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Leverage your big whys

Why? It’s a question commonly associated with curious 3-year-olds (“Why is the sky blue? Why do I have a belly button?”) and with great philosophers (“Why are we here?”).

But perhaps the “why” questions that matter most to us in the context of our daily lives are the ones we ask ourselves: Why do we want what we want, care about what we care about? Why do we do the things we do?

I still remember the moment when I first landed on the big whys behind my own health and fitness goals. I remember because, for the first 10 years I pursued those goals, they were a perplexing source of frustration to me.

As much as I wanted to be healthy and strong, I kept doing things that disagreed with my stated priorities — often for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. Finally, frustrated by my own inconsistencies in desire and action, I embarked on some serious soul searching.

My initial question was simply “Why do I care about being healthy?”

My initial question was simply “Why do I care about being healthy?”

My first layer of answers was pretty predictable: Because I want to look better, feel better, and have more energy. Basic stuff.

Then I began more deeply exploring those initial whys (as in “Why do those things matter to me?”). This churned up some interesting insights for me.

I realized, for example, that my “look-better why” was driven by my concerns not just with how aesthetically attractive I appeared to myself and others, but also with how my perceived level of health and fitness broadcast my inner characteristics and capacities — my levels of discipline and integrity, whether or not I had my act together, and so on.

My “feel-better why” reflected my desire not just to avoid the symptoms and discomforts of ill health, but also to be more present and confident in my body, and to more fully and fearlessly inhabit my life.

My “more-energy why” was tied not just to my desire to achieve and contribute at a higher level in my personal and professional lives, but also to my desire to explore new  interests, try new things, discover new capacities within myself.

Huh. Now I felt I was getting somewhere.

When I started digging around in these deeper answers for even bigger whys (as in “And why do those things matter?”), I started hitting even richer dirt. I discovered some previously unexplored core values I hadn’t really recognized as driving forces in my life — values like integrity, beauty, freedom, discovery, and courage.

When I looked at where I’d been running into trouble with my daily choices, I realized it was often when two or more of my values ran afoul of one another, or when two different levels of “why” started duking it out for primacy.

Take, for example, my concerns with my appearance.

Those concerns were driven on one (ostensibly superficial) level by my desire to be physically attractive and to impress others. And yet I could feel that a lot of my interest in appearing healthy was driven not just by my desire to “be beautiful” in the conventional sense, but also by my deeper desire to live a beautiful life — a life of integrity and courage in which my outward choices and inner values mirrored and agreed with one other.

In other words, the body I wanted to possess was really a symbol of the life I wanted to lead, and of the self I wanted to discover and become. 

The outward image I wanted to project was important to me, at the deepest level, because it represented the core values I wanted to actively embody and express.

Interestingly, when I made daily choices consistent with my value-driven whys (including my desire to live a beautiful, harmonious, high-integrity life), I felt good, clear, strong. I made conscious, empowering decisions for myself. And I did, indeed, look and feel much better as a result.

But whenever I lost track of that deeper sense of meaning — when I started obsessing about my physical appearance, chasing conventional notions of beauty, or judging myself against some unrealistic ideal — it made me absolutely miserable.

Moreover, I started noticing that this “superficial why” mindset consistently drove me toward unhealthy behaviors: cycles of undereating and overeating; obsessing in front of the mirror; overspending on clothes and cosmetics; numbing out in front of the TV instead of being active, being creative, or connecting with friends. Choices like that put me out of integrity, and left me feeling ugly, inside and out.

Ultimately, I realized, there was nothing inherently wrong with my valuing beauty (which also showed up in my appreciation of art, design, nature, compassion, and social harmony). Its impact depended entirely on how I engaged with it.

Sorting through the apparent tensions between my various whys eventually revealed my biggest “why” of all: I wanted to become my most essential and fully expressed self and to create a meaningful, worthwhile life I truly enjoyed.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Viktor Frankl, and a great many other wise souls (including, more recently, Start With Why author Simon Sinek) have remarked that an individual possessed with a big enough sense of “why” can manage the challenges and discomforts of virtually any “how.”

This is an important truth to keep in mind when faced with the onslaught of external obstacles and internal resistance we are likely to encounter on our healthy-living journey.

Because when things get tough, just wanting a bikini body, six-pack abs, or a more impressive bench press than your buddy probably isn’t going to cut it.

Eager to start exploring your own deeper whys around health? Here are some good ways to start:

  • Consider the kinetic chain of desire. Even small and apparently silly desires are often rooted into bigger and more central ones. Why do you care — really — about being healthy, strong, resilient, fit? Keep asking: And why do those things matter? What values do they represent?
  • Notice disconnects. Are any of your whys fighting each other? At what levels do they agree or conflict? Can you create more powerful motivation by more consciously tapping into your deepest whys and integrating them into your sense of identity?
  • Observe your results. When you do things that seem to work against your goals, notice: What was the mindset that got you there? How did you end up disconnected from the deeper sense of purpose that might have driven a better choice, and how can you access it more reliably in the future?
  • Review and reconnect daily. Having a ritual that includes a regular review of your big whys can be a powerful way to keep them top of mind. Try taping a list of them to your coffeemaker, workspace, mirror, or other high-visibility spot.
  • In a culture that’s only too happy to tell us what we should want, be, and do, there is perhaps no more revolutionary act than simply reclaiming your own healthy sense of “why” and living it a little more fully each day.

Revolutionary Reading

Health: The New Sex Symbol” — Insights from evolutionary psychology and biology on how good health broadcasts deeper desirable traits, and why faking health and fitness doesn’t work.

Where Fitness Fits In” — How to rightsize your training and self-care priorities on the basis of your real-life values and motivations.

Fit for Success” — Why the way you manage your body can make or break your career and your larger life goals.

Plus: In this issue: “On Faith and Fitness” 

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