Know Your Why

By Iqbal Thokan

Why do you do what you do? Knowing your why helps you to plan and prepare for a better outcome.

Many of us find ourselves floating through life, family and business in an often-restless state. Research has shown that one of the contributing factors to this is our lack of purpose, which often leads us to feeling restless, bored and empty; always begging the question for meaning.

COVID19 has brought on a huge crisis which generally brings with it anxiousness, fear, desperation and a feeling of hopelessness and this can be detrimental to our business as we tend to take this emotional baggage with us, affecting our team and customers.

We might have had a purpose when starting our business but we tend to lose track of it over time and so is the case when we have taken over a business, either from a family member or through a purchase; we lose the essence of the purpose that was once there with the founder.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’”. Our why comes from understanding our purpose, why we are doing what we are doing and why does it matter to us, to those around us, and most importantly to those who purchase from us. Finding our purpose can often be challenging but it is a vital step to staying relevant, surviving and achieving success especially for our business.

While knowing our why comes from understanding our purpose, our purpose is what drives our passion. Passion is the key to creativity within our business. If we have a passion for doing something then we love what we do, which then allows us to continuously strive for perfection. While perfection is a state at a particular point in time and is never everlasting, as the world is continuously evolving and changing, passion is timeless and allows us to continuously improve to stay relevant, survive and thrive.

While many of us may not have started a business out of passion but rather due to necessity, that doesn’t mean that we are without a purpose. Every business has an overarching purpose and that is to fulfil the need of a target market by providing a certain value. But it’s not the overarching purpose that usually drives us, it is the hidden purpose of why. Even if we did start a business out of necessity, we can still define a ‘why’ and this requires us to question ourselves with that nagging why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Until we come to a point of a satisfaction, almost like a nagging child. And the reason that so many why’s need to asked is basically to get to the most simplistic definition, a definition that
leaves even a child satisfied.

It is this simplistic reason, our purpose, that is used within our marketing messages which we then communicate to our target market and those that believe in our purpose and our why are those that become loyal to us and allow us to build relationships with them which then equate to what we call customer lifetime value.

Some excellent examples of purpose can be found in some great companies, take Facebook, “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. Or take Google, “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

Or taking, “to breed positivity and help you find new and creative ways to stay positive, stay relevant, survive and thrive”.Finding a purpose is not impossible. When Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook way back in 2003, his purpose was not “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”, rather it was not a very decent purpose that led him to creating Facemash, which was an online program aimed at allowing users to compare their faces to other students and compare who was better looking. Quite a rather nasty purpose if you ask me. However, as the company grew, a purpose was developed based on how the users, the customers, started interacting with the platform. Which is now a great purpose. By refocusing the purpose of the company and coming up with a new ‘why’, Facebook was able to develop into being one of the largest social media platforms as well as one of the most valued companies in the world.

In this day and age knowing what we do and how we do is just not good enough, we need to define our why and use it as part of our messaging to our target market to help us stay relevant, survive and thrive.

Iqbal Thokan is an experienced business management consultant and the founder and co-owner of

Reviewing six decades of research into the meaning, development, and benefits of purpose in life

Modern scientific research on human purpose has its origins in, of all places, a Holocaust survivor’s experiences in a series of Nazi concentration camps. While a prisoner at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two satellite camps of Dachau, Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl noticed that fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed greater resilience to the torture, slave labor, and starvation rations to which they were subjected. Writing of his experience later, he found a partial explanation in a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’” Frankl’s 1959 book Man’s Search for Meaning, a book which proved to be seminal in the field, crystallized his convictions about the crucial role of meaning and purpose. A decade later, Frankl would assist in the development of the first and most widely used standardized survey of purpose, the 21-item “Purpose in Life” test.

As part of its ongoing interest in increasing understanding of character and virtue, the John Templeton Foundation commissioned a review of more than six decades of the literature surrounding the nature of human purpose. Covering more than 120 publications tracing back to Frankl’s work, the review examines six core questions relating to the definition, measurement, benefits, and development of purpose.


In psychological terms, a consensus definition for purpose has emerged in the literature according to which purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self. Not all goals or personally meaningful experiences contribute to purpose, but in the intersection of goal orientation, personal meaningfulness, and a focus beyond the self, a distinct conception of purpose emerges.

Studies and surveys investigating individual sources of purpose in life cite examples ranging from personal experience (being inspired by a caring teacher) to concerns affairs far removed from our current circumstance (becoming an activist after learning about sweatshop conditions in another country). Most world religions, as well as many secular systems of thought, also offer their adherents well-developed guidelines for developing purpose in life. Love of friends and family, and desire for meaningful work are common sources of purpose.

Over the past few decades, psychologists and sociologists have developed a host of assessments that touch on people’s senses of purpose including the Life Regard Index, the Purpose in Life subscale of the Psychological Scales of Well-being, the Meaning in Life questionnaire, the Existence Subscale of the Purpose in Life Test, the Revised Youth Purpose Survey, the Claremont Purpose Scale and the Life Purpose Questionnaire, among others.

The conclusion that emerges from work these tests and surveys, interviews, definitions, and meta-analyses is, roughly, that Frankl’s observation was correct — having a purpose in life is associated with a tremendous number of benefits, ranging from a subjective sense of happiness to lower levels of stress hormones. A 2004 study found that highly purposeful older women had lower cholesterol, were less likely to be overweight, and had lower levels of inflammatory response, while another from 2010 found that individuals who reported higher purpose scores were less likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s Disease. The vast majority of those noted benefits, however, are currently only correlations — in many cases it is not clear whether having a strong sense of purpose in life causes the benefits or whether people experiencing the benefits are simply better positioned to develop a sense of purpose.


Potential interventions to increase purpose and its benefits have focused on the formative years of late youth, where studies have looked at the benefits of supportive mentors and of practices such as gratitude journaling on purpose in life. A 2009 study followed 89 children and adolescents who were assigned to write and deliver gratitude letters to people they felt had blessed them. Participants who had lower initial levels of positive affect and gratitude, compared to a control group, had significantly higher gratitude and positive affect after delivering the letter for as long as two months later.

This result becomes even more promising in light of a series of four studies in 2014 which concluded that even inducing a temporary purpose-mindset improved academic outcomes, including self-regulation, persistence, grade point average, and the amount of time students were willing to spend studying for tests and completing homework.


About one in five high school students and one in three college students report having a clear purpose in life. Those rates drop slightly into midlife and more precipitously into later adulthood. Some of these changes make sense in light of the future-oriented nature of purpose. For young people from late childhood onward, a sense of searching for a purpose is associated with a sense of life satisfaction — but only until middle age, when unending purpose-seeking may carry connotations of immaturity. One study, however, explored an interesting exception to the general decline of purpose-seeking: compared to other adults, “9-enders” (individuals ending a decade of life, at ages 29, 39, 49, etc.) tend to focus more on aging and meaning, and consequently, they are more likely to report searching for purpose or experiencing a crisis of meaning.

In mid-life, parenting and other forms of caregiving become an clear source of purpose and meaning for many. Interestingly, studies in 2006 and 1989 showed that, although parents had a stronger sense of meaning in their lives than non-parents, they reported feeling less happy — a reflection of the ways that pursuing one’s purpose, especially in highly demanding seasons, can still be difficult, discouraging, and stressful.

A sense of purpose in one’s career is correlated with both greater satisfaction at work as well as better work-related outputs. In a 2001 study of service workers, researchers indicated that some hospital cleaning staff considered themselves “mere janitors” while others thought of themselves as part of the overall team that brought healing to patients. These groups of individuals performed the same basic tasks, but they thought very differently about their sense of purpose in the organizations where they worked. Not surprisingly, the workers who viewed their role as having a healing function were more satisfied with their jobs, spent more time with patients, worked more closely with doctors and nurses, and found more meaning in their jobs.

In the later stages of life, common adult sources of purpose like fulfillment in one’s career or caregiving for others are less accessible — but maintaining a strong sense of purpose is associated with a host of positive attributes at these ages. Compared to others, older adults with purpose are more likely to be employed, have better health, have a higher level of education, and be married.


Although the majority of sociological work on purpose in life has focused on people in western, affluent societies, the literature contains a few interesting cross-cultural results that hint at how approaches to and benefits from purpose in life might differ around the world. In Korea, for instance, youth were shown to view purpose as less an individual pursuit and more as a collective matter, while explorations of Chinese concepts of purpose indicates that one’s sense of purpose is divided into senses of professional, moral, and social purpose.

Research teasing apart the role of purpose among people of different socioeconomic backgrounds suggests that those in challenging circumstances are likely to have a difficult time discovering and pursuing personally meaningful aims. This finding fit well with psychologist A.H. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which suggests that people must meet basic needs for things like food, shelter, and safety before they are easily motivated to pursue aims like self-actualization.

However several studies also suggest that purpose can emerge in difficult circumstances and that it may serve as an important form of protection, as in a study that showed that having a sense of life purpose buffered African-American youth from the negative experiences associated with growing up in more challenging environments.

Indeed, as Viktor Frankl argued — based in part on what he had observed first-hand — experiencing adversity might actually contribute to the development of a purpose in life.


If you’ve ever spent time around kids, you’ve been subjected to a barrage of the most classic of childhood queries: “Why?”

Even from a young age, we know intuitively that the motive behind an action is the most important piece of any story. When it comes to your business — whether you’ve already launched or if you’re still in the whiteboard phase — knowing your “why” will help you stay committed to your dream and help others get on board, too.

The right reasons

“He who has a why can endure any how.” — Frederick Nietzsche

There are many reasons why people become entrepreneurs: personal satisfaction, creative independence or financial autonomy — the list goes on. Yet all of these have one thing in common. At the core, they all are about freedom.

That freedom can come in many different forms: the freedom to make changes without waiting for corporate green lights, the freedom to offer a product or service that does business differently or maybe the literal freedom to actually make that dentist appointment once and for all.

What is it that drives you? The reason probably isn’t money — at least it shouldn’t be. There’s a reason that career counselors across the country ask the same time-old question: “If money were no object, what would you do?”

Money isn’t enough

“The siren call for many entrepreneurs isn’t money, it’s freedom. The freedom to chart your own path, the freedom to build what you want with the people you love.” — Andrew Wilkinson, Founder of MetaLab and Flow

As the owner of your company, you can set your own targets and standards. And while the freedom of not having anyone standing in your way can be invigorating, the stress of knowing there is no one to blame for any failures can be too much to bear. This is when your “why” becomes imperative.

If you aren’t 100 percent committed to making your vision a reality, you won’t be impassioned enough to nurture your business through its inevitable growing pains. Businesses rarely make money right off the bat, so the dream of money alone will not be reason enough to see it through. Don’t trade in the shackles of your corporate day job for a gilded cubicle of your own making.

If a paycheck is just a means to end, how do you know when you’ve reached it? Is it after five years? 10? Or when you finally make a down payment on a house? The more material possessions you acquire — a car, a house, that timeshare in Vermont — the more that steady, safe paycheck becomes a crutch. So ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

Once you find an answer that speaks to your soul, the next question should be, “What am I waiting for?”

Find your story. Find your coverage

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” — Maya Angelou

The great thing about passion is that it’s infectious. And a great story doesn’t have to be dramatic, just genuine. One of my favorite branding stories of all time is for a product called Solar Recover. I believe the story on the back of the bottle used words like “nuked all day in the sun” and “scaly lizard” to explain the need that drove them to create their product.

If you visit their website, they even admit to intentionally burning themselves so they could test out their product and leave samples at the hotels where they were staying. Now that’s commitment.

With so many social marketing campaigns, customers want to feel like they are supporting a cause, not just buying a product. If your audience knows that you love what you do, not only will they be more confident that you’ve made the best possible product, they’ll want to support your enthusiasm by giving you their business.

Your story is also your link to your core principles. If you set out to make a product with all natural ingredients, keep that in mind as your business begins to grow. Don’t compromise the integrity of your product or you’ll undermine your customer’s trust and everything you’ve accomplished.

Not every passion is a potential business — and that’s OK

Perhaps you love yoga and your friends are always saying you should become an instructor. That’s great if you really enjoy the idea of teaching others. But if the reason you like yoga is because it allows you a quiet escape from the rest of the world, then there’s nothing wrong with keeping it all to yourself.

Not sure what your passion is?

“There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” — Nelson Mandela

Do some market research. Poll your closest friends and family (only people you trust to give you an honest answer) and ask them what they think your strengths are. Not only can it be a huge confidence booster to hear how wonderful they think you are, but they may come up with skills you didn’t even realize you had.

Another thing is to ask yourself what sorts of things people ask you for help with. Does your tech savvy make you the first person people call when they’re thinking of buying a new computer? Do you frequently help family members write letters or improve their résumés? Maybe you are the best at finding great airline deals or your broad perspective means people consult your opinion before making a big financial decision.

Whatever it is, think about those things you do for free and extrapolate out to see where a potential business could be born.

Another simple yet powerful exercise is to follow the advice of American self-help author, Steve Pavlina. He says to get a piece of paper and ask yourself, “What’s my purpose in life?” Write down an answer. Write another one and keep writing answers until one of them makes you cry. That’s your purpose.

Lastly, keep in mind these words from Marie Forleo, host and founder of MarieTV: “Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.” While visualization is great, it can only take you so far. Dreaming of smelling the ocean as you write your novel in Cape Cod may have sounded great — except you forgot about all those flies.

I once heard of a young ophthalmologist who had to change careers because she couldn’t stand being so close to people’s faces all day. It sounds ridiculous, but there are some aspects of reality that visualization just won’t cover. You owe it to yourself to get out there and start doing what it is you say you want to do. If it truly is your passion, getting your feet wet will only solidify your resolve and make the transition to becoming a professional that much easier.

Passion is contagious

When your enthusiasm is palpable, people want a ticket on your happy train. The key to harnessing that passion is understanding your “why.” Why are you passionate about windsurfing? Is it because it helped you lose 30 lbs, get off all your medications and have a new lease on life?

That’s your “why,” and that’s the story you need to share with your customers. You deserve a life you love, so get going and dream on.



If you’ve ever faced a significant crisis in your life you’ll have experienced the power of purpose to tap reserves of energy, determination and courage you likely didn’t know you had. Your mission was clear. Your goal was compelling. Your focus was laser-like. Your potential was tapped.The power of purpose is similar to the energy of light focused through a magnifying glass. Diffused light has little use, but when its energy is concentrated—as through a magnifying glass—that same light can set fire to paper. Focus its energy even more, as with a laser beam, and it has the power to cut through steel. Likewise,  a clear sense of purpose enables you to focus your efforts on what matters most, compelling you to take risks and push forward regardless of the odds or obstacles.

Unlike animals, which are driven simply to survive, we humans crave more from life than mere survival. Without an answer to the question ‘Survival for the sake of what?,’ we can quickly fall into disillusionment, distraction and a quiet sense of despair. The alarming increase in rates of drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide, along with the growing reliance on antidepressant medications, seems to indicate many are doing just that.  Likewise, a quick glance at employee engagement statistics points to a crisis of purpose and meaning on an unprecedented scale. Given we’re wealthier today than at any time in history, there is clearly a marked difference between ‘well off’ and ‘well-being.’

German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, ‘He who has a why can endure any how.’ Knowing your why is an important first step in figuring out how to achieve the goals that excite you and create a life you enjoy living (versus merely surviving!). Indeed, only when you know your ‘why’ will you find the courage to take the risks needed to get ahead, stay motivated when the chips are down, and move your life onto an entirely new, more challenging, and more rewarding trajectory.

Certainly this has been the experience of Tom Hale, whose company BACKROADS will top $100 million in revenue in 2014.  “My passion for bringing active travel experiences to more people has driven me over the last 35 years.”  In a recent interview, Tom shared with me that in the first seven years of starting BACKROADS, he put in enormous effort for little return. “Given the hours I worked, I think I was earning about 35 cents an hour,” he joked. “However, while I knew we had to make money to grow, I was never driven by the money. Once I got clear that this was my life’s work, doing something else was never an option.”  Tom’s leadership of BACKROADS from a small start up to a major player in the travel industry has created an organization whose employees are as passionate about his company’s mission as him.   BACKROADS’ on-going growth – in both the range of experiences offered and the company’s bottom line profit – speaks for itself.

While there’s no one pathway for discovering your life’s purpose, there are many ways you can gain deeper insight into yourself, and a larger perspective on what it is that you have to offer the world.  As I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, your ‘life’s work’ sits in the intersection of your talents, skills/expertise, passions and deepest values (see adjacent diagram).  Reflect on the corresponding four questions below to help find the ‘sweet spot’ that sits in the intersection between what you care about, what you can contribute, and what will be valued most.

1.  What makes you come alive?

The word inspire comes from the Latin, meaning “to breathe life into.” Accordingly when you are working toward things that inspire you, it literally makes you feel more alive.  What makes you come alive isn’t referring to taking your dream holiday or watching your favorite team play football (unless you’re called to a career as a football coach or commentator!). It’s bigger than that. I’m talking about a why that moves up the food chain from being about you to being about something bigger than you. It’s about connecting with what you’re passionate about, knowing that when you focus your attention on endeavors that put a fire in your belly, you grow your impact and influence in ways that nothing else can.

You don’t have to declare at this point that you want to invent the next iPad, solve the world’s energy problems or cure cancer (though you might!). This is about you connecting to a cause that’s bigger than you are, but which is also congruent with who you are what you care about.

2. What are your innate strengths?

In The Element, Sir Ken Robinson says that our element is the point at which natural talent and skill meets personal passion. When people are in their element they are not only more productive, but they add more value and enjoy more personal and professional fulfilment. Accordingly, it’s also often where they also tend to make more money!

What are the things you’ve always been good at (sometimes wondering why others find it so hard?) Are you able to see patterns and opportunities amidst complexity? Are you creative, naturally adept at coming up with ‘outside the box’ solutions? Are you a natural born rebel with an innate ability to identify where the status quo is in need of a makeover? Are you brilliant in the details, naturally good at executing projects with a precision that some find tedious? Or are you a naturally gifted communicator, technocrat, diplomat, networker, leader, problem solver or change agent?

Of course, you can also be passionate about things you have no natural talent for, and talented at things for which you hold little passion. However experience has shown me that we rarely aspire toward ambitions we have no natural talent to achieve. As civil rights leader Howard Thurmon once wrote, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive, then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Indeed they do.

3. Where do you add the greatest value?

Doing work that you’re good at, but which you loathe, is not a pathway to fulfilment. That said, knowing your greatest strengths and where you can add the most value—through the application of your education, skills, knowledge and experience—can help you focus on the opportunities, roles and career paths where you are most likely to succeed and therefore find the greatest sense of accomplishment and contribution.

Too often we undervalue our strengths, skills and the expertise we naturally acquire over time. If you reframe the concept of adding value through the lens of solving problems, you can ask yourself what you’re well placed and equipped to help solve in your workplace, career, organisation or industry. You can also ask yourself what problems you really enjoy solving, and what problems you feel passionate about trying to solve.  You’ll then be more successful at focusing on your natural strengths and those things you’re innately good at than trying to bolster or eliminate your weaknesses.

4. How will you measure your life?

People who don’t stand for something, can easily fall for anything. Deciding how you want to measure your life means making a stand for something and then living your life in alignment with it.

Ultimately, living with purpose means focusing on things that matter most. Ironically, the things that matter most are rarely “things.”  That said, while some people are in a position to trade the security of a regular salary in order to pursue a passion, many simply can’t—at least not in the short term or without violating core values (like paying off debt or providing for their family). But following the money and following your heart don’t have to be mutually exclusive. By shifting the lens in which you view what you are doing now, you can profoundly shift your experience of it. No matter what your job, you can draw meaning from it and find greater purpose through how you do what you do. If you don’t think you’re the kind of person you’d want to work with, then consider that it may not be because of the job you do each day, but your attitude toward it.

Knowing your purpose may compel you to take on challenges that will stretch you as much as they inspire you. Just as a boat under power can handle any size wave if perpendicular to it,  when you’re powered by a clear purpose, there is little you cannot do.



Determine your mission and make it your ‘business’ to achieve it

Every business has a purpose, and it shouldn’t simply be to earn a profit. If you know your company’s mission, the money will come. But without a concrete reason or passion driving your hard work, your business will lack direction.

In his Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, says,“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

I spoke with business owners and coaches on the importance of discovering your “why” and how to do it.

Why You Need a “Why”

Your purpose is far more important than you might think. Many people shy away from sharing their stories or putting their heart into their business because they don’t think others care about that. They think consumers want one thing: their products or services. However, in reality, thousands of businesses likely have the same offerings as yours. The difference is your purpose behind them.

Your why likely won’t look like someone else’s, and that’s OK. Your unique experiences in life should drive your mission.

For instance, Michael Cammarata, cofounder and CEO of Schmidt’s Naturals, discovered that his passion for sustainable living and products stemmed from a childhood spent gardening with his family; and Tom Spooner, former Special Forces, founded Warriors Heart to help war veterans like himself and their families recover from the traumas of combat.

Everyone has a story, and everyone has a purpose. The key is finding one that makes you feel most driven and fulfilled, and committing to it. Your income will simply be the result, not the motivation.

“Knowing your why in business is critical to your success … because it helps you to identify possibility whenever you encounter challenges,” says ICF-credentialed life coach Laura Weldy. “Entrepreneurs face obstacles every day … When you approach your work from a why-based (or possibility-based) mind-set, you’re able to view these obstacles not as fundamental flaws of you as a person, but as chances to deepen your contribution to your why. The obstacle becomes a challenge, and overcoming it is directly furthering the cause you care about.”

Discovering Your Mission

To discover your why, Weldy recommends first identifying your values.

“You can work with a coach on this, ask your friends and family or journal on the things that motivate and drive you,” she says. “Start to notice the words you use most often and what emotions you feel most deeply, and see what values they point to. Your why is almost always a way to share the things that you value.”

From there, consider following Sinek’s “Golden Circle,” which has three parts:

  1. Your why (core of circle): Your business’s purpose, cause or belief
  2. Your how (middle layer): How you do your business
  3. Your what (outside layer): What your business does

According to Sinek, you should think, act and communicate from the inside out. In order to develop your products or services in business, you must first understand what you are trying to accomplish and why people should care.

Often, your why is as simple as this: What is your mission in life? In business? Perhaps it’s to give back to your community in some way, or maybe it’s to use art to connect with others. Whatever it may be, be honest with yourself and move toward that desire.

“You’re born and you die, so what are you going to do during this time?” asks Cammarata. “Take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What do I care about, and how will I be remembered?’”



Write a comment
Need Help? Chat with us