Inside Elemental

Why We Do

March 21, 2022

· 5 min read
Bobby Bailey
Bobby Bailey Creative Storyteller

Good questions

Last night I got my friendly neighborhood COVID test, put on a collared shirt, and attended my first dinner party in a long while. I’ll be honest, I was out of practice. From my mouth flew a question that I immediately regretted. I tried to reel the words back, but they were already cast out and floating in the wind.

“So Josh, what is it that you do?”

I know it’s a perfectly innocuous question that one should not feel ashamed to ask. But I should know better.

As a documentary filmmaker, I ask a lot of questions to try to get to the bottom of a subject, to understand someone’s motivations, to understand why a person does what they do.

I started asking questions in East Africa 20 years ago, as I was documenting the effects of war on children. In this circumstance the children were both the weapon and the victim of war. These children taught me the power of empathy that is bridged through asking the right questions.

The why questions we ask one another are bonding agents. They get at our heartbeat, that authentic space that drives our actions.

When getting to know someone, vulnerability can knit experiences to one another like yarn. There are questions that foster vulnerability and there are questions that lend themselves to objectification. Asking first, “What do you do?” is like talking on the phone for a half an hour and then dialing the number. There is an order that we should follow if we want to really connect. “Why do you do what you do?” creates bridges in the psyche. One that opens us to the unique human path of seeing ourselves in someone elseʻs story. It reveals courage and genius and most of all empathy.

A hole in the wall

There is a tale by Bayo Akomolafe, a storyteller from the Yoruba fields of Nigeria, that brings to light the purpose of questions that probe at vulnerability. Here’s a short paraphrase:

Once upon a time, there was a father on his deathbed who calls his son back from the city to the village to say goodbye. He asks his son to join him and build a hut on the land for his future family.

Father and son set to build the hut, and after two weeks nearly everything is finished. But the father has exhausted himself and can barely stand, so he takes to the bed. The son finishes the hut and then comes to get his father, saying, “It is finished.”

The father rises feebly, shuffles to the door, sees the hut and immediately reaches down and picks up a sledgehammer which is sitting on the porch. He drags it to the hut, lifts it with ease and swings it with such power against the wall that it puts a hole right through the side of the hut.

He drops the sledgehammer, looks at his son, and says, “Now it is done.” The father then limps back to his bed. The son, perplexed, kneels at his father’s bed and demands to know why he would do such a thing.

The old man says, “When your neighbors come by, now they will be curious and stop and ask why you have a hole in your home. And you will invite them in for tea and you will tell them about your passing father and you will become friends.”

Cards on the table

I believe that a certain kind of numbness will pervade our lives if we are not vigilant to extend the questions we ask one another past the banality of doing, and into the heart of our being and calling.

For one, it gives us a chance to address the giant hole in all of our houses — and our neighbor’s houses. As Akomolafe says about the father and the hole in the wall, “Until you find a place where you are wounded, community is not possible.”

And second, our hidden motivations are often like malnourished, atrophying limbs that we desperately need to feed and strengthen. The Greeks called this purpose for being the Genius — it is something unique to each one of us and its theme forever circles our lives.

The why questions we ask one another are bonding agents. They get at our heartbeat, that authentic space that drives our actions.

So it is the what and the why we do — the impact and the intent — that I find of supreme interest. What we do with our time in this world springs like branches of a pear tree grown from the seed of our why. They must be examined and nurtured together.

Over the past year, I have been asking my colleagues this elemental question: “Why do you do what you do?” I hope their answers will spark a candle and illuminate the why that drives our what, our sense of wonder, and the world we want to see.

Cards on the table, here is why we do.


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Elemental Excelerator current and former team members in order of appearance:
Lauren Tonokawa — Communications Director
Dawn Lippert — Founder and CEO
Kim Baker — Senior Director of Innovation
Nneka Uzoh — Former Director of Innovation
Danya Hakeem — Managing Director, Portfolio
Jamila Jarmon — Former in-house Council
Nathaly Moreno — Manager of Innovation, Equity & Access
Pam Anukoolthamchote — Former Sr. Manager, Portfolio Data & Operations
Danielle J. Harris — Managing Director, Engagement & Innovation
Carmen Ayala — Communications Analyst, Equity & Access
Rozella Kennedy — Former Director of Philanthropy
Saritha Peruri — Head of Corporate Partnerships

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