Friday, March 11, 2011

Can You Answer the Question WHY?

I have to confess that I’m getting slightly tired of online bloggers who preach. There are those who preach you must work for yourself, while others preach a 4 hour work week, and others preach that you must travel. Still others preach you should only do work you are genuinely passionate about. I totally and completely appreciate their perspectives and I value the fact that they challenge people to think outside the status quo. And for the most part, I find myself inspired when I learn more about all the different ways that people design their life and their career.

But I think when it comes to you and your life, you don’t need to do anything any certain specific way. You don’t need to quit your job, you don’t need to sell your house and you don’t need to travel around the world. And sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to make a living off your passion. There are very few absolute recommendations that apply to everyone. The world is not that simple.

Here’s what I think you DO need to do. You need to know why you are living your life the way you are living it. I think that knowing WHY you are doing what you are doing with your life and being honest with yourself about your reasons is what really matters. I think is true for all of us.

For example, I work for a large corporation. If you ask the 11,000 people who work there why they work there, you might here some of these answers:

- Because I believe in the purpose of our company and I want to serve our customers
- Because it’s the only large employer in town
- Because it offers great salaries/benefits
- Because it offers long term job stability
- Because I love the work and/or my coworkers
- Because I need a stable paycheck
- Because I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do
- Because I can make more money there than other places in town
- Because I’m afraid to work for myself
- Because it’s comfortable and predictable
- Because I enjoy the challenge and diversity of the work 
- Because I'm too close to retirement to quit
- Because I’m using my time there to build my resume to go somewhere else

You can see from these answers that there would be a great deal of variability in how people respond. Some answers on that list are very honest.

What I care about when I work with people is NOT that they live their life a certain way, but that they absolutely know WHY they are doing what they are doing. I want people to have incredible self-awareness about their choices.

Ten years ago, I worked for a software start-up company that closed suddenly. Along with 100 other people, I was out of a job. But I was also in the middle of graduate school and the company that suddenly closed had been paying my tuition. So what did I do? I got a job at the only other company in town that offered tuition reimbursement, for the sole purpose of continuing my graduate degree. That is why I went to work for this company ten years ago. It was a very pragmatic decision on my part. After I finished my graduate degree, I stayed with this company for several reasons. The work was challenging and interesting. The opportunities for professional growth were huge. The people were mostly nice and sincere. The salary/benefits were generous. For the most part, I really loved my work.

But every year, I continually re-evaluate this decision. I ask myself a lot of questions to probe my only reasoning, and every year I weigh the pros and cons. I try never to take my work for granted, and above all, I never want to become complacent. 

However, I resist those people who would tell me that I’d be better off working for myself, and I resist those people who tell me that I’ve sold out to the corporation. As long as I know WHY I choose to work there, that is good enough for me, and it should be good enough for others. If I make my choices intentionally, then I find it difficult to accept the judgments of others. 

I have a coworker who hasn’t been very happy lately. He doesn’t really enjoy his work anymore, but he’s not completely miserable. He’s what I call comfortably numb – he’s become used to his current state, and he could continue this way for years without ever being really happy. If some of the preachy folks met him, they’d say he shouldn’t settle for work that doesn’t inspire him, and tell him to quit his job.

But here’s the thing. He has two elderly parents to support – and he is their primary source of financial support. And he feels a strong sense of responsibility to support his parents, and he appreciates the stability and benefits that come with this job. So if you asked him why he stays in a job he doesn’t love, he’d say that he stays because it’s the best way he knows to support his parents whom he loves.

He values his parents’ well-being, so he tolerates a less than perfect job. He knows that is the tradeoff he is making and he knows he is making a choice. He will tell you that if his circumstances with his parents were different, he would quit and do freelance work. But his circumstances aren’t different, they are what they are today. And he’s not bitter or resentful, he is very realistic and matter-of-fact about his situation.

Here’s a very different example. Several years ago I was working with a new team of diverse leaders and I started out conducting some 1 on 1 interviews with each of them. One of the questions I asked everyone was “How did you choose this particular career path?” I still remember one individual who looked at me with a blank stare. He didn’t understand the question. So I elaborated: “You know, after college, how did you decide that this was what you wanted to do, how did you decide to come work here and follow this career path?” He still didn’t get the question – I had really stumped him. So I tried a different tack, “What do you like about your current job?” He still couldn’t answer me. Finally he just explained that he never knew what he liked and he never had any idea of what he wanted to do. After college, a relative had helped him get this job, and he had just never thought about doing anything else. He didn’t know if he liked it or not, it was just a job and he would probably do it until he retired.

After that interview, I felt sad. I felt sad because he seemed completely passive about his life. He wasn’t unhappy so much as he was just unaware. But he’s not the only person like that. There are many people out there sleepwalking through life.

I hope you are not sleepwalking. I hope you are aware of the choices you are making. I hope that you could answer the question why? I hope you know these things:

- Why you are living in the particular town where you live
- Why you are working where you work
- Why you are in the relationship you are in
- Why your level of physical fitness is what it is today
- Why you have the amount of debt you have
- Why you spent your last weekend doing what you did

If you can answer all these questions, congratulations. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  If you can’t answer all of these, you might want to do some thinking or writing about these. 

Life is too short to sleepwalk.

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