STOP Asking What…and Start asking WHY

The following is written by longtime Silicon Valley watchers Chris Shipley and Heather McGowan. It first appeared on LinkedIn. This is part 1 of 2. 

We ask young people : “WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?”

We ask university students : “WHAT is your major?”

We ask each other : “So, WHAT do you do [for a living is implied]?

Each of these questions, in its own way, promises a future directed toward and shaped by a job. Increasingly, the answers inevitably point to a job that may never be there.

How can children dream of a career when more than half the work available to them in their adulthood has not yet been conceived?

How can we encourage college students to assume great debt to acquire a set of skills and base of knowledge for jobs that will evaporate before that debt is paid?

How will workers describe themselves when they have become unbundled from traditional corporate jobs or cobble together an income from multiple sources? (For more on this, see our Jobs Are Over blog series.)

Recently, Thomas Friedman has taken to help us make these questions extinct.

The Dangers of the Frozen or Fixed Identity

Still, we ask each other “what” using ambition and work as the proxy for identity and status. They are questions that may have worked at one time in our history as we rode an escalator from learning through career development and on to a happy retirement. These “what” questions calcified one’s identity in a system of education and work that ran like a pipeline from school to factory and corporation, a system that worked well enough in a slowly evolving economy, but one that will fail us desperately as we experience the greatest velocity of change in human history. The escalator is now gone! Now, we must traverse a terrain of broken steps in order to craft our career arc. To do so, we will need different skills and an entirely new agile learning mindset.

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Not the WHAT but the WHY and HOW

In one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time (“How Great Leaders Inspire Action”), Simon Sinek shares a simple and brilliant insight for corporations: to communicate to and inspire customers, forget WHAT you do and focus on the WHY. His book, “Start With Why?”, has sold millions of copies. In it he tells us that most companies are quickly able to tell you WHAT they do – they make products or services. In other words, they apply their skills and expertise to produce a unit of value. Some companies are able to tell you HOW they create value – the method by which they produce that unit of value. The truly great companies, however, can tell you WHY they do and produce whatever they do. Their WHY is the reason they exist and describes how the world looks different because they do. Sinek’s message to companies, more importantly, applies to individuals as they consider their learning and career trajectories.

(to be continued…)

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