remember your why

“Remember your why.” I first heard that phrase 35 weeks ago in the stairwell of a hotel in Pierre, South Dakota, where Johnny was conducting our first staff meeting of the week. He talked about re-focusing each day on what we were doing and why we were doing it. I liked the concept then. But I had no idea that I would be teaching that very concept to students in China just a few months later!

This week, we taught the character quality of “enthusiasm,” but since that word is so hard to say, we just referred to it by the Chinese characters, “热情” (or, re qing). As my part of the lesson, I got to teach about how to have enthusiasm and energy and passion for things in life. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it that directly before, but I immediately thought of that phrase, “Remember your why.” This is how it went.

I asked the students if they thought re qing was important, which they affirmed heartily. I asked if they are always happy and have lots of energy. They said no. “So,” I asked, “if you don’t have re qing, how do you get it?” Most of the time they didn’t have an answer. Sometimes they said, “eat food,” or “watch TV,” or “play with friends.” “Maybe,” I said, but then told them a story to give them the answer. Another character teacher we know who teaches at a different school had told me the story last weekend, and it was perfect for this lesson.

I got one student to be my “reporter,” which happened to be in their vocabulary for the week. Bonus points. That student then asked what I was doing as I acted out three different people, each of which was building a brick wall. They first said gloomily, “Oh, I’m just building a wall.” The second said dismally, “Oh, this is just my job.” But the third said enthusiastically, “Me?! I can tell you what I’m doing! It’s amazing! I am building… this!” I clicked to the next slide in the power point, an image of the Olympic Stadium, the Bird’s Nest. The students laughed, but then started to understand the point of the little drama: when you remember why you are doing something, it gives you re qing in the act of doing it.

In most of the classes, we then told the story of Glenn Cunningham, who was basically my hero during my competitive speech and debate years – you can basically connect his story to any topic whatsoever! We considering telling his story every week and letting the students figure out a way to apply it to the character quality of that class. Just kidding. But Glenn’s story of persevering through horrible burns on his legs as a young boy to becoming a world record-setting runner got used in my lesson this week to illustrate how keeping his eyes on his goal, his “why,” helped him have the re qing to accomplish it.

Then we got to the good stuff. Real life stuff. I clicked to a picture of a boy doing homework. They all recognized that. “Do you have homework?” “YES,” they all responded without translation. “Do you like homework?” “NO,” another resounding answer. I would pick one student who seemed particularly loud on both answers and begin on my deepest exercise yet: the WHY progression. For example:

“Lisa, you said you do homework, right?”
“Yes.” I wrote homework on the chalkboard.
“Why do you do homework? 为什么?(wei shen me)”
“Um… to obey my teacher.” I drew an arrow straight down from homework and wrote obey teacher underneath it on the chalkboard.
“Why do you obey your teacher?” Giggles throughout the classroom.
“Because I want to learn.” I drew another arrow and wrote learn.
“Why do you want to learn?”
“Um… to get a good job.” All the students nodded in agreement. I wrote good job.
“Why do you want a good job?”
“Um… to have a better life.” Better life. I wanted to go deeper, but time constraints and language barriers kept me from asking more about what a “better life” really is. But it was enough for my point:

“See? Lisa is just doing homework, and maybe she doesn’t like her homework. But what is she really doing?” I drew a big long arrow from homework down to better life. “She is making a better life. That is very important! And that can give you re qing!” We then went through the same progression with doing chores, and again they would get to some very important conclusion, like “better life” or “happiness” (I did ask why they wanted to be happy, but there wasn’t an answer for that one…), or even “freedom.” We learned together that we can trace everything we do back to a bigger purpose. Some of those purposes aren’t worthwhile, and it reveals the action for what it is. Other purposes are what life is all about. And it gives us re qing when we remember it.

I always ended up with only 30 seconds left. I wrote “Why am I alive?” in giant letters on the chalkboard. “This is maybe the most important question in the world,” I told them. I asked them to think about it, to spend time in the next few days answering that question. Some of them probably completely forgot about it. Some of them maybe came up with an over-simplified answer. Maybe some of them are still trying to figure it out. I hope I can talk with them all about it. Before I finished my part of the lesson, I told them once again that remembering your “why” can give you the re qing to live life. “I know why I am alive,” I said, “and that is why I am happy. That is why I love every day.”

Why are you alive?

If you don’t have an answer for that question right now, make that the most important thing on your to-do list.

If you do have an answer, ask “why” to that answer. And ask “why” to that answer. And again. And again. Get to the bottom of it.

And then remember it. Remember your “why.” It will give you enthusiasm for life, passion for your purpose, and hope in trial.

What is your “why?”


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