish my goal and how is that different from how I look now?

What character traits must I acquire to be able to do this?

What habits do I need to develop?

How do I need to change how I see the things around me to succeed?

Is there a particular set of things I must do to succeed?

Is there someone who’s done what I want to do who can help me?

What kind of investment of time and energy will this work require?

Where can I find significant support outside of myself for this task?

What are intermediate milestones that I can use to fuel my effort?

What we are doing with these questions is trying to bring into focus the person you will become. This is what happens when you design a new machine. We have a vague idea of what the tool should do. Then we put some parameters on it that tell us how it functions. Then we write a detailed specification of what is required for the machine to do in detail. Now we start to ‘see’ this machine. In the case of us and our goals we start to see what is needed to become our most desired outcome.    

How do you know that your why is ‘good enough’? What is good enough? Good enough is the why that takes you through the inevitable blocks and failures on your way to that desired outcome. And you will fail sometimes. And you will get those crazy thoughts about quitting and finding something else. You know because after all the work you do one of two things happen; 1) your why settles into your heart. It becomes your constant companion and image. This is what you are meant to do. 2) Your why doesn’t resonate. You feel something off even as you start pursuing it. Something isn’t right. If the second scenario happens you must back up and work on your why more until it does become part of you. If you don’t have that feeling you will not follow through.

Why so much work for the why? You know what your goal is so why do you have to work so hard to define the why? Do you know how many company projects fail every year? It’s so big that most companies won’t take on a massive, paradigm changing project. Do you know how many people wanting to lose weight either quit the work or gain back the weight immediately? It’s an enormous number that is very hard to gauge. And the reasons behind both the companies’ and the individual’s failure is the same. It’s a lack of seeing the desired outcome and defining the deep why for doing the task. Companies can’t give as a why that it will make us lots of money and be the market leader. That kind of frivolous reasoning does not spark the hearts and minds of the people tasked with creating the product. Similarly, if Joan wants to lose weight and her why is that she will look better I guarantee that that why will not get her up in the cold dawn to exercise. She has to see herself as someone new. She must hold up this vision of herself to herself every day. When exercising becomes tough, when the hunger pangs strike, it is only that vision that will carry her through. The process of forging this ideal she imagines provides energy and focus and determination even in the darkest moments of the project.

I will remind you of Olivia, from my book Joint Pain Be Gone. Olivia was diagnosed with MS when she was 28 with a one-year-old son. Her husband was abandoning her. Her doctors gave up and told her to prepare for being an invalid for the rest of her life. Her vision of herself did not agree with that. She fought to be who she imagines herself. More than 20 years later she is not bedridden or handicapped. She has pain sometimes but works every day to improve her mobility and keep herself independent and strong. It is the image of herself and her definition of what her true why is that keeps her strong and as well as possible. She doesn’t go for quick fixes or rah-rah moments. She focuses on the here and now, in line with her view of herself and her why. She changed who she was to become the hero she is. She is my hero.

Find your why and become great.


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