Several days ago, I went for Sunday evening drinks with a friend I met in a political philosophy course. Though this man is a student in my class, he is about double my age and has built for himself a formidable life in business, academia and politics. For this one semester, he has returned to political philosophy out of a genuine love and belief in its importance. We got to chatting about a startup company I’m working on, called Gen Y Inc., and it was soon after this that he asked a question that threw me off balance.
The question? It’s quite simple: “Why do you like business?” I was taken aback, and quite honestly had trouble finding an answer. At first, I responded that entrepreneurship is a thrill, and something that I find fulfilling. However, my colleague then replied in saying that many life paths are thrilling, and that business is likely not the most thrilling path that can be taken in life. So again, “Why business?” “Well, business allows me to eventually give back to others,” I responded. To this, my colleague responded by saying that business is certainly not the best way to give back in life; academia and teaching allow one to influence hundreds if not thousands more young minds over the span of one’s life. Following hesitation and some fumbling with my words, I arrived at a straightforward answer: business provides one with money, which is an important thing in life. I have since thought about my response to this question, and will likely continue to do so for some time.
Though I use business as an example, it is irrelevant in the writing of this article. What is important here is that my colleague raised a question that is seldom asked nowadays: “why?” If you listen carefully to how people talk, I bet that you will be amazed about how rarely they state why it is that they care about something. It is much more often that individuals will provide an opinion, though never provide reasons for which they believe in this position. After all, this is the easiest way to go about things. It is easy to advance opinions without reflecting on why it is that these opinions matter.
In particular, I find that it is rare that individuals reflect on why it is they do something. In uncertain times, particularly around graduation and other transition points in life, asking “why?” can be quite painful. This simple question leads one to think about their intentions and motivations for acting. In other words, the question “why?” is really about what drives someone to do x, y or z. Though we may never share our responses to these questions with our friends, the answers we provide in our own heads can be hard to grapple with. In short, the question “why?” speaks to our core values, showing ourselves what we truly care about. Reasons such as honour, fame, material gain, truth and goodness are all possible responses. Some of these responses are means to an end, whereas others are ends in themselves. If you ask me, some reasons are unsatisfying (since they are means to something more important in life), whereas others are good in themselves and therefore, admirable.
Though it is often painful when others challenge us on our beliefs, purposes and intentions, these people help us reflect and grow. With this in mind, I encourage readers to sometimes nudge their peers by asking the question “why?” The conversations may be tense and personal, but in the long run, I think that they are ultimately worthwhile. We are better off when we ask ourselves this simple question.