I first heard this awkward question while attending university in Northern California.
Two of my professors lived next door to each other. Dr. Kassis was a much older, wise sage who had spent over 25 years with IBM and was now teaching from his deep well of experience. The other, Dr. Self, was a much younger, but brilliant man who had a very bright four-year-old son, Michael. Little Michael loved to have conversations with the elder Dr. Kassis.
On one occasion, Dr. Kassis asked Michael a series of questions. How old are you, Michael? What’s your favorite book? On and on the questions went. Each time Michael would fire back very articulate and well thought out responses (especially for a four-year-old). Then Dr. Kassis said, “Michael, I have one more question for you. Are you ready?”
“Yes sir!” Michael replied.
Dr. Kassis asked, “Michael, why are you?”
Michael had no response. He simply stared blankly at the professor for a long four seconds, then ran off yelling, “Mom! Dr. Kassis just asked me, 'Why are you?' and I don’t know!”
If you had to answer this odd question, could you do it? Most of us might give that same blank stare that little Michael gave, realizing we really don’t know why we are, or, said differently, why we exist.
Answering the why question can have a profound impact on the way you do business, family, relationships and, essentially, life itself.
In his fascinating book, "Start with Why," Simon Sinek states, “The discovery of why completely changed my view of the world, and discovering my own why restored passion to a degree multiple times greater than at any other time in my life.”
Over the past three years serving in various companies throughout China, I have asked the why question to dozens and dozens of senior leaders, followed by three additional questions.
- Why are you?
- What do you believe?
- Why do you believe what you believe?
- Do you have a strategy to live out your beliefs?
For well over 90 percent of these seasoned, accomplished leaders, this was the first time they had ever done an exercise like this. In the pursuit of achievement, they had never paused to think through and answer these questions — personally, not on behalf of their companies.
Defining Your Personal Beliefs and Values
In order to answer the why-am-I questions — Why am I a parent? Why am I a boss? Why am I an expat living in China? — you must first get clues from the second question: What do I believe?
Have you taken time to think through your beliefs? Whether you have or not may have no bearing on your life, since we all intrinsically demonstrate our beliefs by how we live and what we value. But what if you did take time to think through and write out your beliefs? Would your life be in sync with your beliefs?
Here is a simple exercise you can do on your own. Write down two or three of your beliefs on the major categories of your life: work, money, family, relationship, education, perhaps even God. Next, as a result of identifying your beliefs, write down your values, those things you deem important.
As an example, if you believe work is a means to have a great life and your family relationships are core to a great life, you might then value investing time with your family, resulting in your getting home at a reasonable hour each night.
The True-Up: Are You Living in Sync with Your Beliefs?
How do you know if you are really being true to what you believe and value? Here's another quick exercise that will immediately provide your answers.
You've just been informed that one year from tonight at 11:30 p.m. you will expire, cease to live. You'll go very peacefully, no pain or struggle, and there is nothing you can do about it. The only catch is no one can know. Not your spouse, family, friends, boss, priest, colleagues, no one. Should you tell anyone in any way, you immediately expire — game over, you die.
Now, take time to think through each area of your life. Decide what you will change, what you will begin and what you will stop doing.
For many who have gone through this exercise, the results have been profound! Two CEOs shortly afterwards chose to step down from their positions. Realizing they were not where they wanted to be, they both made courageous decisions to do something about it.
What about you? Do you know why you exist? What you believe? Maybe this simple exercise will change your life — causing you to thrive!
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About the Author
Tim MacDonald joined OneAccord as a Principal in 2018. He brought with him more than 25 years of senior management experience having served in small, medium and global companies as president, vice president of sales and vice president of operations. His accomplishments include exponential growth and bringing struggling companies back from the brink.
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