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In the Beginning is the End

Before any solutions to any undertaking can be developed, a movement must begin to discover its beginning. Understanding the vein of the problem is the course to solving it. The best way to accomplish any endeavor is to determine its essential purpose, its most basic mission. What is the endeavor supposed to accomplish? What is the reason for embarking upon it? This is where the solution lies.

Originality is in the origins.

Let's say your community is thinking about building a hospital. On the surface, the purpose of a new hospital is to provide better medical services. But the purpose of medical services is really to improve health care, which in turn is to improve health. And the most essential purpose of all is to improve the quality of life in the community. Maybe the best way to do this is not to build a hospital; maybe the community needs only emergency medical services and more programs that emphasize preventive medicine.


Life is the first gift, love the second, and understanding the third.

– Marge Piercy


There are two parts to solving any problem: What you want to accomplish, and how you want to do it. Even the most creative people attack issues by leaping over what they want to do and going on to how they will do it. There are many how's but only one what. What drives the how's? You must always ask the question "What is?" before you ask the question "How to?"

Here is a story about what is and how to. I'm in a desert. I'm dying of thirst. I see a trickle of water. It is not a mirage. I want that liquid in my mouth. Getting the water into my mouth is the what. How am I going to get it? First, I make a container out of my hands and scoop up the water.

I think, Ah! I can design a cup. So I make a cup, and it works, but it is too large for me to hold. So I make a smaller cup and put a handle on it, and I realize I have designed a spoon. I spoon that water to my mouth. I see some reeds growing. It occurs to me that I could put that reed in the water, draw the air out, and suck up the water. I have designed a straw. I get the water to my lips. These things all have to do with how to. Design is about how to. But first you have to understand the what. Only one what, but many how's. Each how has its moment in the sun.

People want to buy lights before they understand lighting, which is what they really need. People go on diets before they understand nutrition, which would enable them to evaluate the relationship between their health and their food intake.

If you neglect to ask, "what is the purpose of the project?" your decisions of how to accomplish it become arbitrary and you will suffer nagging doubts. You will experience the anxiety of wondering would another solution have been more successful?


Ratio of Americans who say they trust TV news magazines to those who say they trust print news magazines: 2:1

Ratio of those who say they trust local TV news to those who say they trust C-Span: 2:1

Number of American children crushed to death by television sets since 1990: 28

Ratio of minutes that the three major networks spent on the Lewinsky story last fall to minutes they spent on Kosovo: 5:1

Number of words devoted to the Depression in Houghton Mifflin's fifth-grade history book, Build Our Nation: 332

Number devoted to the baseball career of Cal Ripken Jr.: 339

– Harper's Index
(January-April, 1999)


Many of us move too quickly into the how to before we fully understand what we want to do. Uncovering the essential purpose of any endeavor requires asking it what it wants to be and discovering how that relates to what you want or need it to be. In fact, I believe the design of your life evolves from asking these questions.

This practice can be employed on global issues, as well as on the mundane. It can mean asking questions about the national debt or on the design of your kitchen. Should your kitchen be a space for elaborate culinary undertakings or just an excuse for a microwave oven and an ice machine? Should your desk be just a surface or a place for storage?

I believe all information is out there and the trick is allowing it to talk to you.

We don't invent information; we allow it to reveal itself as it marches past. The parade must be encouraged, so that we can develop marvelous new organizational patterns that spark new understandings.

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