The Power of Why
If there is one thing that I simultaneously both hate and love about myself, it is that I always ask, “Why?” Though this was initially praised as a sign of intelligence, my parents and teachers soon found themselves frequently frustrated by my inability to follow instructions I didn’t understand or believe in. It’s not that I was disobedient. I was usually more than happy to comply, I just wanted to know, “Why?”
As I grew into adulthood, it was no longer just my parents and teachers who were frustrated by my inconvenient curiosity. It is me who feels consistently betrayed by my own mind. I have repeatedly tried to follow a common path, do what everyone else is doing, take cues from society about what life should look like, but I keep finding myself unable to accept them.
When I was in sales and trading at Goldman Sachs, I was making good money, living a comfortable life, filled with exciting things and interesting people, but yet every morning I would wake up and wonder, “Why am I doing this?” “Why does this matter?” No matter how hard I tried to suppress them, these exasperating questions relentlessly made their way into the top of my mind. And then I started questioning the questions… Why can’t I just accept how lucky I am? If I have found a situation that is both secure and stimulating, isn’t that everything I should want? Why do I have to constantly be questioning myself and my circumstances? And down the rabbit hole I went.
Inevitably, I had no choice but to accept the reality of my state of constant searching, relent to my own incessant nagging, and make some changes. Without a good answer for, “Why?”, I parted with the traditional path at Goldman, joined a start up, launched the business in a new market, hired a team, and ultimately joined another startup that happens to be a venture capital fund.
Now, we’re growing businesses from the ground up, including our own, and I get to meet with hundreds of entrepreneurs every year who are coming up with new ideas that they hope will change the world. I could have never imagined this is what I would be doing, I didn’t even know this type of job or career existed when I was at Goldman. But clearly I never would have ended up here if I hadn’t asked, “Why?”
So, at least in my professional life, I am learning to be grateful for this constant urge to know more, to know why. Besides leading me to places I could have never imagined, it helps find more efficient ways to get things done. It helps me see through overly optimistic entrepreneurial bullshit, to see holes in business models, to understand colleagues and customers more deeply, to focus on what matters when the details could get incredibly overwhelming.
But the power of “Why?” goes much deeper than that. It is so powerful, in fact, it is an integral part of how we evaluate founding teams. If you, as an entrepreneur, have figured out and are connected to your raison d’être, you have a serious competitive advantage. If you believe your product or service is absolutely essential to the world and you are able to effectively articulate why that is, you will find yourself unimaginably empowered to make that happen. We call this “being on a mission”, and here’s why it’s a key element of our investment thesis.
1. Founders driven by a mission don’t give up when things get difficult. Funding falls through, you lose a big customer… you will learn a lot if you ask “Why did these things happen?” but you will persevere even more powerfully if you remember, “Why are we doing this in the first place?” The reality is most startups fail because founders give up and move on. We don’t blame them for that, everyone is on their own journey. But if you know why you’re on yours, you aren’t going to stop until you make it a reality.
2. Founders driven by a mission can attract the best talent. Everyone wants to be connected to something bigger than just themselves. It is part of being human. If you are able to inspire people in this way, provide them with a means of connecting to the larger fabric of existence, there is no doubt this is where you see talent being actualised, efficiency being maximised, and teams collaborating most effectively.
3. Founders driven by a mission build better brands. They have a stronger story to tell, and thus they sell more, they raise more money, and they grow bigger companies. Billions of dollars every year are spent on advertising, because we buy things for more reasons than simply the quality of the product. Just like employees, customers want to be connected to a powerful mission, too. If you can effectively articulate your mission, why you must exist, customer and investors might just believe you too.
I speak from deep, somewhat painful personal experience when I say that refusing to accept the way things are is nothing short of irritating and inconvenient. Digging a little deeper is not the easiest thing to do. However, if you have the courage to constantly question the status quo, and then ask yourself why you’re questioning the status quo, you will find yourself tapping into something more powerful than you could have ever imagined. Knowing your mission can make you unstoppable. And that is the power of “Why?”