To know your what, you have to know your who

We do things for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad. When we are lucky, we are doing things for the right reason and we actually know what that reason is.

But I suspect that a lot of times we are doing things for proximate reasons. We kind of know what we are doing but the real reasons behind it are resting comfortably in the shadows.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew the why behind the what of our actions?

There are all sorts of self-improvement, life planning, and self-help books that tell us to make a list, prioritize it, and get to work. Making little plans and lists is simple and makes us feel good. But there are really two problems. We do not know who we are. We are not patient.

We have all been taught it. Want to get things done? Make a to-do list. Make a list, check things off, and you’ll have a productive day and feel pretty darn good about yourself. I agree it is useful. I happen to love checking things off little lists. The problem is that sometimes we don’t ever get around to checking things off of our big lists.

— We are asking ourselves the wrong question. —

To-do lists are seductive. We wake in the morning and say to ourselves, what do I need to do today? We make a little plan and we feel comfortable with ourselves.

But I am going to say this — we are asking ourselves the wrong question. Instead of asking ourselves, what do I need to do today, we should be asking ourselves who do I need to be today?

Asking ourselves what we need to do is like driving a car in the dark with the low beams on. We don’t see very far, but we can get by. Asking ourselves who we need to be kicks on the high beams. Unfortunately, we don’t always like what we find in the light.

The big picture makes us ask, and answer, big questions. But they are worth it. Often the little things in life are animated by the big things and vice versa. When we have deep reasons for what we do, we give meaning to our actions. The connection is critical. It is how we connect the concrete reality of life to its abstract expression. Without a deeper meaning, even good acts seem empty and unfulfilling. Just ask anyone who has suffered from deep depression, isolation, or loneliness.

— Who do I need to be? —

So, we come to one of the fundamental questions, who do I need to be? Who do I need to be, really? For myself, for others, to find peace. If we can answer this, then we can answer the why behind the what of our lives. But this is not a comfortable reality to face every day. So, we just put the car lights back on low beams and pin our to-do list to the wall. We can handle that. We are not patient and courageous enough to learn who we need to be, so we simply focus on what we need to do.

The sneaky part is this, we don’t have to answer the question right away. Life is not a pop quiz in philosophy class. We learn who we need to be across our entire lives. The who and what are interconnected. They sometimes come to us in a brilliant way, like a flash of lightening. But, more often, they roll in like a breaking dawn. But we have to be self-aware to see the light.

Our lives are an unfolding narrative. We have to be aware enough and brave enough to see the difference between who we think we are and who we really are. These discrepancies happen almost invisibly throughout the day and throughout our lives. We have to take them in and think about them.

We have to be brave enough to ask ourselves, is this really who I am and who I want to be, and then do something about it. If we can do that, we just might find that discovering who we are, and being courageously true to ourselves, can be a powerful mechanism for understanding, changing, and adding meaning to how we live.

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life — whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

For more insights see my books and blog at



YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at



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