A Method to Find Your Reason - The Five Why's

Finding out about yourself and why you do things -- it's a lot simpler than you think.

As I spent most of my college career studying industrial engineering, I've studied in classes that ranged from boring to downright useless. I'll do a post someday about my opinions about the engineering program here at USC, but what I want to talk about today is finding your purpose through a professionally-proven method.

I'm currently studying Lean, a business operational philosophy developed by car manufacturer Toyota.

One of the strongest principles in the Lean philosophy -- and one of the reasons why Toyota has been such a successful company -- is the principle of getting to the root of problems and ideas. Especially useful is their idea of the five "why's". The idea is simple: ask yourself "why" five times to find the real root of the problem.

This ideology helps them produce better cars, run more efficiently, and gives them the method to consistently develop principled leaders.

But I think the five "why's" can relate to life.

We all worry about whether what we're doing is valuable or not.

  • Should I be reading for enjoyment right now?
  • Should I go to college?
  • Should I major in xyz?

These are all reasonable questions, and definitely ones that people ought to ask. However, most people stop after getting some bland answers like "you should go to college because you'll make a million dollars more in your lifetime!" or "you should go because you'll gain real skills!" and that's all they ever go. But what if they decide to dig a bit deeper?

Let me illustrate what I mean with an example of my five "why's".

  1. Why did you major in industrial and systems engineering? 

    • Because I believed that ISE would provide me with tangible skills and experiences.
  2. Why did you believe ISE would provide you with these tangible skills and experiences?

    • Because I believed that college would give me the skills to apply to jobs and would make me irresistable and invaluable as an employee. 
  3. Why would you be invaluable as an employee through ISE?

    • Because I believed this route would help me secure an internship. I thought that this university engineering program would help me get what I wanted, therefore, providing me with job security, money, and the pride knowing that I completed a "prestigious" major.
  4. Why did you want a prestigious major?

    • This has changed. I don't want this anymore. But when I did, I had wanted the praise from my parents, my peers, and society. I wanted to complete the program as proof that I was smart, and that in turn, would get me a job I would love that paid well.
  5. Why do you want a job you love that pays well?

    • So I can live a life without worrying about when the next paycheck is coming in. So that I can take my parents out to Southern California to see the Vietnamese community out here. So that I can start seeing things not in terms of dollars, but in time lost.

As I said before, I think this is a powerful exercise that you may want to try yourself.

Just start by asking yourself one question: why?.