In a previous Blog, Are You a Jet Skier or Scuba Driver? I detailed the difference in human terms between our focus on WHAT and WHY. That is, the focus on attention (WHAT) and intention (WHY).

The questions of WHAT vs WHY seem to dog us as we deal with an abundance of distractions, as stated by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains.

Carr laments that “what we created with computers and the Internet was a system of distraction. We got the great rewards of having basically unlimited information at our fingertips, but the cost of that was we created a system that kept us in a state of perpetual distraction and constant disruption.”

The focus on What by itself trains us to think at the surface level of life (breadth of attention) and ignores or overlooks WHY (depth of attention) which delves deeper to intention, purpose, and meaning. Before exploring these questions, consider these insights:

WHAT = Focus on Contentproducts and results to increase assets.

HOW = Focus on Processactivity to optimize performance.

WHY = Focus from Context: purpose to enhance meaning.

Apples & Oranges: WHY & WHAT

In his book, “Start With Why” Simon Sinek makes a compelling argument as to WHY must be the starting point for any organization. He develops this point in a TED talk on leadership, where he says, “WHY: Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do.

“When I say WHY I don’t mean to make money – that’s a result.” This line of thinking mirrors Jim Collins‘ work (Built to Last), which introduced purpose: “Profit is not a purpose, it’s a goal.”  In this video, Sinek gets to the heart of WHY.

“By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”

As with Apple, when communicating from the inside out, the WHY is offered as the reason to buy and the WHATs serve as the tangible proof of that belief.

Apple’s development of the iPod (like the original Macintosh and iMac) … and each product since … was driven by their desire to challenge the status quo.  To think differently.

They happen to make products that are beautiful and user-friendly…but that is the WHAT. WHAT organizations do are external factors, but WHY they do it is something deeper.

The shift to intention (WHY) binds purpose and meaning to shape our attention (WHAT). This short clip of Michael Jr. reveals the difference WHY makes in everyday life. 

Getting to WHY

As we see above, Apple has insane products but these come from the spark between Jobs and Woz – The WHY – that found the two masterminds challenging the status quo decades before those insane products caught on.

After 9/11, former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher was asked what business he was in. The obvious answer is Airlines, or travel or perhaps travelers. But for him, it’s the business of Love (hence the stock symbol LUV).

Kelleher saw this clearly after 9/11 but actually fostered this impulse in the beginning. During a severe economic downturn in the early 70s, Herb experienced a defining moment. He had to adopt cost-cutting measures: either sell off one of his four jets or lay off 25% of his workforce. Against all advice, he sold the jet.

Why did Herb go to work? Love. In 37 years as CEO Herb avoided laying off an employee, and never had an unprofitable quarter. He kept his WHY in clear sight. (More on Kelleher in a previous blog on Servant Leadership.)

Five WHY’s

Years ago, Peter Senge (in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook) presented Five Why’s as an approach to systems thinking. Since then, I’ve applied this inquiry to purpose and intention to offer direction. When we begin working with executives or students to create their WHY, we realize that it can be heady – an exercise in saying the right words or accurately describing a product or service.

Getting to Why, however, requires time to sit with the question: to let it use you, and to take it from your head to your heart, often finding learners getting choked up at what emerges. I’ve found getting to WHY does take Senge’s Five Why’s. 

WHY #1: will be the weakest WHY usually a more sophisticated WHAT. Perhaps, I want to solve XX problem, or, I want to accomplish some goal.

  • For instance, I want to develop a smart meal tracker that calculates health risks (i.e. risk for cancer, heart disease, etc) and nutrition beyond measuring nutrients.
  • A moment to reflect will find each of these is really a WHAT masquerading as a WHY.

WHY #2: Ask again this way: what will that meal tracker (or accomplishment) make possible? Puncture through to a deeper layer, closer to your why.

  • For example, I want to develop a meal tracker that automatically calculates health risks and nutrition beyond measuring nutrients. (WHY-1);
  • to support people in choosing a healthier lifestyle (WHY-2).

WHY #3: Now ask it this way: What difference will it make if people are choosing a healthy lifestyle?

  • Well … perhaps to make people whole, to reduce confusion or suffering over food, or to bring awareness to the restorative value of food (WHY-3).

WHY #4: Now ask: What difference will this make?

  • To empower people to consume foods to better their lives (WHY-4).

WHY #5: Now ask: What will this make possible?

  • To make people whole by revealing the power of food.  (WHY-5).

Does that last WHY, sound different than the first one?

WHY-5, To make people whole by revealing the power of food.

WHY-1, To develop a meal tracker that automatically calculates health risks and nutrition beyond measuring nutrients.

Notice that with each why we get closer to a purpose, a reason for being, a reason for getting up in the morning.

Inquiry into WHY

Allow yourself to find your WHY. I say allow as to invite everyone to give themselves permission to explore in a new way.

Engaging an inquiry for insight is different than investigating a question for answers. A humble inquiry begins with “I don’t know”, and can be both insightful and challenging. Take the time either in one sitting or in multiple sittings, and notice what emerges. Stay with the questions, as you walk, respond to email, water plants, or play with kids. Be surprised when ideas or thoughts come your way.

Allow the inquiry into WHY to guide you, and then surrender to it. At some point from Why-1 to Why-5 you will feel a tug at your heart, a choking up on the way to your WHY. The thinking that opens us to WHY allows for concentration, intention, and purpose in every moment. Staying with questions will tap into previously concealed intelligence and meaning.

As Albert Einstein stated… “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems [questions] longer.”


tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism.