The ‘Five Whys’ Strategy to Uncover Your Life’s Work

How to get to the root cause and find your work that matters most

The five whys strategy

I’ve been doing some soul-searching lately and part of the process was looking deep into my core values and goals. If you don’t know where you’re going you’ll never get there, right?

I went to work, journaling-out my ideal day and forging the major themes of my future (one of the reasons I chose the writer’s path). I spent a long time developing what I thought was a respectable list.

But everything changed once I discovered the five whys.

I was listening to a podcast about the Toyota company. Famous for their methods of lean manufacturing and almost zero-error production, Toyota also has a secret weapon for root cause.

Originally intended to uncover manufacturing problems, the five why root cause analysis is a deceptively-simple tool you can use to get to the root cause of ANYTHING.

You ask ‘why’ five times.

That’s it. Nothing else to it. The only way the method works is if you answer the questions honestly. We’ll walk through an example in a minute, but first, why does this method work?

If you ask the question once, you’ll get a surface answer. Why do you want to quit your day job? To become a full-time author. Most people stop at the first why. There’s a problem. We ask the question, thinking we’ll solve it. We get an answer. The investigation is done.

These surface answers can lead us to stifling careers, terrible product solutions, poor management choices, and false positives. The true answer is much deeper.

We need a tool to dig far below the surface — for the true answer.

Why not ask ‘why’ six times or seven? Go for it. But if you can get through all five levels of the five whys, you’ll find the core root cause for any big decision and I doubt you’ll need more. Five whys deep is plenty for most projects. There’s nothing that says you can’t ask ten whys.


You feel stuck with your life. You’ve worked a job for many years, but you no longer feel challenged. You feel lost and stuck. Perhaps you want to uncover a new direction for your life, before it’s too late.

You make a list and uncover a big idea for your life. You feel great about it, but you don’t want to get stuck again. You’re already in mid-life. You don’t feel you have time to pick a new direction and choose wrong. You pick a global them for your new life and run it through the five whys to ensure your choice is right for you.

Your global theme — I want to be a successful author

Now, if you asked me a few years ago, why I wanted to be a successful author, I would’ve said “because it would be so cool to do nothing but write all day.” But if you’re searching for a new direction for your life, you better be sure your new choice won’t leave you where you started.

We take our overall theme and go five whys deep.

  1. Why do you want to be a successful author? I want to quit my job at the car wash.
  2. Why do you want to quit your job at the car wash? I feel like I’m throwing my life away.
  3. Why do you feel like you’re throwing your life away? I feel like I have no purpose there.
  4. Why do you feel you have no purpose there? I don’t get time to work alone and exercise my creativity.
  5. Why do you want to work alone and exercise your creativity? Working with a lot of people gives me anxiety and I need a creative outlet to feel whole as a human.

If we need to go deeper we keep going until we run out of useful answers. We take the root, the final answer, and plug that into our overall theme: I want to be a successful author.

Will our final answer fit with the overall theme? Yes. Writing is a very solitary job with as much or little social interaction as you wish. The process is very fulfilling and is highly-creative outlet on many levels.

You can use this tool for both macro and micro-level problems. Root cause will uncover deep meaning to issues you may not discover at first glance. The process is deceptively simple, but this tool can be used not only in your creative pursuits, relationships, business ideas, and life’s goals.

Now it’s time to ask yourself, WHY?

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