This question is a powerful tool in your career development in two ways. Let me explain why asking yourself “Why am I doing this now?” is not as strange as it seems. Simon Sinek’s books and videos have shown us the value of knowing why: to motivate ourselves and organisations to achievement and change. Let’s explore how it can help your ongoing career development.
Why do they call it rush hour when nothing happens?
Working on your own career development is a daily task. Besides learning every day, you are making micro-choices about what you do and how you do it. If you’re aligning your choices to an objective (a next role, a valuable experience, short assignment etc.), you’re more likely to make the progress you are looking for. It’s a core element of leading yourself: being aware of your context and making intentional, appropriate choices to act.
Are you working on autopilot much of the time? Are you very busy and productive. Are are in that reassuringly busy state that shows the world you are needed and a necessary part of the team. Then you may have not made the connection to your Why. Why are you busy and seeking to be busy every hour of the day, and why do you feel comfortable when you are busy?
When I ask, "Why are you doing that right now?" I often get back a puzzled look. The answer does not come easily to many people. They’re doing it but don't know why. I can see them searching for the answer when I ask. This response is not professional. They have not clarified why they are doing the task, before they get busy. The response “I’m doing my job” or “I’m doing what is expected of me.” Is not an answer; it’s telling me “I don’t know”. It can be translated as “I'm just producing my part of a widget and then chucking the result over the wall to the next guy.”
Why did you accept that task? Why did you prioritise that task over another? Why didn’t you delegate that task? can be equally revealing.
If you know Why you are doing it; if you have asked somebody who’s given you a task, "Why am I doing this? What’s the purpose? What’s the value of this to the organisation?" then the answer gives you the context, doesn’t it? It enables you to take a position of ownership within the organisation, because once you know why, you can sense when things are starting to go wrong and do something about it. You can take up your accountability rather that have it thrust upon you after the fact.
You can tell the colleague further up the process chain "What you’re sending me is not quite in line with what we've all eventually got to produce." And certainly, when you chuck your piece of stuff over the wall, you’re going to give the colleague on the other side a call and check in, right? You are going to make sure that you have not just satisfied the spec. or the operating procedure; you have considered the intangibles that satisfy the next in the chain and the ultimate customer. So always be centred on the Why. Understand why you’re doing something.
Knowing Why helps you do better work. It makes you a better colleague, a better boss and business partner.
That was for the specific day-to-day. Now for the strategic answer.
Why - in the big picture - are you doing this is:
“Why are you doing this job… in this firm... at this time of your life?” Your Why is your motivation.
Do you reflect on what is motivating you and how it has evolved over your life? Are you in touch with what’s driving you? If you are not in touch with your motivation you may be working against yourself. When we talk about motivation in school, we talk in terms of Maslow's hierarchy or Herzberg’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
I extend these models when I talk to my clients about what motivates them. Financial gain has gotten a lot of bad press since the financial crisis. But, let’s be honest with ourselves, especially when we're young, we need to aggregate capital. Financial gain is important to us. Other motivators include Autonomy, Security, Prestige, Power & Influence, Recognition, Intellectual Challenge, Variety, Affiliation, Mastery, Fun/Hedonism and Altruism/Purpose.
We’re all motivated by a mix of factors and they change over time. It’s not unusual to see Altruism or Purpose replace Financial Gain later in the career, but it doesn't have to be like that. Different things will drive you. Motivation is a broad topic and I will not explore it extensively here.
In this advice, I'm urging you to be in touch with what's driving you; to be in contact with yourself, to reflect, reflect, and reflect again on what experiences of work draw you in. Be in touch with your Why so you can cultivate it and rely on it when you face new opportunities or challenges. Not only for work: I stress it with my students. Be honest with yourself about why you're here, doing this program now. Why are you aiming for the job you’re aiming for? Align the thrust of your motivation with the vector you must travel to reach your objective.
Ask yourself why, before someone else does.