Start with Why, but don’t Forget How
The focus on why and purpose in work and business
There’s no denying we have become a bit ‘why’ fixated. Looking for meaning and purpose in our work and our businesses is the topic of a growing number of books, programs, articles. Simon Sinek’s famous book and talk ‘Start with Why’, years on from originally hitting YouTube is still widely renowned and quoted. Organisations are now getting on board in droves and beginning to fuel what some are calling ‘purpose washing’.
I believe having a strong why behind our work can be incredibly beneficial. It’s important for organisations who need to bring a group of people together around a common goal. It’s important for individuals to feel fulfilled in their working lives. Amongst all the ‘why’ hype, however, we have begun to overlook one of the other siblings in the family. Poor little ‘how’.
The importance of how
How is not so glamorous or exciting. While Why is out the front in the limelight, with everyone’s attention on her, How is slowly working away in the background making everything come together. And for most of the time, this works out ok.
But if we focus too much on the why, without thinking about the how, we can get ourselves into trouble. This applies to both organisations and individuals, but today I’m going to focus on the individual context. Because this is where it started for me.
For the last four and a half years I’ve been running my own business. Over those four years, I’ve been slowly adapting my why. For those of you who run your own solo businesses, you can probably relate - it’s a constant evolution. But something strange was happening. While my why was getting me more and more inspired, something was off. Things weren’t gelling how I would like. I still felt ‘off’, like I wasn’t fully into my work.
How could that be? How could I be so passionate about my why and still not be feeling all the warm fuzzies?
As I began to dig and move past the dazzling spectacle of Why in all her glory, I noticed poor How slumped in a corner. She wasn’t happy. She’d become disgruntled. Parts of the work had begun to weigh her down. She could see what Why was trying to do, she got it, she supported it, championed it even, but Why hadn’t stopped to ask her how she felt she could best contribute to the mission.
Metaphor aside - for me, this manifested as certain elements of what I needed to do to bring my work to life, really dragging me down. The work didn’t feel light and inspiring, it felt heavy or jarring. To give you a few examples:
I noticed how big, long projects would begin to drag and drain. When I spent too much time devoted solely to client projects in intense, ongoing stretches, all other aspects of my work – things that gave me energy like podcasting, writing, coaching – would begin to drop away. And then my sparkle would begin to fade. I didn’t immediately bounce back either. There was a period of ‘reintegration’, where I would struggle to get myself back to my previous levels of inspiration and drive.
I also began to become frustrated that every project felt like starting again. I was working with so many different clients on so many different types of things I felt like I was having to reinvent the wheel time and time again.
A client of mine also had ‘how’ issues. Although working in a company doing really meaningful work, he found he lacked the sense of human connection he was seeking. He also wanted to bring more play and movement into his work, but wasn’t seeing obvious opportunities for that to happen.
As you can see from these examples, how can look like all kinds of different things. How we connect (or not), the timescales of our work, our ability to express ourselves in a way that feels congruent with who we are. And these are just a start.
Our how can affect how happy, fulfilled and content we feel about what we do, yet often we overlook it. Or think there’s nothing we can do to change it.
The good news is, we can work on our how, maintain our why, and not necessarily need to change any whats. Looking at your how can be a great way to reinvigorate how you’re feeling about your work. When we aren’t feeling our work, it’s easy to look at the why and think it’s the thing that’s wrong. Changing your why can be a lot more difficult. So I encourage you to closely examine your how first.
Examining your how
The first step in examining your how is to spend a bit of time getting to know it. First, you might like to sit down with a pen and paper or your computer, and just jot down all the things that are working or not working for you regarding the way in which you work. Now it can get a bit tricky here, you may discover some things are a how, but also quite connected to a what or seem like they are a what. Don’t worry about that for the moment, just write down everything that comes to mind.
Over the next week or two, keep adding to your list. Pay close attention to your work. What are the things you are finding frustrating or drain your energy? What are the things that excite you or give you energy?
Once you have a good list, take some quiet time to look at it and ask yourself for each item, what is this really about? For example, if you work for yourself and one of the things on your list was that working by yourself all the time makes you feel lonely, what is that about? Is it about not having someone to bounce ideas with? Is it just having people around? Is it you miss chatting about the latest Game of Thrones episode with someone around the water cooler? (Does anyone actually stand around the office water cooler?)
Working out what each thing is really about is important. In the example I gave above it might be easy to jump to the ‘what’ solution that you need to go back to working for someone else because you’re not cut out for working for yourself. The solution might be a lot simpler than that, but that, of course, depends on what it’s about.
Once you know what each ‘how’ good or bad is actually about, depending on how many items you have, you may want to prioritise your list. This is one of those exercises you could write three things or 100. So it’s good to work out what’s important. An easy way to prioritise is to divide everything into three buckets. Eg. High, Medium and low priority. If you’ve got lots of items, then divide each bucket again: High medium and low. I like to do this with post it notes so I can move things around.
Pick a few of your highest priorities - choose some from the good and the bad list. Then grab yourself another piece of paper or a pad of Post-It notes, and brainstorm as many different options as you can for changing that ‘how’. Don’t be afraid to go way out and think of crazy things, they can often be the course of something really interesting. The point of brainstorming is not to be selective. It’s to generate options.
You may have options here that involve something small that’s minor tweak. You may also end up with things that are big changes that may also require an adjustment of your what or why. That’s ok.
Finally, look through your list of brainstormed items and choose one to give a go. How you make your selection is up to you. You need to consider what is actually possible for you in your situation. You might like to start with some smaller things before you tackle the massive ones, but you will know what feels best for you.
Take Action to shift your how
Once you’ve spent some time examining your how in detail, take intentional action. Your how won’t change by itself. It’s going to take some work. What will you commit to doing to adapt the how of your work? Commit to at least one thing and create yourself some action steps to work towards it each week.
When we operate from a how that is as aligned and inspiring as our why, work can feel far more fulfilling and flowing. So if you feel like a shift might need to happen with your work-life, make sure you give How a little bit of love. She’s the quiet achiever who brings your work from inspiration into reality.