‘How To’ Is Pointless Without ‘Why’

Are you running toward something or looking for a way out?

“He who has a ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how.'”

– Nietzsche

Back in the 1800s, Nietzsche understood how pivotal the question of ‘why’ is to the human experience.

“He who has a ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how.'”

– Nietzsche

Back in the 1800s, Nietzsche understood how pivotal the question of ‘why’ is to the human experience.

These days though, in the age of instantaneous and abundant information, asking ‘why’ is a lost art. For many, doing the work of digging deep and asking ‘why’ is just not nearly as convenient or comfortable as asking ‘how to.’

This is especially true when it comes to fitness—we never seem to tire of the same old ‘how to’ merry go round. Day after day, year after year, your newsstand and your news feed reads like the greatest hits of some of the most played out questions on the planet:

  • How to lose 10 pounds fast!
  • How to tone your arms!
  • How to lose that stubborn belly fat!
  • How to burn more calories with exercise!
  • How to get better results in less time!
  • How to get bigger/faster/stronger!

As if we all haven’t seen these regurgitated queries a thousand times. But there’s always a new sucker who’s captivated by the allure of the quick fix promise of looking and feeling fabulous in five easy steps.

The ‘how to’ movement in fitness is everywhere you look. Fitness influencers show you the steps to your goals backed up by their snazzy before and after pictures. Fitness ‘experts’ show you ‘how to’ in their newest, most efficient workouts.

Supplement manufacturers and marketers promise the genie in the bottle that will solve your chronic weight problem. And fitness entrepreneurs can’t wait to reveal their latest fads and gizmos that will surely lead to your imminent bliss.

Here’s a newsflash: It’s all bullshit without a ‘why.

Sort Out Your Motivation

Whether or not we’ll ever tire of the same old story is anyone’s guess. But one thing for sure is that ‘how to’ is both perpetually popular and profitable. ‘How to’ brings people in the door because it’s comforting, easily digestible, and provides straightforward answers (with colorful photos!).

‘How to’ undoubtedly makes business sense, but unfortunately for those of us on the continuum of health and wellness, there aren’t one size fits all answers. Especially when it comes to your fitness—outlining the subsequent steps to achieving a goal without doing the work of ‘why’ is an effort in sheer futility. Achieving a state of sustained health and wellness requires the ability to be introspective and accountable to our own shortcomings.

Photograph by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas

Don’t get me wrong, ‘how to’ is important. You wouldn’t drive across the country without a map or a GPS. But ‘how to’ is putting the cart before the horse. ‘How to’ will get you somewhere, but it doesn’t solve the root of your problems, it merely informs direction. You can’t expect to know where you’re going unless you know where you’re at (and what got you there). Just ask a recovering addict.

In addiction recovery, there may be 12 ‘how to’ steps, but the real work is about ‘why’—the willingness to look within, find acceptance, and make amends. Peace of mind in recovery is only obtained by leaning into the pain of your problem and wrestling with ‘why.’

It is what informs purpose, passion, and persistence. It’s solving the problem in reverse. You don’t move forward unless you first look backward. In fitness, the parallel is those that are running towards something versus those that are running from something. The former has a ‘why,’ the latter is just looking for a way out.

Some might argue that spending too much time ruminating on ‘why’ is actually a hindrance and life doesn’t happen in the rearview mirror. Fair enough—sometimes you just have to jump. When you’re drowning, you don’t need to figure out what got you in that mess, you need a life preserver and a plan! But it’s also true that if you don’t want your predicament to happen again, the work of looking back is essential.

The Iron-Clad ‘Why’

As we’ve seen time and time again in fitness, ‘how to’ is appealing to many in the short-term. But ‘how to’ doesn’t work when it comes to sustainability. Despite the massive growth in the fitness business in the past two decades, the fitness movement has made no collective impact in combating the root causes of the obesity pandemic.

Millions of people start exercise programs every year, but more than half of them quit within six months. The reason people start exercise programs is because of ‘how to’ questions. The reason they quit is that they don’t have a strong enough ‘why.’ Personally, in my 20+ years in and around fitness, I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of people lose weight. But I’ve seen no one keep that weight off without an iron-clad ‘why.’

Truthfully, in any successful endeavor, you need a bit of both ‘why’ and ‘how to.’ You also need a bit of ‘what if?’—as in, “What if I never try?” or “What are the stakes of not changing?” But jumping in without a ‘why’ is a sure-fire way to end up lost and/or right back where you started. Especially after a defeat like weight gain, injury, or failure to reach a goal, you must face yourself before facing your next opponent.

The Work Starts With ‘Why’

We are living in a time of epidemic proportions from addiction to obesity to a declining life expectancy (due in a large part to rising suicide rates). A lack of ‘why’ is driving much of this emptiness.

There’s nothing wrong with following a fitness influencer, joining a gym, or hiring a trainer—they just may show you something useful. But real answers to the most important questions in life don’t come in convenient packages with instructions; they come from within. The work starts with ‘why.’

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