How the five why questions revealed my true motivation for more sustainability

The topic of sustainability has become an increasingly important part of my life over the last few years. Of course, there are several obvious explanations for this. I, Thomas, Co-Founder of Azolla, have also noticed that sustainability is mentioned more frequently in the media and that there are more extreme weather events. In addition, there are countless reasons why it makes sense to work towards more sustainability, such as food security, biodiversity, water supply, poverty and many more. But precisely because it is so easy to find numerous motivations, I never dug deeper and searched for my innermost motivators. Until one inconspicuous evening at the beginning of this year.

At that time, a Colombian friend who is studying in Milan was visiting us. One evening after a long day in home office, I sat down, or rather slumped down, next to our guest on the couch. I was exhausted and not in the best of moods, which is rarely the case. I helped myself to the bottle of wine that was sitting on the coffee table. It was around 10 p.m., and I just wanted to listen passively to the conversation.

But as soon as I sat down, our guest asked abruptly: «Why are you committed to the fight against climate change»? I was surprised but did not know, at that time, that she was going to ask the why-part of the same question four more times, much like a toddler would do.

Unnoticed by me, she was applying the 5-Why-Method on me. The 5-Why-Method is an approach that is often used to find the root of a problem. However, it is also well suited for finding the motivation behind a behavior. The procedure is simple. You ask «Why» five times in a row.

Completely unaware of the situation, I answered, «because it’s the biggest problem we have».

«Why?» My opposite asked me again. Slightly confused, I replied, «because all other problems are irrelevant if we can’t stop or slow climate change» and hoped to have answered the question to her satisfaction.

Again, a «why» followed. Still polite but determined to answer the question definitively, I clarified: «For example, we can fight growing inequality and poverty as hard as we want, but we still won’t get off the ground in the medium term because of climate change». I reasoned that any marginal progress would mean nothing compared to the profound effects of climate change. More so, the world’s impoverished regions in the Global South are disproportionately affected. I further explained that there will be more extreme weather events such as storms, hail, and droughts, leading to crop failures and making entire regions infertile and uninhabitable. Finally, I concluded my remarks with the rise in sea levels and biodiversity losses in the comforting certainty that I can now move to a more passive role in the conversation.

Ana looked at me for a moment, unimpressed, and said, «and why do you think it’s important that this doesn’t happen»? «Because it will cause immense suffering for large parts of the world’s population and because it is unfair that those who contribute the least will suffer the most», was my brief and somewhat curt answer to what felt like the hundredth question.

Anyone who has been counting knows, however, that there is one more «why» missing. And to my almost total despair, I was not spared that one either. So my interviewer asked one last time, «and why do you care»? My facial expressions were certainly already visibly displaying my discomfort, yet I pondered again briefly. «Because I can’t stand injustice, and I want to help people who are less fortunate», I finally replied.

After this sentence, I suddenly realized what had just happened. Ana had been following a plan all along and was not just a curious toddler who had made it her goal to steal my last nerve. Instead, our wonderful guest had just managed to reveal my innermost motivation with the help of my sometimes moody answers. I was impressed and thrilled by this realization.

So, the bottom line is that the drive for justice and the need to help people motivated me to commit to the fight against climate change – what a beautiful revelation and what an excruciating yet very effective methodology to drill a little deeper.

Try it out and get to the bottom of one of your motivations or help someone find theirs!

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Thomas Kaeslin
Thomas Kaeslin