“Why” can be the hardest part for us to figure out when setting a goal. You could set a goal that appears realistic and measurable, such as seeking a promotion or changing jobs, however, if you ask why you want these, there is a risk that the whole edifice could crumble. Why do you want to be a manager, when it is a position where you spend much of your time being squeezed by those above and below you, and have little influence on the company? Why do you want to move jobs when what you might move to entails risk and make take more time away from your family?

Few of the personal development books in my library talk about the importance of “why”. There are some books on business goals that address it, such as Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ Built to Last and Simon Sinec’s Start with Why, the latter being a complete book on the importance of “why” to companies. But not books on personal goals, and I think that the reason is two-fold.

In the case of business, most people do not need to understand why they are doing something. The outcome is clear because of the contract between company and worker: you do your job and the company will pay you so that you can fund your life outside work. Knowing “why” can help motivate the workforce to greater efficiency, as in the case of companies like Apple or Body Shop, where the workers may work harder because they believe that they are doing something greater than themselves. For most companies, knowing why is not part of the workers’ contract, either explicit or implicit.

In the case of personal goals, taking the time to work out what truly motivates us can be hard. It requires us to stop and assess our values. It can lead to a reassessment of our lives. This understanding may lead to profound dissatisfaction and consequently radical change, and we humans do not like big change. Assessing our values can take us out of our comfort zone and into the unknown.


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