In business, career, and life plans, one common factor exists that determines whether such a plan is strategic or not. What is this X factor?
It is PURPOSE.
Most plans of any type lack purpose. Purpose is the end game you are trying to achieve. It is the “WHY” behind any plan — at least it should be.
The purpose of purpose is to provide direction.
How can you tell if you have a clear purpose or not?
Here’s a simple test:
If you struggle to make a decision between two well-understood options, then most likely your purpose is unclear.
If you can enter two different markets, but can’t decide between the two even after researching them thoroughly, most likely your purpose is unclear.
If you can’t decide between two job offers even after researching them thoroughly, then most likely your purpose is unclear.
If you can’t decide between living in two different cities, even after understanding both options, then most likely your purpose is not clear.
When you have purpose, decisions become surprisingly easy.
You pick the option that gets you closer to your end game. When your end game is clear (extremely clear), the decision is usually obvious.
In my work, I come across those just entering the work force, those in the work force for some time but who are unhappy, and veteran entrepreneurs in their 50s -- all of whom are “stuck” in their careers for one reason or another.
In my client work, I’ve told prospective clients for most of the last 10 years, "If you know what your goal is, I am quite good at helping you figure out an effective path to get there.
"But, if you don’t know what your goal is, I can’t help you." (Though I often refer such prospective clients to colleagues who can help them get clarity).
In other words, if you are starting at Point A and you want to get to Point Z, I can map out a strategic plan and course of action to get you there. But, if you are at Point A and have no idea where you want to end up, then my expertise is pretty useless until that has been defined.
Here’s another test to determine someone has a clearly defined purpose:
When someone states their goal, I ask them WHY that is their goal.
Regardless of the answer I get, I ask them WHY their answer to my question is important to them.
For example, someone might say, “I really want to work in management consulting.”
I say, “Okay. Why?”
They say, “Because it sounds like interesting work.”
I say, “Okay, why is that important to you?”
I will basically say "why" all day long to try to uncover someone’s underlying reasoning behind their reasons.
What happens quite frequently is at some point in the process, most people can’t answer the deceptively simply (but in reality, quite profound) question of “Why?”
I recently had a client tell me she had a goal of building a business with $X million in sales. I asked why?
She said, “Because it’s the next level.”
I said, “Why is achieving the next level important?”
“Because it is.”
“I understand it is, but WHY is it?”
“Do you need the money to buy something?”
“No, I already earn enough to buy everything I need.”
“So WHY is $X million so important to you?
“If you built a business that earned $(X - 1) Million, would you consider that a failure?”
She then responds, embarrassingly but honestly, “Yes…”
In this case, what I suspected was the purpose of her purpose was not one financial or strategic in nature, but largely emotionally symbolic. For some reason, not yet clear to me or her, the $X million had some symbolic meaning beyond its financial or strategic value.
A clear purpose helps enormously in identifying alternative and often unconventional ways to achieve your purpose.
I once remember Tony Robbins talking about one of his exclusive retreats in Fiji. Tony was taking a walk on a nearby beach when he ran into an old man who lived nearby all his life. The old man asked why all of these foreigners were in Fiji learning from Tony.
Tony responded that they were there to take control of their financial lives and to build wealth. And the local man asked, “Why?”
“So they can accumulate assets, to generate income without having to work.”
The old man responded, “And why do they want to do that?”
“So someday they can stop working entirely, and retire, and spend every day at the beach.”
In response, the old man said, “Well I’m not rich, I’ve worked all my life, and I've spent at least part of every day at the beach for my entire life.”
Isn’t that a thought provoking dialog?
When it comes to careers, most people are wedded to “The Path” — common popular career paths such as consulting, investment banking, law, medicine, etc.
There’s nothing fundamentally right or wrong with these paths. Whether these paths are good choices depends in large part on each individual’s purpose.
For some, management consulting is a phenomenal path. For others, it’s a completely disastrous idea. It all depends on your purpose.
I routinely get emails from readers looking for help in deciding between career path A vs. B, or job offer A vs. B. Invariably, I’m sure they are disappointed in my reply. In nearly every case, I ask, “What is your goal?”
What I find noteworthy is many people don’t know the answer to that question.
So what do you do when you don’t have a sense of purpose that is all your own? How do you figure out what you want out of your life?
Often this happens to people who have spent their whole lives based on what others (parents, siblings, peers) want for their lives.
If this describes you, here are a few tools you might find helpful.
1) If you don’t know what you want, then you damn well better know what you do not want (and at a minimum stop focusing there).
2) If you don’t know what you want, it helps enormously to invest time in exploring a wide range of options. Go visit people (alumni from your university are great for this) in different professions and see what a day in their lives looks like. You might not find out what you want, but you will most certainly figure out what you do not want.
3) Keep asking yourself what you want, even if each time you ask, you don’t get an answer.
I’m using this latter approach with one of my daughters. A year ago, I would ask her what she wanted to eat for dinner. She would never give me an answer and would just say, “whatever everyone else wants.”
When I would push her on the question, it eventually became clear to me that she literally had no idea what she wanted to eat for dinner.
When I saw this pattern repeat several times, I immediately linked this to readers who have written to me about their careers and were unable to respond to the question of "what’s your career goal?"
I extrapolated that if she couldn’t answer the question of “what do you want for dinner?” as a 6-year-old, as a 26-year-old she would probably have difficulty answering the question, “What do you want for your life or career?”
What I’ve found helpful with her is to do the following.
I would ask her what she wanted for dinner when everybody else in the family was not present. So when she would say, “whatever everyone else wants,” I’d say, “well nobody else is here, just you.”
“What do you want?”
The first 5 or 6 times I did this, all I ever got back in response was silence and a shrug of the shoulders.
Around the 6th or 7th time, I would (barely) get what I call a “non”-answer out of her. She would say, “I don’t know, but I do not want X.”
"Okay, you do not want X. We’re not going to eat X tonight."
After many months of working with her on this, she now actually knows what she wants for dinner and can verbalize it.
The takeaway I got from this experience was that the act of asking the question, “What do you want?”, even when there was no immediate answer, prompted her (and others) to continually think about the question and build up the self-awareness needed to answer the question in the future.
Sometimes it takes weeks or months for someone unaccustomed to answering a particular question to develop their own thoughts and feelings about it.
(I personally think the human mind abhors a vacuum, and tries to fill it.)
I see this with my clients all the time. I will ask them a “why” question that they just can’t answer.
They will ponder the question, in some cases for months.
Their inability to answer a very simple question bugs them a lot.
So they start thinking about the question over several days, weeks, and months, until they eventually are able to answer it. (Though often the initial answers are “non”-answers -- e.g., they figure out what they do not want, before they figure out what they do want.)
If you sense the purpose of your career and life is unclear, I strongly urge you to not avoid the uncomfortable question.
By keeping the difficult-to-answer question present in your mind, your mind will dislike the discomfort it causes and do one of two things:
1) It will try to avoid the discomfort by avoiding the question.
2) Your mind will seek to resolve the discomfort by seeking an answer.
When you deliberately do not let yourself avoid the question, you force your mind to find the answer. You will definitely find the answer... eventually — though the path to do so might not be easily predictable in advance.
I’ll close today with a quote attributed to Socrates: “An unexamined life is one not worth living.”
I’ll add my corollary that, “an unexamined life is existing, but it is not living (your life).”