Start with Why

purpose Jan 21, 2021

Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, Start with Why, has been viewed over 50 million times. He argues that for leaders to inspire action, articulating the why of the movement is far more important than the what or the how.

It turns out the same is true in the context of successful aging. Since thriving over a long life depends more on good lifestyle decisions than our genetics, we need to be motivated to consistently make the right decisions. Understanding our own why can be instrumental in this process.

Purpose is important at any age and is one of the best predictors of happiness. In this context, purpose is defined as the sources of meaning that are both goal-oriented and motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond one’s self. People who have a defined purpose tend to be both psychologically and physically healthier than those who do not. Individuals without purpose are more likely to suffer from depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

One of the challenges is that living with purpose can get harder with age. For many of life’s earlier stages, purpose is more clearly defined and socially acceptable. Find a fulfilling career. Provide financial security for family. Raise kids. But as we approach midlife and beyond, purpose can be elusive, particularly if some of the earlier goals were met. Retirement can add fuel to the fire. The word “retire” means to withdraw. A move to retirement can be a move away from purpose, particularly the type of purpose that is goal-oriented and motivated to make a difference beyond one’s self.

 

A grandfather’s reward for a year of hard work
 

Doc Morris, a European pharmaceutical company, highlights this lesson in a recent holiday season ad called “Matters of the Heart” that has already been viewed over 15 million times. The two-minute clip features an older man who lives alone and becomes motivated to lift weights every morning to strengthen his core and arms. His initial struggle to lift a kettlebell alarms his nosy neighbor and perplexes other passersby. His mission propels him through early challenges and he gets stronger. His purpose is to be there for his extended family, his granddaughter in particular. He wants to be strong enough to lift his granddaughter to put the star atop the tree at Christmas.

 


Start with Purpose But There’s More

It’s important to start with purpose, but it’s not enough, argues BJ Fogg, behavioral scientist at Stanford, in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. In his research, BJ finds that motivation, or one’s why, is powerful, but it’s unpredictable. Some days you’re motivated to exercise or avoid the ice cream in the freezer; other days you’re not. Relying solely on motivation is generally not a recipe for sustained behavioral change.

BJ’s research points to two other key areas that help define behavioral change: ability and prompts. If the older gentleman was incapable of getting stronger, if he had a degenerative disease for example, it would be unlikely he could have been able to do the exercises to get stronger. However, he had the ability to get stronger and, further, he did not let the stereotypes of aging, often referred to as ageism, prevent him from doing exercises for which he was capable.

Prompts play an important role, too. He develops a daily routine. When the alarm goes off – much earlier than one would expect for a retiree, he takes a look at the picture of his granddaughter and this propels him to take action. He brings her picture with him as he works out as a constant reminder of his purpose. This prompt helps him stay committed in what appears to be a full year of sustained effort.

 

The Fogg Behavior Model: Focus on where motivation, ability and prompts align (Source: BJ Fogg)

 


Make It Easy – Even Tiny

He starts small. His first accomplishment is to find his kettlebell in the shed and drag it a few feet. Over time, he lifts it. He has setbacks – at one point he drops the kettlebell and grunts in pain – but he keeps progressing. He gets stronger.

He raises the ante. He wakes up earlier and dons an exercise outfit. He assumes an identity as someone who regularly exercises and is not deterred by his skeptical neighbors. He becomes able to do repeated squats with his kettlebell.

Success begets success. He builds momentum and confidence. He is soon able to do what others would not have imagined and perhaps what he would have doubted initially. Ultimately, he lifts his granddaughter without trouble to everyone’s surprise and joy.

 


Consider the Role of Place in Behavior Change

Place has an important role in his success. The pictures of family hanging on his walls serve as the initial impetus to get stronger. He lives in a physical dwelling where he is able to exercise and on his schedule. He transforms his shed from a storage receptacle to his exercise room for all seasons; he uses the outside entry when the weather is nice.

Importantly, no one stops him from his dreams. The nosy neighbor shoots looks of disapproval and his family expresses concern but does not intervene. At one point, his granddaughter even mimics his squats with him. His environment enabled his success.

 


What’s Your Why for 2021?

2020 was an awful year by many measures but we can hope that 2021 will be better. Our behaviors will have a key role in our outcome for the year. What do you want your 2021 to look like? Do you have dreams you would like to realize? Is there a new challenge you want to take on? Do you want to live closer to family and loved ones? Do you want to help others in a more proactive way? Are there intergenerational relationships you would like to form and nurture?

Start with why.

 


 

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