Photo by Patrik Nygren
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By Anthony McDougle, April 27, 2015

What sorts of things are you trying to accomplish in your life right now?  What are your dreams, goals, and pursuits? What is the purpose in what you’re doing right now?

Most businesses and people will answer this by describing themselves from the outside in. That is, if you ask them the question above, they will answer with specifically what they are doing right now. Think about it: whenever you’ve met someone new, I’ll bet you asked the basic “get-to-know-you” question, “What is it that you do?” Chances are, they answered literally – “I’m a software developer” or “my company sells health insurance.”

There is a clear focus on the activity itself in most people’s minds.

Why a person or business does that activity is a much more difficult question to answer – and a much more important one. I’m sure only a small fraction of people or companies truly understand why they do what they do. And I’m not talking about “making money” – that’s the obvious (and short-term minded) reason! If that’s the only reason you’re doing an activity, it’s probably high time you sat down and started thinking about your life and your future.

A Sense of Purpose

Those who understand their why understand their purpose, and this gives them a driving mindset that ensures their future actions and decisions will be clear and easy.

For example, Microsoft’s purpose is to “enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential” and you’ve probably heard (in a leadership class of some kind, maybe?) about Walt Disney’s vision to be the leading provider of entertainment. Steve Jobs had a powerful vision — “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind” — but when Tim Cook took over and redefined Apple’s mission as “designing Macs […] OSX, iLife, […] iPods and iTunes online store…” the company’s stock and overall value fell through the floor for a while! After all, that’s not a purpose – it’s a product line.

Finding your “why” does more than just give you a sense of purpose. It helps you stay on track through the tough times. It helps you to “pivot” – both in business and in everyday life – if you understand the driving force behind what you’re doing.

If you’re building a business around an app, and it fails, you’ll struggle to move on. But if you’re building a business with a purpose, and using the app as a tool to accomplish the goal, you’ll likely be able to pivot and find a new way to fulfill that purpose if something goes wrong. It’s all about having the right mindset!

Similarly, in your personal life, when you’ve chosen a career path and are learning specific skills with the intent of specializing and climbing the ladder at your current position for the sake of the money – if you lose that job, you’re likely to struggle. On a related note, if you’re in it for the money, but you don’t find the work you do interesting and fulfilling, you’re likely going to get burnt out and even start hating your job!  However, if you pursue a career path with the intent on bringing value to yourself and others using skills you harness, adjusting along the way when provided with new information, you’ll probably be able to adapt if the world changes.

For example, it’s important for developers to keep up with the times when it comes to programming. Rather than just specializing in PHP or C#, for example, and learning the intimate details of that language’s syntax, it’s better to understand how programming works and the different (and emerging) programming styles and paradigms. Then, if your chosen language becomes obsolete, it’s a simple act to start using a newer, more cutting-edge language just by learning a new syntax! You can always look up how that explode() function works when you need it.

It’s also a very good idea to pursue skills outside your core competence but peripheral to your specialty – that means all of you software developers oughtta learn things unrelated to programming! Communication and sales, for example, is highly useful to everyone, regardless of profession.

Setting Goals

Around New Years, the world becomes obsessed with goals. Suddenly, everyone wants to improve themselves in some way. So, they decide to lose 10 lb. or learn a new skill. If you ask them why, the only response you’ll get is generally something like, “Because it’s my New Year’s Resolution!” They don’t have a real reason to accomplish the goal, it doesn’t fulfill a true purpose in their lives – and, inevitably, they drop the goal because it gets too hard, or something with a higher priority takes over.

Now, I’m not at all opposed to goals. I love goals. I’m an incredibly goal-driven person. I don’t generally do New Year’s Resolutions (simply because I already have too many goals I’m working to accomplish in order to improve my life already) but there’s nothing wrong with a little goal setting for the sake of self-improvement.  Goals are important because, without them, you cannot build the systems necessary to achieve a result. Without goals, we as a people would be without focus, and everything – all of our successes, all of our progression and improvement – would happen at complete random.

However, the goal is nothing for the sake of itself. Deciding to lose 10 lb. just because you need a goal really doesn’t mean much if you’re not all that motivated to actually lose the weight. Wanting to learn to play the guitar doesn’t mean you’ll actually learn if you’re not really all that passionate about it. That’s where the why comes in.

Rather than searching for a goal to set, search for a purpose – something in your life you need to improve upon. And even improvement for the sake of improvement isn’t really all that helpful – you’re not going to care much about improving that aspect of your life if you’re perfectly happy (or at least content) with it in its current state. Instead, it’s important to think of an area where you struggle, and work to fix that. Avoiding health issues (or improving self-confidence) are great reasons to start getting (or staying) in shape. Having more control over your life, your schedule, and your future are great reasons to start a business.

It’s also very important to discover the purpose in your career or business. What need are you satisfying for your employer or customers? Is it something that truly adds value, or even better, something they need? Furthermore, what value are you creating in your own life by doing what you do? How can you fulfill all of those needs better? Note that I did not ask how you can do your work better – you must understand how to add more value.

Once you have the reason, that’s when you set the goal! Work backwards from your why to define your what.

What Are My “Whys”?

I have my own personal “Whys,” of course. I want to escape from the cubicle one day, and have more time to spend with my friends and family, pursuing hobbies – so I work to build a business. I never want to become a middle-aged, out-of-shape guy with a rising health insurance bill and unable to play sports – so I make it a habit to hit the gym and eat healthy as much as possible.

However, what really prompted me to finish this blog entry (which has honestly been sitting in my Evernote queue for almost a year) was a recent discussion I had with my father/mentor about the future of The Benefit X-Change.

Due to some recent healthcare-related events in the news, there may be a change in the way the government handles the new Obamacare laws – which has a direct effect on our healthcare-related application! So, we were talking one day about how this decision would change the way we implement certain things, and how it might also affect our marketing scheme. As we talked, the course of the discussion changed a bit, as many discussions will do – and we ended up realizing that we had been focusing on all of the wrong things! We were pursuing the business for the sake of the app, when we should be thinking first about how to help our customers, and then how the app might be used to achieve that end.

See, my father’s past businesses had been built around providing value to clients. That is the message that he taught all of his salespeople as they went through his training program – to find the best product to fit the client’s needs. And, actually, the decision to promote a particular line of health insurance products — mostly provided by United American, for those interested — was not a choice based primarily on profit. The products worked very differently from the standard “major medical” policies that the average consumer was used to, and required them to think outside of the box to understand it. This made it a much harder sale – agents would have to explain how it worked and the benefits, rather than just pointing out the deductible and saying, “sign here.”

But because of that, most of the sales that did happen became long-term clients – there was very little turnover! For most of his career – until the recent federal healthcare revisions – my father kept nearly all of the clients who had purchased one of these United American policies. For those not well-acquainted with the health insurance industry, this is rare – most customers cancel their individual insurance policies within a few years (due to rate increases or simply being dropped for having too many health problems) in search of a new one. This didn’t happen with the product line my father was promoting because it was actually more beneficial to the customer – better coverage, no rate increases, and the policy itself was simply less opaque and easier to understand if you actually tried. Customers actually liked — or could at least tolerate long-term — their insurance company!

So, with the next iteration of The Benefit X-Change, we will be going back to that mentality – our goal will be to hook our clients up with the best product possible, even if we have to try harder to make sure they understand why it’s better. We will continue to use the app, of course, and we shouldn’t necessarily need to scrap any of our work – but we will be rolling out a new marketing scheme and adding new features to the app, focusing on promoting and explaining a new line of products that are focused on making it easier for the consumer.

And with the purpose of adding value for the consumer as our why, we hope to make the business even better than before.

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