Are you using “Why?” as a whip or a compass?


Such an easy question to ask. Harder to answer.  Harder yet to use appropriately when you’re an entrepreneur looking to build a successful business.

Used wrongly, asking yourself “Why?” is a great way to beat yourself up, destroy your forward momentum, and rob yourself of all personal power.  This form of “Why?” comes in many forms.  Recognize any of these?


whip by puuikibeachThis version of “Why?” is totally counterproductive, because it traps you, keeps you wallowing in thoughts of what you did wrong.  While acknowledging mistakes is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself, it becomes harmful if you stop there.  This “Why?” is a powerful tool for sabotaging your confidence and creativity.  This is the whip.


On the other hand, a thoughtful and nonjudgmental “Why?” acts like a compass pointing compass by Theresa Thompsonyou toward success.  It enables you to identify your less-than-optimal decisions and activities, then go one step further to identify how you can do better the next time a similar situation occurs.  This “Why?” is future oriented, focuses on results, and empowers rather than diminishes you.

Which sort of “Why?” do you use most often when talking to yourself?  Do you use it to keep yourself stuck in the past and playing small in the present, or do you use it to learn from your mistakes and create better outcomes in the future?


BTW, thanks to puuikibeach and Theresa Thompson for posting their images of the whip and compass, respectively, in the Creative Commons section of Flickr.

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8 Responses to Are you using “Why?” as a whip or a compass?

  1. laura says:

    This is great ~ I use it often with clients to get rid of the attachment to the answer and focus on the challenge that lives ‘underneath’ the reason!
    Thanks, Kathleen!

    • Kathleen Mavity Kathleen says:

      Funny how that one little word can help or hurt so much, isn’t it? In fact, I work hard not to use it at all – just in case the listener has a hair trigger about it. 🙂 Instead, I use phrases like “What makes you say that?” or “Say more.” That gets my clients to clarify their thinking (for themselves as well as for me), but it doesn’t make them raise their shields and get defensive the way my asking them “Why?” might do.

  2. Sometimes I like to use the words – WHAT & HOW (as in what/how can I do differently next time) to avoid the Why ‘trap”

    • Kathleen Mavity Kathleen says:

      Ooh, good observation about using “what”. I don’t use that nearly as often as I could, so I appreciate the idea.

  3. I like using why, as in, what is your “Big Why” or your purpose. When you know your “Big Why” and can really connect to it at the level of your intuition, it helps you get through all the little stuff to get you to your big goal.

    • Kathleen Mavity Kathleen says:

      I find it interesting that what people initially identify as their “big why” is often no more than a symptom of their true Big Why. For example, someone may feel that travel is their big why, when in reality is just symptomatic of their real purpose, which is connecting, as a global citizen, with other people and cultures. Thanks for the reminder about another productive way to use “why”, Tiffany.

  4. So many insights from you wise chicas! Cena’s What & How questions are the perfect complement to your advice, Kathleen. I love the shift from why (berating) to why (what’s the underlying reason, how can it change in the future.) This is so valuable!

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