Don't Get Lured in by the What

There’s a starting point when you want to work for yourself. Everyone starts with the What. It’s often easier to answer than Why. You’d think it would be the other way around. But it’s not.

The What lures us in. We like things we can, see, touch, and control.

In short, we like tangible things.

The What is a very tangible thing. A What is a book, an app, or a trip around the world. We can dream up whole long lists of What, but barely even one Why.

Why feels far more intangible, hard to articulate. Why inhabits the in-between spaces of our brain; the Why often fleeting to our subconscious brain. Why, at its foundation, is  intangible, it’s hard to shape. A Why can scare us far more than any What can.

Why is about our values. Why makes us examine ourselves. It’s about our deepest desires. Why scares us. It’s also what propels us forward.




“Why?” is a constant refrain of little kids. They’re trying to understand the world — and their relation to it. Asking Why begins to wane in our teenage years until it trickles off in our early twenties when we stop asking Why. Our focus is on What.

What are you going to do with your life?

What kind of job are you going to get?

What are you going to do to pay the bills?

We get so caught up in answering the What we completely forget Why we’re doing something. Why we’re working so hard. Why we’re even here on this earth. Life becomes drudgery. Life lacks meaning.




Starting with What is far more likely to lead you to traditional freelancing. When you’re a freelancer you’re at the whim of the market and of employers. Yes, employers, because the freelancer mindset is actually more akin to having an employer rather than being your own. You treat your clients like they’re the boss. You drop everything when an emergency happens. The relationship is unequal.

When you start with Why, you set your own direction. You steer your work, not your clients. You’re more likely to ask for what you want. You make decisions that are best for you, even while you keep the client in mind. You value yourself more highly. There’s meaning to your work and in your life.

It’s tempting to go for the tangible. It feels easier, far less scary. Resist that urge.

Start with Why. The What will follow.


Though it's been years since I've watched it, the Start With Why Ted Talk goes into a similar concept more depth. You should watch it.