I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a TED junkie. If you’ve never heard of it before, let me explain the idea — it’s simple. Take somebody who’s an expert on something or other, put them on a stage, give them between 2 and 20 minutes to talk about their passion, record it on video, and post it online for the world to see. For free. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, TED serves as a clearinghouse for over 1,800 videos on everything from neuroplasticity to how to tie your shoelaces.
To date, the third most-watched video in their collection (with over 18 million views) is by a leadership expert named Simon Sinek, and it’s called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” (He later wrote a book called Start with Why that unpacks these ideas even further.) The talk is worth watching in and of itself — but so we can move on to my main point, let me give you a quick run-down of his main argument. He says that we as human beings (and organizations) operate on three levels — what, how, and why.
- What describes the actions that you or your group undertakes – for example, the products a company markets or the events a ministry group coordinates.
- How describes the plans or strategies by which these actions get done – for example, the style of music at a worship service or the manufacturing practices a company uses.
- Why describes the purpose, cause, or belief that fuels the whole process– it’s the reason an organization exists or a person gets out of bed in the morning.
He goes on to explain that while everybody knows what they’re doing, and most know how they’re doing it, shockingly few actually understand why. Thus, we tend to live our lives backwards – we waste time and energy worrying about and trying to coordinate the whats rather than letting them fall into place naturally when we truly understand the whys.
So, then, as we gear up for another year at Trinity, let me challenge you to take Simon Sinek’s words to heart. Especially if you’re a returning student, you’re familiar with the whats of college/seminary life: going to class, reading books, writing papers, participating in clubs and teams, getting a job, spending time with friends, getting (probably not enough) sleep… the list goes on and on. And if you think a little harder, you can probably figure out how you’re doing those things: showing up to class on time, paying attention to your professor, making sure the sources you cite are reputable, picking activities that interest you, etc. But have you considered why you’re doing it?
A complementary strategy to Simon Sinek’s is the “Five Whys” technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda and implemented within the Toyota Corporation (yes, that Toyota). When an issue would arise on his production lines, he’d ask why five times in succession, in order to get down to the heart of the matter. So let’s try that here with the question I posed in the previous paragraph. Imagine two classmates. They’re both in the same program and taking the same classes — so their whats are the same. They both get good grades and are well-respected by their professors and fellow students — so you could even say their hows are pretty similar. But ask them why, and you’ll get two completely different stories.
- Why are you going to college? To get a degree.
- Why do you want to get a degree? To get the job I want.
- Why do you want that job? To make enough money.
- Why do you want to make money? To buy the things I want.
- Why do you want to buy these things? To make my life feel fulfilled.
- Why are you going to college? To broaden my understanding of the world.
- Why do you want to broaden your understanding of the world? So that I can better fulfill the place to which God has called me within it.
- Why do you want to fulfill your calling? Because it will bring God glory and me joy.
- Why will it bring God glory? Because I’m living in harmony with God’s plan.
- Why will it bring you joy? Because I’ll be doing what God created me to do.
Like I said before, these two students are doing the same things, using the same methods. Which of them, though, do you think will be under less stress to succeed at any cost? Which will be able to bounce back more easily from setbacks along the way? Who’s in charge of each particular student’s whys? Who do you think will ultimately end up more fulfilled?
I encourage you to try the same exercise on your own life. Why are you at Trinity? (And, while you’re at it, why are you at Trinity?) Be honest — it’s OK if you encounter answers that you’re not completely happy with right now. Part of college/grad school (honestly, it’s not all about writing papers!) is finding and examining those hidden parts of your own life, so that you can better understand both who God created you to be and what role He’s called you to fulfill. Yeah, it might be a little daunting, but it’s totally worth it.
Blessings to you as you begin this new semester!