Desert highway.

For Life and Leadership: If You Want to Change, Find Your “Why”

This is Part 1 of a four-part series. All four parts were originally delivered in one talk at HYPE in Steamboat Springs and Winter Park, CO, on March 6 and 7, 2019. HYPE is an annual event, TED-talk-style, that “brings inspirational thought leaders” to the area. (I hope I lived up to the “inspirational” billing!) My talk was entitled The Way Forward: Rolling Stones and Sailboats–for reasons that will become clear if you read all four parts in the series.

The theme for HYPE 2019 was growth. My aim was to give the attendees four navigational aids to find “the way forward” through four difficult growth points in life. These navigational aids have helped me find “the way forward,” and I hope they help you, too.

About six years ago, I was almost 250 pounds and completely out of shape. This might not have been remarkable except for the fact that for most of my life I’d been a lean, soccer-playing machine–chasing a ball around three hours a day, five or six days a week. As an NCAA Div. 1 soccer player, I could hit the waffle bar at the dining hall for breakfast, lunch, and dinner–and maybe even a mid-afternoon snack–and still not gain any weight. Six years ago, though, in my late thirties, there was a lot more of me to love.

I remember the day when I decided that I would stop caring about exercise and nutrition. I was in my late 20s, and I felt like I only had enough energy to meet the lowest bar for essential daily tasks. The additional energy required to maintain good exercise and nutrition habits felt undo-able. A few years earlier, debilitating anxiety had shown up at my mental doorstep–suddenly, unannounced, and unwelcome–and ever since I had been fighting for my life. I had no mental or emotional margin, and in an act of psychological self-triage, I let exercise and nutrition fall to the bottom of the list of priorities.

Six years ago, after a decade of neglect, I was reaping the usual physical and emotional consequences of that decision. And now, it wasn’t just me in the picture. I was married, and my wife and I had two young boys to raise. I wasn’t happy with myself and the choices that had led me to that unhealthy state. I wanted to change. I even knew that I should change. But I hadn’t yet figured out how to.

About that time, my brother-in-law received a frightening diagnosis. One day, all was well, and the next (metaphorically speaking, at least)–CANCER. He and my sister had three beautiful young children, and his prognosis was very uncertain. The most important unfolding drama was his and theirs, of course. And, in my heart and mind, another drama began to unfold, too. I realized that by neglecting my health I was failing to do what I could to prevent my untimely departure from my family. I couldn’t control everything, and I couldn’t even control everything related to my health, but my wholesale neglect of my health was like throwing in the towel in an area that I could actually do something about. And it was a tremendous disservice to my family.

The transformation was first mental and emotional. I resolved to do what I could to regain my health. My family loved me. They wanted me in their lives as long as possible. I saw my path forward with intense and unwavering clarity. I knew what I needed to do. I had found a “why” that was powerful enough to fuel real change.

Very soon, the transformation was also physical and visible. Within a year, exercise and nutrition changes had brought me back to my soccer weight, and the chronic, low-grade depression that had lurked under the surface for years had evaporated. A reminder on my phone pops up on the anniversary of that day when I went “all-in,” and with minor fluctuations over the years, I’ve remained in a much healthier place. My “why” was strong enough not only to motivate me to make the initial changes but create new habits that are still in place today.

Make no mistake, though: The “how” that went with my “why” was no joke. The actual work to regain my health was really hard. Up earlier to exercise, intermittent fasting, a complete overhaul of my diet. Nietzsche said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’” This proved true for me. The “how” was hard, but the “why” was compelling, and the results were rewarding.

In my case, tragedy in my family awakened me to a compelling “why.” I share my story descriptively, though, not prescriptively. It’s not necessary to wait until tragedy strikes or we hit some proverbial “rock bottom” to find a “why” that provides sufficient motivation to make changes in our lives–big, small, and anywhere inbetween.

In life, what change eludes you? What “why” is important enough to enable you to endure the necessary “how?” If clarity about a “why” is hard to come by, enlist the help of a coach, therapist, good friend, or other trusted advisor. Whatever you do, though, don’t put it off until tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes. What one thing could you do today to begin moving toward your “why?”

In leadership, how compelling is the “why” that you provide for your team? How compelling is your why for what you do and how you do it?