The Two Whys

I’ve been thinking a lot about why. Why, why, why?

In primary school, we were taught to ask the five W’s (and the accompanying H) to dissect situations in literature and beyond: “Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?” It trips off the tongue so elegantly that it almost runs together into one word – the all-encompassing “Whowhatwherewhenwhyhow?” The list seemed so comprehensive and complete, as if there were no other questions to ask.

Of that list of fundamental questions, the why wandered into the forefront over the past few decades. Modern management theory teaches us to ask why at least five times to get to the root cause of a problem. And much-acclaimed Simon Sinek claims that the soul of an organization is not the how or the what, but instead the why behind its actions (watch his fantastic TED talk here).

I love the why. I resonate with the why. I am a big supporter of the why.

But there’s a problem with why. Our current usage of why is so broad as to be confusing. “Why?” can be answered on many levels. A legitimate answer to “Why did you spend Saturday with your family?” can be anything from “Because my kids had a soccer game” to “Because I prioritize my family and put them first.” To use the examples above, the why behind root cause analysis and the why that Simon Sinek preaches are actually quite distinct.

There are (at least) two whys in the world:two whysThe first why is the proximal why. It is the immediate impetus for an event or action, and is often more of a superficial answer.

“Why did you have a sandwich for lunch?” “Because that’s what I brought from home.”
“Why are we changing our branding and messaging?” “Because the boss said so.”
“Why do I work at this company?” “Because they pay me.”

The second why is the underlying why. You can think of this as the big why.  Instead of lingering on immediate causality, the underlying why invokes our purpose, values, and aspirations.

“Why did you have a sandwich for lunch?” “Because I pack my lunch every day to save money and eat better.”
“Why are we changing our branding and messaging?” “Because we want to make clear our mission of delivering exceptional customer service in each interaction people have with our company.”
“Why do I work at this company?” “Because I’m able help source ingredients responsibly for packaged foods and impact the health of people around the world.”

If we keep on asking ourselves the “Whowhatwherewhenwhyhow?” litany, we tend to gravitate towards the proximal why and forego the underlying why. Since the English language currently conflates the two whys, it is hard for us to answer both in a clear and satisfactory way. I propose separating the whys and adopting new taxonomy.

Let’s allow the proximal why to keep the word why. It’s common, it’s easy, and it’s established. But let’s introduce a new word for the underlying why. Let’s give it a separate word so it becomes its own distinct and important question. We could call it anything really: “Whereto?” “What to?” “Towards?” “Pineapple upside-down cake?” For simplicity, though, let’s try wherefore.

The etymology of wherefore makes it a good fit for the underlying why. It is an archaic form of why also defined to mean “for what” or “for what reason.” Perhaps the most famous use of wherefore is from Juliet’s soliloquy about Romeo in which she asks “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (i.e., “Why are you Romeo?”) This question invites deep reflection; it is not sufficiently answered by “He is Romeo because that’s what his parents named him” but instead calls forth questions of the meaning of names, the importance of family affiliation, and the function of fate.
whysI invite you to start using “wherefore?” in your everyday life. Reflecting on my own decisions, when I’m able to clearly answer the wherefore, I’ve often been more intentional about my path. When I don’t know the wherefore, I have been hasty, unreflective, or, frankly, just a bit lazy.

It is a lovely (if aspirational) idea: that people would be asking themselves not only the easier why but the harder wherefore. But with any luck, our children will be soon asking themselves exactly that:



Enjoy Your Fake-ation

Liz and I spent Valentine’s Day weekend on a romantic retreat to Vancouver.  And we’re spending this weekend catching up with friends in Boulder.  In both cases, instead of hopping from tourist activity to tourist activity, we’re spending most of our time doing all sorts of normal things.  We started with registering for our wedding at a Canadian Crate and Barrel, attacking the store on a quiet Friday.  Since then we’ve shopped at innumerable grocery stores, bought swimwear for our honeymoon, and gotten a bunch of work done.  All of this has brought up a curious question:

If a vacation is when you go away and do ‘holiday’ activiites (e.g., touristing, relaxing),

and a stay-cataion is when you stay home and do ‘holiday’ activites,

what is it when you go away and do ‘normal’ activites (e.g., running errands, doing work)? 

Introducing:  the fake-ation (or, in other words, the ‘fake vacation’) – the time that you go away from home, but end up doing all sorts of normal things.  You run errands, you catch up with friends, you get some work done, you finally go to the gym.  To be honest, it’s hard to find a pure incarnation of any of these; you have to go get more sunscreen when you’re hanging out on the beach or take an hour to read in the midst of everyday.  But the fake-ation is real.

Doing normal stuff here in Boulder,

Work and Fulfillment

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role the work plays in our fulfillment as human beings.  What are we pursuing in life?  What are we pursuing in work?  Where are those objectives are aligned or out of sync?  And further, what do we do with all that?

Since I’m quite happy in both work and life these days, I’m lucky to approach this topic from a positive perspective.  I sat back to think:  How does work contribute to my fulfillment?

There are two ways that work helps me follow my broader purpose in life:

First, my work is aligned with my mission and sense of purpose.  I believe that my work – in and of itself – allows me to accomplish part of what I would like to do in my short human life.  Because of this, I deeply care that it’s successful.  I see myself in the process and the outcomes.  Further, I learn things that matter to me, and I improve skills that are important to me.  Work itself is meaningful and purposeful.  That fundamental passion for my work contributes strongly to my sense of fulfillment.

Second, not only am I fulfilled by work, but work leaves room for me to find fulfillment in other ways.  True, I work hard.  Sometimes I devote entire days to work and work alone, starting conference calls early and finishing slides late.  But I find that over the long run, there’s time and space for all parts of me to be fulfilled.  In addition to work, there’s room for family, friends, community, exercise, hobbies, life administration, fun, travel, sleep, recovery, and beingness.  Perhaps every day does not have every element, but the balance works out over a not-insignificant period of time.  The impact is that not only is work fulfilling when I’m doing it, but work allows me to find fulfillment outside of the office as well.  This ability to lead a full life is the second connection between my work and my fulfillment.

And so I leave you with another nerdy framework to ponder all this.  Does work contribute to your fulfillment?  Where do you find yourself in the view below?


work fulfillment

The New News (Part Two of Two)

Making sense of it all
[Continued from The New News (Part One of Two) here.  Here’s where we re-start the very personal discussion with a particularly nerdy spin.]

Putting my story together and applying my consultant lens yields one way of looking at the world:  a framework of sexual orientation and degree of influence.  This is not the end-all, be-all way of understanding sexual orientation and the question of determinism versus choice (every lens highlights something and obscures other things), but it makes sense to my analytical brain and rings true with my experience:

Enter:  Nerdy framework

The x-axis maps to the second question I tackle here:  the question of sexual orientation.  This spectrum of sexual orientation is visualized in the well-known Kinsey scale, which dates back to the 1940s.  Near the origin is ‘Exclusively heterosexual’ (denoted by 0).  Towards the end of the axis is ‘Exclusively homosexual’ (denoted by 6).** Between these extremes, Kinsey proposed a spectrum of attraction.

As you would know from the above, my feelings are neither entirely homosexual nor entirely heterosexual.  I fall somewhere in the middle.

For the y-axis, let’s track back to my first question – of choice versus determinism.  Note that this is not a biological choice of who you’re attracted to (the nature part), but instead a choice of whether you decide to open yourself to those feelings, to give them space, and to see where they go (conceivably, the nurture part).  Our biological impulses – not only in the realm of sexuality but in all areas of our lives – are tempered, colored and interpreted through the lens of our experiences.  Some people, like me, feel they have a large degree of choice in how they live their sexual orientation.  Others – homosexual, heterosexual, and everything in between – see themselves as having no choice at all; this was the way it was.  But just like sexual orientation is on a continuum, so is it important to accommodate this continuum of ‘degree of influence’ from ‘Completely determined’ (near the origin) to ‘Completely chosen’ (towards the end).

To upend the rhetoric of 2003, you can have full choice in how you live out your sexual orientation – and still be legitimate.

You can, in short, fall anywhere on the framework and be worthy of acceptance and (indeed) celebration.

And what of the labels?
This whole framework is one way of thinking about how people experience the world internally.  It addresses neither how people describe themselves to others nor how others classify them.  So, beyond this, there is a third question of identification.  And just as labels don’t fit neatly on people, neither do they fit neatly on a framework.  Instead, people at any point in the framework could identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, queer, straight, pansexual, bi-curious, hetero, questioning, same gender loving, multiple of the above, all-of-the-above, or none-of-the-above (you know, just ‘human’).  (Note that I have left out transgender here as it’s actually quite a different discussion; see this fantastic resource on discussing gender identify separate from sexual orientation).

For me, none of the labels fit very comfortably.  I don’t have formative experiences of frustration or judgment that are more normative for some who feel their queer identity is pre-determined.  Similarly, I don’t have the shared experience of complete homosexual feeling that would let me fully identify as a lesbian.  Sitting in the nebulous spots means that I don’t resonate with any labels.  Not lesbian.  Not bi-sexual.  Not queer.  Not really, umm, anything.

Except Meredith Whipple.

And maybe, in about a year, if she can convince me, Meredith Whipple Callahan.

With love and celebration,

Read the unexpected sequel (Part Three of Two) here.

**Note:  Since the Kinsey scale was invented, it has been updated to include X, meaning “No socio-sexual contacts or relations” to include asexuality.

The New News (Part One of Two)

There’s been a lot happening lately, as you might surmise from my recent silence.  Foremost among these is the happy news that, on Saturday, June 14th (Flag Day, for those of you who follow those things), Liz and I got engaged.


Liz and I drinking sunrise champagne to celebrate the engagement.

Liz and me drinking sunrise champagne to celebrate the engagement.

While there’s plenty of story-telling to go with the engagement (blanket fort, 5:30AM, videos of ring-making, flowers hidden in the water heater closet), the engagement also serves as a timely prompt for thoughts that have been circling in my head for a while.  While Facebook followers are likely unsurprised, there are many for whom my engagement is the first news that I have dated women at all.  So I’m going to rewind the tapes, share more of the journey, and give more context on everything.  (Note that this will be a two-part installment given the length.)

Choice or determinism?
Though I had inklings prior, I first time I seriously considered women was when I was a senior in college.  I wasn’t displeased with men, but I knew I was attracted to women as well.  I met my first out-and-proud lesbian and spent time quietly observing how she carried herself.  More importantly, under the guises of a project for my graphic design class (which asked us to create a poster for a cause we cared about), I started to think critically about LGBTQ* issues for the first time.  I went to my first march for LGBTQ rights outside of New Haven’s City Hall.  I was nervous and tentative, knowing neither what I wanted as an individual nor how to participate in the broader community.  But I designed my poster for class, walked in the crowd, and took a side on the first political issue I had real clarity on.

Researching that project exposed me to the rhetoric of the LGBTQ dialogue for the first time.  At that point, in 2003, the discussion of sexual orientation – and all the associated civil rights issues – hinged on the question of whether you had a choice about who you were attracted to.  The debate was framed as:  “We don’t have a choice about our sexual orientation, therefore you must accept us as we are.”  The political rhetoric was binary:  you were heterosexual or homosexual – and, either way, you didn’t have a say in it.

While there was still a lot I didn’t know about my feelings, this framing never sat well with me.  I could feel the choice in myself.  I knew that I was attracted to men and to women.  And I had a choice as to what to do with that.  There wasn’t any tension in it.  It was just true.

[Now pause for an interlude of almost a decade of very happily dating a phenomenal handful of men.  And park this thought of the question of determinism versus choice in sexuality.  We’ll come back to it.]

Homosexual or heterosexual?
Jumping forward to 2012, I started dating Liz.  Our first date was on a second obscure holiday (which, like Flag Day, would become personally meaningful):  Cinco de Mayo.  As my relationship with Liz grew, I quickly came out to those I interacted with on a daily basis.  This was easy in certain ways because my relationship with Liz was so happy and I had no reason to be ashamed of it.  My feelings weren’t ‘odd’ or ‘other’ to me.  I didn’t hold a lot of judgment as to whether this was better or worse than dating men.  And as I had been quite happy in my situations before, I hadn’t been hiding or avoiding anything.

When I started telling people, the responses were overwhelmingly positive.  There was still curiosity, however, about how I had arrived here:  “Wait, are you a lesbian?”  “Have you known this all along?”  “But didn’t you date men?”  “Have you been hiding this for years?”  Everyone wanted to support and some people understandably struggled to fit this into their past experiences and previously-held beliefs.

We had an outpouring of love and support.  Over five-hundred people sending their love on Facebook.

When we announced our engagement, we had an outpouring of love and support. Over five-hundred people sending their love on Facebook.

It’s easiest for a society of many millions of people to define things – and people – very clearly.  Thus, as a way of simplifying, we migrate to binary definitions.  You can be homosexual or heterosexual.  You are attracted to men or to women.  The wide swath of middle ground (the many flavors of ‘bisexual’), the answer that negates the question (‘asexual’), and all other nuances are harder to put our heads around, even while they’re more accurate to our complex world of feelings.

Emotionally, I’m attracted to men and women.  What a wonderful thing.  And how lucky am I that this sincere openness to love made my relationship with Liz possible.

To be continued (in some combination of personal story and nerding out on frameworks) on Thursday.

With love and celebration!

Read the next installment (Part Two of Two) here.

Yep, that happened.

Yep, that happened.

*Note:  I use LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer) as shorthand throughout this post to refer to the entire ‘non-straight’ community.  That said, I know this label is not as fully inclusive as it could be and there are a million other letters we could append on the end.  With apologies to those who feel their appropriate letter is not included.