Find your Why – How to get back on track when work has lost its meaning

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink lists three things you need in order to be content at your workplace:

Autonomy, mastery and purpose.

After ten years in product development I had carved out a pretty decent path for myself. There was no shortage in opportunities to practise and improve my skills. As a senior consultant autonomy was usually given to me as well. But as you may have guessed by the title of this article, I had a nagging sense that I was lacking purpose.

As Pink pointed out in Drive, you need purpose to feel completely content at work. Quite likely this doesn’t show until you’re a few years into your career. As a junior my focus was on mastery. As a mid-weight I got obsessed with Autonomy (which eventually made me quit my perm job and start freelancing). Eventually purpose caught up with me and asked why I should care at all – How was I contributing to a world that I wanted to live in?

Purpose comes back and bites you in the ass if you don’t deal with it sooner or later. Around this time I was reading Robert Greene’s book Mastery and realised that I could never become a master at anything without believing truly and passionately in the cause.

Listen to anyone who’s really good at something talking about that thing. Quite often they describe it in abstract, almost poetic ways. What they’re doing is no longer a concrete craft, sport or skill, but a manifestation of the cause behind it.

Finding Find your Why

After trawling the web for guidance, mainly finding abstract, generic and new-age infused tips on how to find purpose in life, I found a book that sounded like the real deal:

Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team

After reading too many ‘Follow your heart’ blog posts, this ‘Practical Guide’ could maybe finally get me somewhere. This is the follow-up to Start with why by Simon Sinek. That book brilliantly turns the traditional business model on its head and explains why the world’s most successful companies operate with a deeper purpose (aka the Why) at their core and let everything else follow.

It’s easy to buy into the arguments listed in Start with Why. It’s apparently harder to apply it in real life since they had to write a how-to guide for it.

Find your Why can be applied to individuals as well as companies and teams. Without hesitation I bought the book. This is what I learnt from doing the exercises in the book.

Finding my Why

The book I used to find my Why spells out step by step how to do it, both for individuals and teams. It also helps you define your How.

If you’re not familiar with Sinek’s Golden circle model, this is how it works:

The Why is our purpose. It’s the reason we get out of bed in the morning (or should be at least). It’s based on our core values and are thus not likely to change much with time.

The How is our personal execution style. How we approach life. Facebooks’s How for instance is ‘Move fast and break things’.

The What is what we do every day. For a company it’s the end product or service. For individuals it’s our job, or other activity that supports our Why.

What events in your life shaped you?

The process for finding your Why as an individual starts with thinking about your past and identifying the most impactful events in your life. Events that shaped you as a person. You go back to these because they clearly mean something to you, and a lot can be understood about your core values by hearing about them.

You look for experiences and people that did any of the following:

  • Shaped who I am today
  • Helped me become who I am
  • Taught me something
  • Made me proud
  • Were painful or good, as long as they shaped me
  • Has an emotional connection

Finding these really important memories is not an easy task. Even when the book guides you through this exercise with pointers and things to look for I still had to dig deep, often questioning the importance of the stories I found.

This is a very personal exercise and some might have no issues at all identifying these character shaping stories. I had a rather normal upbringing, so my stories reflected that I guess. But in the end they were all relevant and emotionally loaded on a very personal level.

Once you’ve found a number of stories, big and small, next step is to share them with someone. You need to find a person who doesn’t know you well enough to be biased, but someone that you feel comfortable sharing these personal moments with. This person has a big responsibility in listening carefully to your stories, taking notes, and finding common themes in them. This could also be themes in the language you use when you tell them.

I chose my partner Laura to help me since I trust her completely, but at the time of doing this exercise we had only been together for about a year and a half so most of these things about my past would be new to her.

I had my own idea of what themes might emerge from all this, but allowing Laura to feedback what she had captured was very useful. Not completely different, but more nuanced, and definitely less biased.

The most important themes we found were these:

  • Stand up for yourself and your beliefs
  • Love for what you do
  • Enthusiasm
  • Freedom
  • To question and challenge
  • Being part of a group

Creating your Why statement

From the newly detected themes, some will stand out more than others. The next step is to shape your Why statement based on these themes.

The Why statement follow a template which makes it a bit easier to think about. It also has to benefit others in one way or the other. This came to me as a surprise at first. What if you’re a hermit, or hate people or only want to help animals?

But this is where you have to trust the process. Sinek and his team have dealt with hundreds, if not thousands of people and found that this is one of the fundamental requirements. Other sources claim this to be the case as well. We are flock animals after all.

The formula:

To [Contribution] so that [Impact].

It takes some time to get this right. This is your Northern light after all. The only one thing that matters in the end. Your calling. So, no pressure.

You can always tweak it over time, just to get the wording right.

So why do I wake up in the morning?

To inspire people to challenge themselves so that they can live with intent.

That’s it. I can own it 100%. This is what I want to do with my life. It’s what makes sense to spend my time on, one way or the other.

Finding your Why shouldn’t come as a total surprise to you. I think you can feel it when you get it right. It simply resonates with you.

As an adult I’ve always had a beef with people living on auto-pilot, not challenging themselves in any way. Because challenges make us grow, and growth is good. So for my Why to be about making people challenge themselves to become better, happier and more fulfilled made immediate sense to me.

Adding your How

As a bonus you can also work out a set of How statements based on the themes you found earlier. These are probably less critical but are still useful as reminders in your quest to be true to yourself and become the best version of yourself.

Using the themes again you’ll find around five principles or guidelines for how you approach activities. They should be:

  • The ingredients I need to be at my best
  • My strengths
  • Simple and actionable
  • What I do to bring my Why to life

In my case I formed these How principles:

Bring the joy of being alive into everything you do
Embrace the task and make the journey the goal. If you can’t be enthusiastic about it; don’t do it.

Own your actions
Assume autonomy. Do what you feel needs to be done and take full responsibility of the outcome.

Enjoy exploration with an open mind
Exploring is fun, but only useful if you’re open to changing tack based on what you find.

Use the knowledge of the group
Include everyone, foster idea sharing and encourage feedback.

And then What?

So I found my Why.

Now what?

The What can be anything really. It’s just the manifestation of the Why, so in my case I need to find a way to inspire people to grow.

As a freelance product designer that’s easier said than done if I want to incorporate my Why in my career. Which I obviously want since the whole pursuit for meaning started as a result of not finding it in my job.

At the same time I don’t want to leave product development for something completely new. I thought about this, and the best thing to do would be to create a product or service that supports my Why.

That’d be awesome. But I don’t know what that would be. Yet.

The second best would be to join a company that shares or supports my Why.

That’d be sweet. If I find one it’s definitely an option.

The third best thing would in theory be to become a manager and inspire growth that way. But in practise it’s not really for me. Never had the urge to manage people. Mentoring could be an option.

And finally I could find meaning at work by giving and helping in general, as explained in the book Give and Take by Adam Grant.

I did this exercise two years ago. I’m still lost. I know my Why and I know that although contracting for various clients is stimulating and mostly great, it’s not supporting my Why.

And as we noted in the beginning; without the Why, we won’t reach full potential, nor fulfilment.

So the pursuit continues.

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