Why is “why” so scary when it comes to career?

Seldom do we give ourselves permission to think about the “why” behind our career choices. So for an example: “Why do I feel called to pursue a PhD?” or “Why am I looking for a job as an X orin Y sector” “Why do I want to quit my job?” or “why am I seeking a promotion?”

And the why is so important! Knowledge about what is motivating us can tell us how to proceed – or indeed how to change if we realize that the motivators are not the ones that we wish were the things driving us.

But not if we don’t ask ourselves WHY…..

I know that that the why is scary. WHY challenges us to admit things about ourselves that we might not want to face – for example that we are motivated by approval, or by competition, or by society, or, or, or…..Facing the WHY might force us to confront uncertainty and uncertainty is scary, facing the WHY might confront us with our vulnerabilities and vulnerability is scary, facing the WHY might force us to change, and change is scary.

But I say you can and must have this honest conversation with yourself. In American culture, we spend more time at work than we do in just about any other setting. For this reason alone, you owe it to yourself to be spending this time doing something that you are called to do for the right reasons, and when I say right reasons, I mean right for you (right now). I absolutely support making a decision that is motivated by finance, or a desire to be close to family, or a desire to have a better work/life balance. I question the unquestioned assumption in our culture that we must always be striving for bigger, better, more. Sometimes less is more. Quality of life is essential.

And so I have a regular practice of asking my students WHY in advising sessions. This WHY is absolutely the result of my ethnographic training and is about getting at underlying assumptions, and unearthing the noisy nots to find what is not being said along with what is, but I know that that WHY can be profoundly unsettling.

In improv (as in life probably), we are trained to avoid asking questions because they stall forward momentum. This presupposition is contained in the expression “to stop and ask why..” One must stop what one is doing in order to ask why.

So why do I persist with the “why”?

Because first of all, asking why IS doing something. And perhaps here is a place where linguistics can inform improv. For one thing, we linguists know that there are many kinds of questions and that we can draw from our knowledge of speech act theory to know that something which on the surface is a question can instead be something very different. In many cases, students hear a WHY as an evaluation, or as a judgment – that by asking a student “why do you want to research this topic?,” that I am somehow implying that they can’t or shouldn’t…but with my WHY, the illocutionary force of this locutionary act is support.. The intended perlocutionary effect is that of structured and motivated introspection.

You can, and must take time to ask your self WHY.

And if the answer is “I don’t know” then that is your answer, at least for now. “I am figuring this out right now” changes the journey from blind pursuit of (or escape from) one knows not what – the journey becomes one of exploration, you become a bit more open and hopefully a bit more attentive to the opportunities right in front of you!!

Because you deserve that!! ☺