The Power of “My Why”

At the Summer Institute last May, the keynote speakers talked about helping students to connect with their ‘why’ as a tool to foster student success. I will never forget an illustration of the power of the ‘why’ I heard at an event years ago.

Imagine that you are at the top of a 100 story highrise. A 2×4 board is balanced between the top of the building you are standing on and the building 100 feet away. All around you, a blizzard is raging. It’s windy, and snowing so hard you can hardly see. The board is covered with snow and ice. Would you cross that slippery bridge for $1,000? $10,000? $1,000,000? For most of us, there is no amount of money that would entice us to take that risk. However, imagine that, through the storm, you can see your little baby teetering at the edge of the other building. In this case, there’s not much that would keep us from doing everything in our power to get across that board. This is the power of the why.

If we can help students tap into their big purpose in life (not just making money), we can help them activate a power that can help them get through the obstacles that will come their way during their academic journey. The key is to focus on the big picture, rather than the immediate situation.

My sophomore year in college was probably one of the most difficult of my life. On December 14th, the first Saturday after finals week, my husband and I got married. In January, I woke up in such severe pain that I was vomiting and had to be taken to the emergency room. In March, my dad had a massive heart attack and died the weekend before spring break, the same weekend that a friend I’d known since 3rd grade was killed in a car accident on the way home from YC. In the midst of dealing with the most difficult losses of my young life and adjusting to being married, I continued to be in intermittent severe pain. I ended up having to have emergency surgery to remove a kidney stone–the same day my husband and I were supposed to move to a new apartment. That semester, I was taking 18 credit hours. I earned an A in every single class, except for a B in organic chemistry. Why? Why was I able to succeed that semester when so many students fall by the wayside under much less stress? I believe it’s because I had connected to my ‘why.’ I was able to focus on the bigger picture, instead of the immediate situation.

Perhaps because this concept is so important to me, I decided to make the ‘why’ a part of my courses after the Summer Institute. Instead of asking students to write a letter to me about themselves the first week of class, I ask them to consider their ‘why’ and write a letter to themselves. They are to imagine that they are in the midst of some sort of trial, and they feel like giving up. Their goal is to write a letter of encouragement, reminding themselves of their ‘why.’

The first time I used this assignment was in my summer ENG 102 course. About halfway through the course, I put each student’s letter into a card and mailed it. I received this response from one of my students:

“Good Evening, Dr. Palmer! I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the card you sent me. I’ve been having a hard time this week, as someone has passed away. That letter couldn’t have came at a more perfect time, and I am so thankful to have received it! I am determined to finish this course, and pass this course knowing I have worked hard for it, regardless of any hardships. That was very sweet of you, and I have never received something that inspiring from an instructor, so I am very touched. Thank you very much!”

For those of you who might be interested, here is the assignment I give students:


Many studies across disciplines have shown that knowing your purpose, or your why, can be an important key to success. Keeping your purpose in mind can help you keep going, even when you get overwhelmed or life just gets in the way. 

Daniel Henderson says, “You are unlike anyone who has ever lived. But that uniqueness isn’t a virtue. It’s a responsibility.” Matthew Barnett argues that human beings are happiest when we are using our gifts to help others, echoing the words of Helen Keller, who says, “True happiness is not obtained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

I want you to take a few minutes and think about your why. What is your purpose in life? You might start out by thinking about these questions:

1. If money were no object, what would you buy?

2. If money were no object, what would you do?

3. If money were no object, who would you help?

It’s important to keep drilling down until you find the “why that makes you cry.” Your true purpose in life is rarely related to money. It is more often related to helping others. Given your purpose in life, why is this course important? What would you say to yourself if you were in a moment where you felt like giving up to get yourself back on track?

Here are some resources to help you:

What is Your Purpose in Life?

Promptings and Tennis Balls: Kody Bateman at TEDxBountifu 

For this assignment, I’d like you to write a short, 1-2 page letter of encouragement to yourself. In your letter, remind yourself of your big purpose in life. Remind yourself why you want to finish strong in this class, and encourage yourself to keep going. You might even include some “I Am” statements to help you focus on your goals.  (I am enjoying a successful career in _________. )

This letter should be grammatically correct with no spelling, punctuation, or mechanical errors. Make sure to separate your thoughts into paragraphs where appropriate.