“The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Thank you Mark Twain, that has to be the best quote I have heard this year.

Looking back at my professional life, I can see that I spent much of it drifting, waiting for something to happen, and feeling mildly bemused at the question at the back of my mind:  “What’s the point?”  I managed to survive 14 years in corporate land in a range of reasonably well paid jobs in sales and marketing, without ever getting round to considering what the point was. What difference did I make, and why should anyone care?

Thank goodness they laid me off in my mid thirties before it was too late, and I woke up with a jolt.  I got lucky and moved into the learning and development world, where I discovered I could genuinely help people to cope with the stresses and strains of professional life, and that it made a tangible and in some cases immediate difference.  I started to discover that most people have far more potential than they realise, and that helping them to unlock it is a fulfilling and worthwhile thing to do.

I have an answer, at least, to the question of why I was born.  To help others fulfil their potential.

It won’t change the course of history, but for some people my help is significant.  I know because they tell me.  For me that’s enough.

Many of the people I work with have not worked out the answer to their “Why”.  They work long days, often feeling overwhelmed with what is asked of them.  They have increasingly fragile relationships at home because of the intrusion of work into their private lives.  And all for what?  I recently heard a Director telling a group: “We no longer have a work-life balance to manage.  We need to manage our work-life integration.”  Gulp.

I remember having dinner once with a middle manager who was about to hand in her resignation.  “I realise I’ve been burning myself out for the last 5 years trying to improve a customer invoicing process,” she told me.

I’m not dissing the contribution people make at work, many of whose jobs are of course repetitive, mundane, non negotiable and so on.  But if there is no meaning to them, that’s all they are.  Stuff.  A means to a pay cheque.  For those of us in leadership positions, how do you expect to motivate and inspire your people, if you’re not sure what the point is either?

SimonSinek_readSo how do you do about injecting meaning into your professional life?  Have a read of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” for a start, that should prompt some ideas.  Allow yourself to consider for a moment (a problem, I know, you don’t have a moment do you?), the bigger picture.

Where does your contribution fit in?  What happens if you succeed?  What happens if you fail?  And why should anybody care?

Or take it to the next level.  Ask yourself what your legacy is going to be.  What do you want to see engraved on your headstone when you die?

“He delivered the best customer satisfaction results in the south west two years running.”  I think not.

For further thought provoking material on this, I recommend Stephen Covey’s “The 8th Habit: from effectiveness to greatness.”    

You may have heard the story about President Kennedy’s visit to NASA in the 1960’s.  Whether it’s true or not, it makes the point nicely:

Kennedy toured the complex and met a man in overalls. “What do you do here?” he asked. The man replied, “I’m earning a living.” Kennedy nodded and moved on. He met another man in overalls and asked him the same question. “I clean away all the rubbish,” the man said. Kennedy smiled and strode on until he met another man in overalls and put the same question again. This time a big smile came across the face of the man who replied, “Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

At a leadership workshop recently a finance manager spent some time considering his “why”, and came up with this:

“My purpose is to make finance easy”.

Genius.  A reason to get up in the morning and have something to work towards.

I’d love to know what your “Why” is – please share!