top of page
  • Writer's pictureT. Kearny Vertner, III

What's Your Why?

If you don't know why you're doing something, your effort is in vain.

This article incorporates concepts from the U.S. Air Force's "Comprehensive Airmen Fitness" resiliency program. My examples and uses are my own. Without a doubt, one of my favorite motivational speakers is Dr. Eric Thomas. It is impossible not to get completely pumped about whatever you're trying to accomplish in life after listening to this man for just five minutes. Among many of his messages, one that resonates strongly with me is his demand that each of us must ask ourselves, "what's your why?" Full disclosure: I don't follow sports. Dr. Thomas uses a lot of sports analogies, yet I still understood the point. That's just how strong his message was! I'm going to reconsider some of his ideas using analogies that relate to me and my military experience. As a note, I'm going to discuss a lot of this in terms of "rank," but it can apply equally to your organizational position. Promotions come in a lot of forms, depending on your profession!

Why Promote?

In the military, climbing the ladder of rank and responsibility is seen as an essential extrinsic motivation. When we pin on that next rank, we may feel that our organization values us, and we are being rewarded; when we are passed over for promotion, we may feel undervalued and punished. It's natural and normal. How many of us question why we want that next rank in the first place? Some are perfectly content and satisfied doing what they're currently doing and - most importantly - usually know why we're doing it. That's what makes those folks absolute rockstars at their jobs.

Others believe that their goals align with a higher rank. Here's the vital thing to remember: rank itself is not a goal! Don't tell yourself or others that your goal is to make a particular rank; explain what you want to do and how you're going to get there. Your value should not merely be the pursuit of the power you think that rank represents. If your goal is to reform an entire organization, then you probably need more rank. If your goal is to lead a team to excellence in your craft, you don't need to soar to extraordinary heights. To be clear, these are both acceptable goals! They differ in the rank that is usually required to carry them out successfully; the latter will require substantially higher rank than the former. Those goals should be informed by your why

Your Why and Goals

Your why establishes your higher purpose or reason. It's the ultimate answer to why you're doing what you do. It's highly personal and may have nothing to do with your profession. Along with your why, you have a set of core values. Some may come from your organization, some may come from your upbringing, others may come from your faith. Some typical values include healtheducation, or caring for family. These are all valid and important, but considering them in the scope of your why helps with prioritization. Furthermore, they help us focus our goals.

Goals can help keep us pointing in the direction of our why by offering tangible steps. To be effective, a goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART, if you're into mnemonic devices). Additionally, they must align with our values. Using the examples above, if one of your values is health, maybe your goal could be to run a marathon. If it's education, perhaps that next degree is your goal. When our goals align with our values and our why, it helps steel our resolve in challenging times and makes the goal more satisfying. Successfully fulfilling a goal that doesn't align with our values and our why is empty and unrewarding. Imagine someone imposed their value in education on you and forced you to go to schools and earn degrees you didn't want; you'd have a stack of diplomas, but they'd mean nothing to you, even if you were objectively successful. 

Achieving Your Goals

Beyond the above advice about keeping goals in line with your values, your why, and SMART, I'd like to share three key techniques on goal achievement. The first technique is to break the goal down into smaller parts. As the adage goes, "How do we eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

Establishing sub-goals is essential! Running a mile or passing a single class is substantially easier (and more SMART) than running a marathon or earning a degree. Achieving those sub-goals creates a positive feedback loop, with each step making those bigger goals ever more attainable. At a certain point, you'll be on the downhill slope and can accomplish your bigger goals from sheer momentum. Once you've run 22 miles, running another 4.2 and completing your marathon hardly seems challenging. The first three credits in a 120-credit degree plan are way harder than the last nine. 

The second technique is to chart your course and identify obstacles that will get in your way. Charting a path to success helps you understand where you are on the timeliness of your goal and helps you hold yourself accountable when you're falling short - or to celebrate when you're beating it. Identifying obstacles in advance is crucial, so you can also prepare for ways to move past them and not be dissuaded when they inevitably pop up at the worst possible moments.

The third technique is to find ways to "trip over your goals." Figure out ways to gently remind yourself what your goals are. If you want to run that marathon, put your running shoes in front of your bedroom door. If you want to complete that degree, schedule your next class at the first available opportunity. Force yourself to move those sub-goals out of your way to do whatever you were going to do instead.

Promotion is Not a Goal

Back to my prior point: promotion itself is not a goal, much less a value or why. Promotion is the means to an end. If you happen to promote to the next rank without that why, it's still pleasant enough (because we all like some additional compensation), but it will not fulfill you. Some of the most miserable teammates I've ever worked with are the ones that promoted into a position that removed them further from their why. They allowed others to define their why, values, goals, or some combination of them. A well-meaning supervisor or mentor told them that they needed that promotion and that it would make them happy, but they never paused to challenge that and see if it aligned with what they wanted.

In part, this goes back to my article on rockstars versus superstars. Our organizations need to make room for a rockstar whose why is something humble like "I want to provide better opportunities for my family than I had." Their values may be education, stability, family, and building a happy home. Nothing about this requires them to be pushed to the head of a major organization! Doing so may be terribly disruptive to that why and those values.

That said, people are incredibly mercurial. As we grow, so does our why and our values. We must each regularly revisit these ideas for ourselves and those we supervise (or that supervise us). Never assume that just because somebody has been a rockstar in the past that something hasn't galvanized them into budding superstars or vice versa!


"What's your why?" The brilliance of Dr. Thomas's question is that it gets to the heart of what each is doing personally and professionally. I've focused primarily on how this critical question can help you to build smarter goals by linking them directly to your why and values (along with some helpful goal-accomplishment techniques), but it's bigger than just that. Knowing your why can help directly inform all of our performance, values, goals, and relationships, and help inspire, motivate, and encourage you to push yourself across all facets of your life. Check out Dr. Thomas' awesome video below; I promise you'll be stoked for the rest of your day!

What's your why?


bottom of page