The most popular TED Talk ever given was How Great Leaders Inspire Action, presented by Simon Sinek in 2009. Like most budding business owners, I was inspired. This video changed my perspective on my business.
“People don’t buy what you do,” he says, “They buy why you do it.”
Finding your “Why” is a hot topic among the self-employed. Running your own business will beat you down time and time again, and it’s vital to have a North Star that keeps you moving.
After watching the video a few years ago, I came to my first “Why”: I wanted to have a lifestyle that allowed for personal growth. I wanted time and flexibility to pursue my interests while still making a living. In other words, I wanted freedom.
That Why was enough to drive me to leave the workplace (twice!) and start freelancing. But as it turns out, that Why wasn’t enough to build a strong business. I was running away from restrictions, but I wasn’t actually clear on what I was running towards. As a result, I ended up building a business that I didn’t actually love.
Your Why will evolve—and that’s okay
In time, I found a direction to pursue. I wanted to help small business owners. Many small business owners don’t have the ability to hire employees right off the bat. I could seek them out specifically and use my copywriting skills as a freelancer to help them grow their businesses.
It worked for a while. With this goal in mind, I had my first breakthrough month where my monthly freelancing income was higher than I had made at my previous full-time position.
However, as much as I love working with these individuals, I never felt connected to a higher purpose. What was the end goal? What difference was I trying to make in the world?
So once again, it was time to rethink.
Finding a Why that works
Finding your Why is an exercise in triangulation. You will approach it, maybe you’ll overshoot it—but next time you’ll get closer.
I have come to realize, however, that a Why is rarely as simple as a single phrase or idea. Your Why might be “supporting my family.” But then, why run your own business? Pursuing a good job is likely a more stable route to higher income if that’s your only reason.
So then your Why might be “supporting my family AND spending more time with them”—but any self-employed pursuit can give you more time with your family if you have the right processes in place; why choose this specialty, specifically?
Why are you a copywriter, a designer, a strategist? Why do you run your business the way you do? What end goal do you wish to bring about?
I was recently inspired by a few journaling prompts while watching a video from YouTuber Rowena Tsai: How would you like to be remembered after you die? And What would you like to have accomplished in your life?
Those questions made me realize that finding a Why for your business is often the same as finding a Why for your life overall. In order to build a business that felt aligned with my values, I needed to have a Why that was much bigger than what I had been imagining.
After some consideration, I landed on three key motivations for why I do what I do:
- I want to help people find happiness. To me, this means helping them recognize their ability to craft their own lives, and giving them the tools to do so.
- I want to help our society become more open and tolerant. This means leading by example and having the tough (but empathetic) conversations that plant seeds of change.
- I want to help people live more in tune with themselves and with nature. I believe a whole lot of problems could be solved if we took more time to examine our responsibilities toward our planet, toward one another, and toward ourselves.
I also want to build a business that brings in a healthy income and utilizes my skills, of course. But “using my skills” isn’t what actually gets me out of bed every morning. For me, there’s got to be something more.
I’ll add a side note here, that if you’re thinking money is one of your primary Whys, there’s nothing wrong with that—but I’d encourage you to dig deeper. What, exactly, do you want the money for? Is it about being able to pay the bills? Is it the ability to buy cool things? Go on big trips? Have a stronger sense of security?
Money is a much bigger topic, but at this point I’d simply say to keep that reason beyond the mere dollar signs in mind. Money is a tool. What you plan to do with it is likely much closer to your core.
What are you working towards?
Your Whys will probably be very different from mine. In fact, they should be—we’re different people.
But a good indicator you’re on the right track will be a feeling that these statements are not only motivating, but they’re almost intrinsic to who you are. Your strongest Whys will likely be closely intertwined with your deepest values.
A lot of folks are focused on building a profitable business as quickly as possible. With that as your only goal, you can definitely make waves. At least in the short term.
But I can’t help but think that when you’re running a business that’s aligned with your Why, you’re running the most profitable business of all.