Knowing your Why doesn’t seem very important when everything is going wonderfully. When life is grand we are usually not asking the deep inconvenient questions, such as: What am I doing with my life and WHY am I doing it? Frankly who cares? Life is awesome, pass the champagne! However, when things get rough in life, as they invariably do, the WHY becomes the most important question of all. And if you don’t have a good why when you are in that ridiculously rough patch, you’re doubly screwed. Sometimes I think life throws us into tough situations just so we can directly confront our why and test it to see if it’s solid. If your Why is weak, then you need to upgrade it, and the sooner the better. Below is an excerpt from my book, The Start-Up J Curve, where I discuss the importance of having a solid Why as it relates to startups and their founders. My friend, former Navy SEAL Mark Divine, had great advice on this.

Whether you are a missionary or a mercenary raises the fundamental question of why you are embarking on your start-up journey. My friend and former Navy SEAL Commander, Mark Divine, boils it down to this question: “What is your why?” Mark was ten years active on SEAL teams and ten years in the reserves. He then started a company called SEALFit that helps train prospective SEALs as well as civilian adventurers to test themselves. SEALFit’s ultimate test is called Kokoro Camp, and it’s a fifty-hour, nonstop crucible training event modeled after the Navy SEAL Hell Week. That is fifty hours straight of hard-core mental and physical exertion, with no sleep. Less than 50 percent of the class will finish the ordeal. At some point during the camp, Mark asks students to state their why for attending the camp. Mark can often get a strong sense of whether they will successfully complete the training based on their answers.

Here are some typical responses to the why question:

  • “I am here to prove that I am tough enough to be a Navy SEAL.” (This is not a strong why, and these guys often fail.)
  • “I want to prove to my two daughters that I am strong and will always be there for them.” (Lottery winner! This woman crushed it.)
  • “I want to meet my true self and push through my self-imposed limitations.” (This is a solid why.)
  • “My father enrolled me and I want to prove to him I am worthy of this program.” (This is another fail.)

According to Mark, “The key point here is that when the dark night of the soul moment comes, when your mind and body say they are done, and if the student can’t dig into a deep reservoir of inspiration to continue, then they won’t. The why is the tap to that reservoir, and having a powerful why that is intrinsic and deeply meaningful is required to stay the course through the most trying times.” The missionaries know their why, and it is something bigger than themselves. The mercenaries may not know their why because it’s all about them; they don’t have a larger purpose.

Navy SEAL Hell Week training is particularly relevant with respect to pushing through as opposed to quitting. The primary objective of Hell Week for the Navy is to smoke out the quitters. They need the quitters gone quickly for two reasons. The first is a simple investment issue: They don’t want to put time and money into training those who are going to eventually quit, since it’s a bad allocation of resources. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a matter of life or death. The one thing that SEALs cannot have happen under any circumstances is for a team member to quit in the middle of a firefight. If that happens, there is a good chance that somebody may get killed. Needless to say there is nothing touchy feely about Hell Week, no kumbaya sessions; rather, the drill instructors are purposely trying to get you to quit. You better have a good why or you are going to be crawling over to ring the bell, thereby ringing out and joining the more than 75 percent who quit.

While start-ups may not be life or death literally, they are exactly that figuratively. In start-ups, you will be tested in many ways, and more than once, you’ll probably consider quitting. The strength of your why will determine whether you have the determination to push through the adversity to success. Be conscious about your own missionary and mercenary tendencies. Ask yourself what type of product or business will trigger your missionary impulse and help you build a start-up around it. If you choose something that you are passionate about and through which you have a chance to make a significant impact, you’re not only more likely to be successful financially, but you’re also more likely to have a fulfilling and meaningful start-up experience. Therefore:

  • pursue what really turns you on, what you’re super passionate about;
  • focus on products and services that are fun and have some social utility;
  • find people with whom you really enjoy working;
  • realize that you’re on a journey;
  • embrace the unknown; and
  • refuse to give up, unless you are out of ideas or your health is jeopardized.

So work on your why, have it nailed BEFORE you have your back against the wall.