I’ve been running my own business for the last six and a half years, and I’ve felt very lost for so much of that time. On my quest for a sense of purpose, I kept stumbling upon the well-intentioned words and teachings of Simon Sinek: “Start with why”.
But what do you do when your “why” isn’t something you can talk about in public? What happens when your “why” is born from desperation and limited means and circumstances? What if you took the least-worst option, and that’s how your business began? It’s probably not going to make a very inspirational TED Talk, right?
I’ve met many people with a truly admirable “why”: They wanted to teach people how to live happier/more productive/healthier lives. They created environmentally-friendly products or started charities to give back to their communities. Some of them had been to hell and back, and now they were helping others climb out, too. Those are the kind of “why”s we hear about on stages and in books, and for good reason. Those are tales of inspiration, not desperation.
Sometimes a “why” isn’t a marketable statement
What about the rest of us? Because honestly, I didn’t start a business to serve a greater purpose. I started a business working just a few hours a week (as much as I was able) to survive fluctuating mental and physical health challenges that made me an objectively terrible employee. That was my “why”.
And I know I’m not alone, as I’ve met other freelancers and entrepreneurs struggling with their circumstances, too. Like me, they need something to fit around their challenge – chronic illness, limited mobility, carer responsibilities, and so on. The flexibility of working for themselves wasn’t a “bonus; it was a necessity.
I’d love to be a corporate go-getter, but I’ve crashed enough times to know that I have to pace myself, often in ways that don’t mesh well with typical employment. Unfortunately, “this business exists to serve my personal needs” doesn’t land well in the ears of potential clients, despite its raw honesty. While I have been this brutally honest with a number of trusted colleagues and clients over the years, it’s not something I’ve felt comfortable leading with when a new acquaintance asks: “so, how did you find yourself in business?”
So, what can you do when “I’m just surviving” doesn’t make a good tagline?
You need a second “why”.
No one said you could only have one “why”
My second “why” came in the form of a pivot – both in terms of my focus and business format. I’ve been building websites for freelancers and small business owners for years and have enjoyed it, but I was missing a huge part of the formula required for their success. I built them a website, but they needed a process that could work for them beyond the launch – and often, their budgets were too small for a full-service solution, even if I’d lowered my prices.
I realised that what I want is to enable my clients to help themselves long-term so that their website (whether I’d built it or not) would fit into a bigger plan – generating leads and winning them the business they need. A website without traffic is a dead website – and I hated the thought that I’d sold them something that they weren’t utilising to the fullest.
I realised that:
- I want to teach my skills so they feel capable.
- I want to empower them with nifty tools to make their business and marketing tasks easier.
- I want to build their confidence in their message and help them communicate it effectively.
- I want to help them create so that they can thrive.
Those desires became my new “why”.
Full disclosure: I’m lucky that I was in a position to be able to shift my angle like this, and it wasn’t without the need for major upskilling in certain areas to enable it to happen. But I didn’t just shift my approach solely to help others – it also serves me better too. It hits that sweet spot between “I love what I do because it has a purpose” and “what I do serves a good purpose for me”.
Choose another “why” that helps others – and drives you
I don’t believe we have to “find” our path – I believe we have to create it. What mattered to us five years ago may not be enough to drive us forward with determination and passion anymore. It might mean taking your business in a new and scary direction – or retracing your steps to figure out where you’ve lost sight of its original purpose.
You can (and probably even should) have more than one “why” that enables you to work effectively and feel passionate about your work. Maybe we want to offer our unique experience and spend more time with family – or serve a cause and avoid corporate burnout.
Sometimes a “why” won’t be something you get to choose, but you should always choose at least one more that you feel good about. I still need to work around my own limitations, but I’m okay with that as long as my other “why” is bigger than just myself and my own needs.
I’m more excited about my work these days because I’m not only creating “despite”; I’m creating “because”. And that’s a heck of a lot easier to get out of bed for on a challenging day.
Your “why” might come from a lightbulb moment of brutal truth, a period of gratitude-filled self-reflection, a desire to help and/or teach others things you wish you’d have known earlier in your journey, or a cause that deeply matters to you that can be supported, directly or indirectly, by your business.
One thing is for sure: a “why” will always be more powerful if it’s something we can choose.