The Agenda, Part I: Ask Why


In 2009, I visited with Seth Godin and his Alternative MBA students. Afterwards, I asked Seth for advice. “I know it’s a long list,” I said, “But what’s one thing you think I can improve upon?”

He said, “I think you need more of an agenda. Consensus is overrated!” That was a very Seth thing to say, and I liked it. For the rest of the year, I thought about the agenda.

This is a six-part series to explain how I think we can change the world. I originally started AONC with the goal of writing for 1,000 people. Now my goal is 100,000 people, and it looks like that’s only a year or so away. Lesson learned: small goals turn into big ones if you take them seriously. And also: it’s good to be clear on what you’re really about.

So with that in mind, let’s get started. Attention everyone! Here’s what The Art of Non-Conformity is all about.

It All Starts with Asking Why, and Not Enough People Are Asking

The prologue of the AONC book begins with this analogy:

When you were a kid and wanted to do something your parents or teachers didn’t like, you may have heard the question, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” The idea is that it’s not good to do something stupid, even if everyone else is doing it. The logic is think for yourself instead of following the crowd.

It’s not bad advice, even if it’s sometimes used to exert control more than to support independent thinking. But one day, you grow up and suddenly the tables are turned. People start expecting you to behave very much like they do. If you disagree and don’t conform to their expectations, some of them get confused or irritated. It’s almost as if they are asking: “Hey, everyone else is jumping off the bridge. Why aren’t you?”

For a long time, I used this image as the desktop background on my MacBook. A simple question that we looked at briefly last week:

Why do you do this every single day?

Why do we do the things we do? What’s the point? What are we working towards?

More than anything else, asking why and understanding our motivations begins to create the possibility for anything else we want to do. It can also be an easy step, at least at first, because it does not require that you quit your job, redefine your relationships, or do anything other than think. (Alas, thinking does not always come naturally: in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”)

Even though thinking doesn’t require any additional action on its own, it does tend to lead to action at some point. Over time, it is difficult to believe one thing and consistently do another—but that comes later.

If everyone could answer the question of why they do what they do, I think the world would be a better place.

That’s Part I. Stay tuned for Part II on Thursday.

And greetings from Louisville, Kentucky, stop #15 of the 63-city Unconventional Book Tour. Only 48 more cities to go…


Image: GC

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  • rob white says:

    Hi Chris,
    I write to share the lessons I’ve learned over my lifetime. Bring a candle into a cave that has been dark for a thousand years – in that instant, the dark disappears! Every instant that I write an optimistic blog – introducing the light- a little more of the dark psychic force disappears. Perhaps the light I offer enables one more person to begin creating his (her) future as he wants it to be. And every time I am able to teach the lesson I am able to learn it deeper.

  • Sarah Mason says:

    Great article, Chris. Every time I seriously consider the “why” in my life, I make changes…and am better for it. Facing a big “why” right now in my work life and planning to, in turn, make a big change there as well (need to realign my work with my values). Thanks, as always, for the inspiration.

  • Andrea James says:

    Thank you for the challenge to think. Also, thank you for keeping it short. It feels very satisfying to read something to the end, and still not have taken much time to do it. You leave the rest of it up to us to decipher for ourselves. Love it!


  • Ramblings of a Woman says:

    I have my goals of what I personally want to achieve in my life, but my “why” of why I write about what I do and where I am headed with it is that I want to help others break out of their stressed, consumer lifestyle, and learn to live a balanced life, doing the things they love.
    I am looking forward to meeting you in Atlanta at the end of October!

  • Devin says:

    My goals seems to be moving faster all of a sudden and things are growing a little quicker than I was prepared for in my latest project. There is a part of me that wants to put on the breaks, but that would spoil the ride.

  • Mike Ziarko Musing says:

    Glad you’ve chosen that as a series Chris. I wrote about asking Why not long ago and how using the 5 Why’s gets you to heart of understand the benefits of your product/service, but its also incredibly practical and useful in everyday situations. Can’t wait for the series!

  • Andrew Lightheart says:

    I’m interested to notice that my first responses to the question of ‘why’ are mainly away-froms.

    Yeeees… but WHY? 🙂

  • LeMinxxx says:

    Great Post! This was just that something I needed today.

  • Frances Schagen says:

    I want to help people’s small business support the lives they want to live. I want to help them make it easy.

    I want to live my passion with prosperity and show the way for everyone else to do it, too.

  • Lach says:

    Real, genuine, original thinking is maybe the hardest work there is. After that, action largely takes care of itself. Thanks again Chris, for leading the way.

  • Mars Dorian says:

    Hey Chris,

    Your “why” is so essential – it’s the magical core of what you do. If you really want to change the world for the better with your existence, you have to clarify your why.

    This reminds me of the brilliant TED talk by Simon Sinek, who says:” People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it!”

    If you are on a mission, you have a high chance of making people join you !

  • Jeff says:

    If you’ve not read it, you may enjoy “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. While your writing is much more succinct, Sinek makes some great arguments for starting with the question “why?” I look forward to reading your series.

  • Sean M Kelly says:

    To use my God given talents and gifts to touch peoples hearts and inspire them to follow what they love for the benefit of all.

    Thats the why as if we all align ourselves with what we love, I believe the world would be an even greater place than it already is.

    I guess if we all took some time to enjoy it’s greatness that would be very beneficial to us all too.

    Great post.

    Carpe Dream!

  • Lois Hudson says:

    A motivational start to Monday morning.
    Another great question that might follow is, “What if…”

  • Casey Friday says:

    I translate complexities into understandable chunks to make comprehension easier for people. I do it because it reminds me that the things I find trivial are important and useful to others.

    I hope you hit 100k soon!

  • Kori Golightly says:

    Thank you for reminding me to consider the roots of my actions. I feel like I am trying to do a million things right now (launch a blog, begin grad school, become a minimalist, pay my bills), but I need to remember why I decided to take on these tasks in the first place. I want to revise my life, and I want to help others realize they can do the same.

  • Deanna McNeil says:

    Chris, your writing continues to become more and more compelling. Thank YOU for *listening* to good advice when it came along, I have a grin from ear to ear. You see, I too have spent a lot of time asking, “Why?” lately and have started finding answers. That clarity compels one to action.

    I am really looking forward to the continuation of this series 🙂 Have a great day.

  • Etsuko says:

    It’s important to ask Why and even after you started out a project or business, it’s a good idea to go back there.

    Chris, I wanted to say I continue to be inspired by your actions. The impressive not-so-low-key launch of the WD summit (with the result of 3 hour sell out of the first 150 spots) while taking on the unconventional book tour. Good stuff!!


  • marlon @ productivity bits says:

    I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, so I am kinda familiar with different concepts and stuff. When I stumbled upon AONC, I “thought” Chris made no sense. I never understood his message until I started reading his book this weekend. Now I’m full-fledged convert!

  • Leisa LaDell says:

    Thanks, Chris. I am still early in the “writing for 1,000” process, so that’s a great time to start looking deeply into “why.”

  • Satya - Fierce Wisdom says:

    Thanks Chris, for putting this series together. Great idea…

    I do what I do, because I have this really intense, searingly unavoidable, overpowering need to experience and share True Freedom.

    It’s just me, it’s who I am, and what makes me tick. That’s why your work resonates with me. Freedom. Real freedom… dammit! 🙂

  • dancingcrane says:

    Why? Because I’m looking for that place. You know the one. THAT place. The one we come from, but keep forgetting and refinding. The one Buechner calls “The place God calls you to, where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I want to be there, and I want to inspire others to be there too.

    I am told too often, especially by women my own age, that ‘I could never do what you do’. I am aghast at the number of people convinced that they have nothing to offer, or that no one would what to see it if they did. The response to that should be ‘why?’, too.

  • Roberto Gordo says:

    I was the first to jump off the top of our trailer house at age nine. I had strapped on a bath towel around my neck with a wooden clothes pin and thought I was Superman. Both my brothers followed right behind me, bath towels intact. Luckily they both landed on top of me. I was the only one with broken bones. And today? I still jump off trailer houses, willing to accept the hard hit of terra firma. I presently work as an editor, photographer, chili judge and free lance mobile home jumper. And I love your site. Love what you do… Great inspiration…

  • Mikeachim says:

    I reckon the problem isn’t that people aren’t aware of the question.

    It’s that they reckon they don’t need to answer it, because it’s already been answered for them.

  • Kirk Hoffman says:


    Here are the first two responses that came to mind.

    1. Ask and ANSWER the question ‘why’

    Many people ask ‘why’ as if they are victims or pawns, waiting for the answer to be given by some external entity or, worse yet, asking with the sense they will never have an answer.

    We all have an answer to the question.

    2. Persevere

    Determining one’s ‘why’ has different time frames depending on the topic.

    Some come easy. Some are harder, demanding our persistent attention and focus.

    I know there are times I’ve let myself be distracted, taking the easier path of not answering some of the more intense ‘whys’, but only to find myself returning to them in the future.

    It takes dedication and perseverance to make ‘why’ a lifelong compass.

  • Will Hutchens says:

    It’s interesting that you mentioned Seth Godin. He has been very influential for me too. After reading his book Linchpin, I decided to start my own blog, with the intention of being an “artist” (using Seth’s definition) and a non-conformist. When I stumbled across your blog today, I was excited to see someone living it. Keep up the good work!

  • Jenny Schmalhofer says:

    I couldn’t agree more Chris! This post reminds me of another quote someone told me once: “First we are taught to walk and to speak. Then we enter school and we are taught to sit still and to be quiet.”

    Thank you for sharing your inspiration. Keep it going.

  • Ryan Spanger says:

    Asking yourself why you do something demands an honesty that can be confronting. It means more than simply gathering evidence to reinforce that you are on the correct path. It means challenging yourself to face up to the noble and selfish aspects of your character. If you can reconcile these opposing and complimentary parts of yourself in a way that has integrity, and you still want to pursue what you do every day, then you are probably on the right path.

  • Jordan - The Healthy Teacher says:

    I love asking the question why. I think some people find this to be a difficult exercise because they may be afraid to change if they realize that what they are doing isn’t really satisfying. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Josh Bulloc says:

    My question to all of the readers of this post is: What is your agenda?

  • crystal street says:

    Very true! If more people asked Why and actually waited to take action until they found a viable answer, the world would look very different.

    I just started writing a book this weekend about artistic entrepreneurship, broken into three sections and the first one is titled “The Why”.

    Thanks and can’t wait to catch your tour in NC! Travel safe!

  • Trixie Rioux says:

    Why not?
    A good traveler has no fixed plans and he is not intend on arriving. -Lao Tse

  • bondChristian says:

    Hey Chris and fellow AONC Army,

    I’m with Jeff… I was about to mention something about Simon Sinek at the meetup today (Louisville) but never did. I haven’t read his book, but you can get the gist of his ideas through this 19 minute video:

    I first found out about him through, where Andrew Warner did a great interview with him.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • Mike Donghia says:

    Great post! When Seth Godin speaks, people should listen.

    I think every blog should produce great content and cut the rest out. People don’t want clutter, distraction…they want good, focused, content with a compelling message.

    I write about this stuff in my blog, just click on my name to see.

  • Mark Powers says:

    Fantastic series to start here, Chris! I can’t wait to learn more about your agenda. Safe travels- looking forward to seeing you in PDX!

  • Gary Wilson says:

    Why do you do this every single day is a question that acts like a sword cutting through the clutter of daily life. At heart it asks what I am really passionate about. I have found that I must be careful of the other side of the sword, which is what I am avoiding.

    In every passionate activity that I have totally immersed myself in (from professional cycling to living in a Zen monastery) I have found that I am both running towards the passion and away from something I dislike (usually work). Ironically it is the very things that I run away from that I end up doing. As a professional cyclist I ended up working extremely hard to be the best. Living in a Zen monastery I found myself doing “work practice” as part of Zen meditation.

    If we ask this question, it is useful to examine both sides of the sword it presents to us, both what we desire and what we are avoiding.

  • Karen says:

    Ever notice how kids always ask millions of questions? As we grow up, we learn to stop asking questions. Much of the time it’s because we have it drilled into us that we shouldn’t question the rules. Rather, just follow along. I think starting with asking ourselves why and what’s the point or the goal is a great way to start. We need to answer them for ourselves before we can go out and ask them of others!

    PS. The book is FANTASTIC. I love it.

  • TINA says:

    My 13 year old daughter, recently drew a picture of me citing my likes as: mexican food, travelling, the movie Indochine.
    My dislikes as: wasting food, and taking “the road most travelled”.

    I guess if I made my kid understand me and the life that we lead, then I have achieved something!

  • Forrest says:

    I think you’re probably right…nobody seems to ask the why (and not just in what they do every day, but in everything that we encounter). I would totally agree, that if more people asked this little question, our society would be better off.

    Perhaps most people don’t ask because they are scared of the answer.

  • Ken Apple says:

    It’s so easy to accept the conventional wisdom. I find the more I ask ‘why’ the more conventional wisdom I find is wrong, or working from a messed up premise. In Atule Gawande’s book “Better” his first rule of getting better is to ask an unscripted question, then, don’t complain, write something, count something. If we all did these things what could we accomplish?

  • Del says:

    Chris: Sorry I’m a little late to the party, but great post. I’d like to share my favorite way of asking “why?” — “To What End?” I think if we try to approach each concious decision point with this phrase in mind we’ll end up much farther ahead and more quickly as well.

  • Tricia Karp says:

    I do what I do because somewhere deep down inside I trust that true words spoken can change the world.

    And yes, imagine if everyone asked “Why.” During an intense period of questioning, I decided not to remove the hair from my armpits. Just because it was the done thing didn’t seem like a good enough reason for me to take part. I got some strong reactions too!

    Ok, a small example. But small ones add up, and give permission for others to ask their own questions.

    Love your work!

  • Jesse Harding says:

    Just last week I found myself sitting by the side of the highway halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, waiting for someone to stop and pick me up. I waited for a while and got pretty discouraged after a while. Then the questions started pouring out. “Why am I here? Why did I leave the comforts of my live back home in order to come out here? Why am I doing this?” And as I sat there with my thumb stuck out I began to seriously ponder those questions. It was only when I figured out that the reason why I was doing it was to grow as a person, take charge of my life, and go a different path than my friends who all went off to college right away, that I truly appreciated what I was doing and was content to sit and keep waiting for a ride.

  • Coach Dawn says:

    My why is the same thing I told the folks at my job interview: because I’m very good at it! Now that I’ve expanded into writing, I can’t give the same answer for my blog. But the plan is that over the course of the next few months, I hope to be able to say, “because people dig what I write.”

  • Broughin It says:

    I must say that this article made me rethink my approach on my own blog and where I want to take it. Although I know my why I am now currently figuring out the HOW to present and to profit from it.

  • Barak Rosenbloom says:

    Wow – I actually just reconnected with why I do what I do. Like I suspected, it wasn’t intellectual at all. It was getting an email from one of my old students, inviting me to his review board to become and Eagle Scout. Three years ago I offered him a life of being curious and playful, of taking risks and being profoundly happy. Of living life on his terms. My why isn’t because I can offer that to thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people. It’s because I offer it to one person.

    And then it can go from there.

    I’ve always thought in terms of millions of people (and in a past life my work affected millions). I never considered that I could find the true energy and passion of what I do in the one person.

    Thank you, I think your question shifted something big for me.


  • Beth Jennings says:

    What an honour to have some time with Seth like that. I’m reading Start with Why at the moment, and it’s been a god send. You are so right Chris, to concentrate on the why of what you do!

  • Heidi says:

    My husband and I are practicing an insane amount of faith right now with our goals and you’ve inspired me to put a little more direction on it. We need to write down our exact goals. Ask and ye shall receive.

    Oh, and as soon as my husband is done with your book it’s my turn. Can’t wait 🙂

  • Kimboosan says:

    Wonderful post. Just found this site a few days ago, and am overwhelmed by the positive motivation and encouragement here. This post is an example of the kind of thinking I’ve always been drawn to, but have pushed aside amidst the “shoulds” of social/cultural expectations. Yet, I’ve never succeed at those “shoulds” because the why of them never resonated with me.

    I’m asking “why” a lot these days, to be sure. 🙂


  • Ash says:

    Great post. The ‘why do you do this every day’ stencil is in Norwich, UK in the high street, (my hometown). Saw it months ago when it first appeared and it has been my phone wallpaper since discovering it. For perspective, its located just outside the busiest street of office blocks in the city. Have been on the AONC email list for some time after discovering your writing through Seth G, thank your for your inspiration

  • Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Thanks Chris. This post reminds me a lot of Simon Sinek — another person whose work I admire — who also believes if we all started with “why” we do things, the world would be a much better place.

  • Christina Crowe says:

    Loved the article, Chris. After reading this post, I stopped to ask myself (and really think about) why I do what I do – and it wasn’t the answer I thought it would be.

    I mean, I do what I do partly because I want to earn an income, but also because I enjoy helping other writers make their mark in their writing careers. I can’t even describe how good it makes me feel when I get an email from a fellow reader telling me how much my advice helped her. Or, even better, if I just spent days going through a writer’s application for a new gig, the writer then telling me that she was accepted to write for the company.

    It really excites me knowing that my words are actually helping to better the lives of other freelance writers, and I believe this is why I keep writing, even if I might feel unmotivated or frustrated.

    Thanks for the reminder. This was truly a great read.

  • JoAnna says:

    Just want to say “Thanks Chris” you are such an inspiration to me…To ask questions of myself and not settle for mediocrity!

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