Know Your WHAT First, then Devise Your HOW


In today’s article, I’m going to share a simple but fundamental concept behind goal achievement – the WHAT and the HOW 🙂 . To get what you want in life, there are two things you have to be clear about:

  1. WHAT: What you want. Your goals, dreams, desires, likes.
  2. HOW: How to get what you want. Your methodologies, knowledge, techniques, skill sets, action plans.

The order to think about them is first WHAT, then HOW. You have to first discover WHAT you want, then proceed to figure out HOW to get what you want.


For example, say you are unhappy with your job. In this situation, what is your ideal desired scenario? This is your WHAT. Perhaps it is to set up your own contemporary-styled coffee cafe where people can dine at and relax after a busy day. You want to turn it into a renowned cafe across the country with booming business. In time to come, you want to open up other branches, perhaps even internationally. Your HOW is then to continue on in your career for 3 more months to create a savings buffer. At the same time, you will  start linking with people in the cafe industry to learn more from them. You will also be reading related books to understand how to run a successful eatery business and start gathering the resources to get things started.

Sounds extremely simple and clear when we break it down our goals into just 2 aspects :D. Unfortunately, most people get stuck mid-way, which prevents them from realizing their best life. In my past few months of coaching an array of different people in my school (through 1-1 coaching and workshops), I discovered there are three most common issues blocking people from getting what they want.

Issue #1. Many of us don’t know our WHAT.

It’s alarming, but it’s true. Majority of this group are sleepwalkers who are not fully conscious of why they do what they do and what they really want for themselves. They are dissatisfied and jaded with life, but at the same time they remain stagnant in their situation because they don’t know what they want. When asked about what they want, some may give a short answer or two. Some may reply with an entirely ambiguous answer. Some may resign in jest that they don’t know, then carry on that way. Since they never get to know their WHAT, their lives never quite improve. It remains dissatisfactory and just “okay”.

Issue #2. Many of us are working on others’ WHATs.

There are some who are clear about the WHATs. They channel their energy into the WHAT and make big progress. The HOW is hardly an issue. There may be challenges here and there, but they can always find some way to address them.

There is just one problem though – these aren’t their real WHATs! These are just others’ WHATs – what they have been conditioned to do over time. These are the same people who pursue imposed purposes rather than their real liberated purposes are pursuing others’ WHATs. Imposed purposes refer to purposes which you live by due to external forces or purposes conditioned into you over time. They aren’t what you really want on the inside. Liberated purposes, on the other hand, are self-realized and much more powerful because they come from within you.

Since what they are doing are not their real WHAT, from a results stand-point the progress they make in these goals sometimes just feel empty. For example, someone making big strides in an engineering career. He can be promoted as the Director of the engineering department, but if what he truly loves is music and piano, then there’s not much point in progressing in the engineering career. This was the situation for me before I quit from my corporate job the last year. I was successfully carving out my career in brand management, but what I really wanted was to help people grow and live their best lives.

The tricky thing is, many of them pursue others’ WHATs thinking it’s their WHAT. This is why it’s important to really look into your WHAT to understand it is in line with your life purpose. (Further reading: 7-part Discover Your Real Purpose series)

Issue # 3. Many of us compromise on our WHAT because we are scared by the HOW.

These people have a certain awareness of what they want. However, since they don’t see any way of getting that, they compromise on their WHAT. They reduce their expectations, make do or totally abandon their desires altogether. These are the people who are ruled by practicality rather than their dreams. Over time, life becomes just about sacrificing themselves for the others and going through things for the sake of it. Since they can’t get what they want, they stop thinking about it altogether. Some even deny they do want it. Eventually they just forget about their WHAT. They become reduced to sleepwalkers of life.

Know Your WHAT First

Uncovering your WHAT is the first step toward living the life of your dreams. Your WHAT is the big rocks of your life. If the big rocks are not in, the small rocks, gravel, sand and water will just be randomly scattered around. They remain that way until your big rocks are put into place.

Ironically, most people don’t think about their WHAT or they compromise on their WHAT because they were thinking about the HOW first. They don’t see any way of getting what they want from where they are. So they think “Why bother?” and just don’t think about it altogether.

However, thinking about the HOW before the WHAT is like putting the carriage before the horse. As you know, you can’t move the carriage forward if the carriage is placed before the horse. The horse needs to be in front to move it. Similarly, your WHAT needs to be in place first. You have to identify what you want first to get it!


An interesting observation is many people often tend to worry about their HOW before they even think about their WHAT. Have you ever done that before? Perhaps your mind generates a laundry list of problems of obstacles you might be facing or potential issues you might encounter. Truth is though, most of the time these are either issues that get resolved by themselves, problems that are over-exaggerated or non-existent problems. If you ever do take the step forward, you will find only about 10% (or less) of them are valid! Unfortunately, most get intimidated by all the problems they “see” in the HOW stage and abandon their WHAT altogether. It’s a huge pity!

If you are always seeing your future from your present situation, you are never going to move too far away from where you are. Rather than worry endlessly about the HOW, know WHAT you really want first! Worry about the HOW later. Once you are done with your WHAT, then you can work on devising your HOW. Doing it the reverse method will just result in you compromising on your WHAT, which isn’t what we want at all.

Example: Donald Trump’s Turnaround

Take the example of Donald Trump. You probably know Donald Trump as the famous, billionaire real estate mogul from The Apprentice reality business series. He is the CEO of Trump Organization, one of the most prominent US real estate organizations, as well as the owner of the Miss Universe organization.

However, there was a time in 1990s when bad decisions he made in his businesses led him into a huge pitfall. Just overnight, he turned from a billionaire to having nearly a billion dollars of debt. At that time, his “friends” and business associates left and turned their back on him. The media, press, people all around him all thought he was finished. It was the lowest point of his life.

What did Donald do? If he had focused on the paths available in front of him, he would never have made it back. Instead, he focused on WHAT he wanted – his ideal vision. He refused to give in to the circumstances before him. Even though the situation was blasphemous, he remained resolute. Even though there were overwhelming odds before him, he stood tough.

As things would have it, within a year, he turned around and emerged tops, with over $3 billion in net worth – 3 times higher than his highest wealth from before his debt which was $1 billion! From a -$1 billion debt to being a billionaire, three times over! It was such an incredible feat that he became listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the biggest financial turnaround in history ever.

Example: Getting My Internship

Throughout my life, there have been umpteen times when I achieved what I wanted because I first focused on the WHAT, rather than the HOW.

For example, when I was a year 2 student in University, we were supposed to secure internships for the summer holiday period. At that time, there were many recruitment talks conducted by different companies in the campus. One of them in particular, was this Fortune 100 consumer goods company, which was highly prestigious and renowned throughout the school. Everyone heard of its an arduous selection process and how only a small, pristine group of candidates would be recruited. It was so few that no one ever knew who they were – we only heard about such people through hear-say or word of mouth, and never the people directly. To be honest, the people who did get in were seen as urban legends!

So when the company came into the campus for a recruitment talk, it was not a surprise that the lecture hall which had a capacity of 500 was OVER packed! Seats were fully filled, students were sitting on the alley steps, and then there were those who were standing at the back of the lecture hall. There were even students who were not from the Business faculty who were in the talk as well. To think that all of these people were here with a common objective – to secure the same job, was a little mind boggling. Not to mention that there were 2 other major universities in Singapore too! Everyone was blown away by the presentations and things shared by the employees of the company during the talk.

Like everyone else, I was interested to apply. It was a prestigious Multi-National Corporation, it had terrific benefits, huge career development opportunities, highly dynamic culture and tremendous travel opportunities. In fact, it was renowned in the industry as the dream job for Marketers (and I was a Marketer)! Honestly, ,a career in this company would be like a dream come through.

There was only one problem – the competition. There was only a small number of roles open and probably nearly a thousand people looking to apply – very smart, talented individuals, half of which were probably more qualified and had more experience than I did! For example, a large group of them were third year or MBA students, where I was just a second year student. They had more academic knowledge, past internship experiences and for the MBA students, past work experiences, whereas I had absolutely no experience interning or even any real work experience. Their track records were easily stronger than mine. There were also plenty of other second year individuals who had their own set of achievements and results that made them very strong candidates as well. Honestly speaking, if you were just to objectively calculate the odds, it was like a 0.1% of getting accepted .

However, rather than be intimidated by that, I simply focused on the WHAT – getting the internship. In spite of overwhelming odds, I just applied anyway. I mean, who cares, really? If I tried, I would have a chance of getting in, but if I didn’t I would have zero chance of getting in. As it turned out, I eventually got through and was selected each round of assessment (for a total of 6 rounds!!), ultimately securing the internship!!  I would later go on to do well in the internship and get my pre-placement offer with the company before graduation. This would never have happened if I had been focusing on the HOW initially, rather than the WHAT.

Exercise: Know your WHAT

Let’s now do an exercise to know what your real WHAT is :D. This involves a communication with your inner self. Depending on how regularly you introspect on your needs, this may take between 15-20 minutes.


Think about these questions and write down the answers on a piece of paper or in a document:

  • What do YOU truly want for yourself?
  • What are the biggest goals you want to achieve in your life?
  • What are the things, when you get them, will bring you tremendous joy and happiness?
  • What are dreams you had as a child, but forgot when you were growing up?
  • What do you most want to see happen for yourself in the next few years?

Don’t just scan through these questions and casually toss them around in your mind. Really get down to think about WHAT you really want! Just the amount of time and energy you are willing to put into this indicates what you will be able to get out of your life moving forward.

With your answers, make sure they resonate within you. Remember, these are your WHATs, not others’ WHATs! 🙂

Bring your WHAT to life

How was the exercise? What are the answers that you got out of the exercise?

Now you know your WHATs, it doesn’t stop there. HOW do you intend to bring them to life? There have been many articles written in this blog on goal achievement. The base series you should check out is 5-Step ESPER Series for successful goal achievement. Supplementary articles include the ones on Goals & Success category. Use them to devise an action plan toward bringing your WHAT to life.

While the road ahead may not be smooth sailing, the most important thing is every step you take, every thing you do, you are now progressing toward your real WHAT. As long as you continuously work toward your WHAT, you will be closer toward reaching it. When you finally achieve your WHAT, you will find it has been worth every ounce of energy you put into it, and more. 🙂

Image: “What-How” © Personal Excellence

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