How to Find Your ‘Why’ in Life

UPDATED: April 18, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 29, 2016
happy woman pursuing her why in life

In 1981, after I’d been working at Life of Georgia for about a year, I was moved into their management trainee program. A lovely, very intelligent young woman named Loveanne was hired to fill my old position. I was smitten, and luckily she was, too. About a year later we were married. Decades later I can honestly still say she is the best thing that ever happened to me.

She also changed my outlook on my future. Before we got married, I hadn’t really been motivated or had aspirations toward greatness. Heck, I considered it a win if I had enough money left over after paying my share of the rent and bills to have a fun weekend. But now I had another person to think about. And I wasn’t married to just anyone. I was married to Loveanne. Suddenly, I was plugged into a whole new “why.”

3 questions to find your why

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “If a man knows the wherefore of his existence, then the manner of it can take care of itself.” Your why is the thing that motivates you to get up every morning and work harder to get better. It’s the thing that pushes you even on the days when all you want to do is pull the covers over your head and hide from the world. Your why may change throughout your life as you get married, have a family, have to care for aging parents, etc., but the questions you have to answer to find your why, stay focused on it, overcome the obstacles you will inevitably face remain largely the same.

What is your definition of success?

Your definition is yours, no one else’s. You don’t need anyone’s approval and you don’t have to alter your why to fit into some “acceptable” box. But you do have to know what your definition of success is. Without it, you won’t know what your end goal is or why you’re working toward it. If you define success as being able to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on, and if that’s what motivates you, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Once you come up with your definition, dig a little deeper and ask yourself why that is your definition of success. The deeper you dig, the clearer your why becomes and the more motivated you will become to reach it.

What are you passionate about?

Skill and passion may sound similar, but they aren’t at all interchangeable. You can be really good at what you’re doing and not only not be passionate about it, but totally loathe it. So, ask yourself if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. If not, what are you passionate about? What excites you? What gets you going and motivates you to keep going? Find your why and pursue it with gusto.

You are more likely to find success at the place where skill meets your personal passion. That is the place where you will find your motivation and be able to maintain it for the long haul.

If money were no object, what would you do?

To some degree, money is a driver for many of us. Look at the job you’re doing and ask yourself if you’d still do it if money was no object. What would you do instead? Be realistic—odds are, you aren’t going to be a professional athlete or runway model—but really think about what your dream circumstance would be. If your current job isn’t what you’d want to be doing no matter the pay, you’re in a job when what you need to be in is a career—a career you love and look forward to giving your all so you can always be at your best.

So, how are you going to work toward your why? How are you going to change your circumstances (or use them as a jumping-off point) to reach that end goal? It may not be something you can do overnight, but it can be what gets you up in the morning and motivates you to give your all now so you can have the future you dream of.

One of the biggest whys in my life has been making Loveanne proud. I try to do it both professionally and in our personal lives. It’s what I’m passionate about, and when I do make her proud, I feel like I’ve succeeded. You won’t ever reach your goals unless you plug into your why and reassess from time to time to make sure you are still plugged into it. But if you find your why and stay plugged into it, the how will never be a problem.

This article was updated April 2023. Photo by G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose,aWall Street Journal and USA Todaybest-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.