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Finding your “Why”: How To Write Your Powerful Personal Story
A few years ago, my stylist Laurie (who I love and adore as an expert of hair and a person) revealed she was striking out on her own and launching her first business. Drawn to new business owners like a fly to a popsicle, I squealed with delight and felt the burning urge to pepper her with questions.
Was she excited? What was she worried about? Did she know where she wanted to take the business?
I can’t help myself with new business owners. I just want to give them advice – sometimes advice they rarely want or need.
In them, I see the person I was when we first started Javelina back in 2012. If I could go back and tell myself what I know now, I’d save myself some trouble and headaches. But anytime you start something new, there’s this wonderful time at the beginning when you don’t know what you don’t know and you just enjoy the process. You might be making it up as you go along, but it’s so much fun. And it works.
So, I consciously cooled it on the questions and kept my feedback simple.
“If I could tell you only one thing, it would be to figure out why you do what you do.”
This is important for three essential reasons:
1. Knowing what you want to do will be your motivation when things are great, when things are terrifying and when things are so uncertain.
2. It serves as a roadmap of sorts for when moments come up that you don’t know how to navigate. Your core reason for what you do tells you what is important to you, which will often help you decide which path to take when there is a fork in the road.
3. People are drawn to your deeply-held motivation in a powerful way. Understanding and communicating your why will help you achieve your goals more than any other thing you could do.
Recently, more people have been wising up to the importance of finding their why. The Simon Sinek video has tens of millions of views, and a growing list of businesses have a social cause or mission that complements turning a profit.
But you know what no one tells you? How to FIND your why.
How do you begin to write your story?
We all have a story that has made us who we are—a story that has shaped who we want to be in the world and how we want to impact it. But you likely don’t know what it is, because it’s such a part of you that it’s hard to see. For you, the experiences that define your worldview aren’t a “story”; it’s just your life. Your story may feel like a series of events that tangle together in an indistinguishable web to make you who you are. Understanding your story is like trying to see individual particles in an object. The particles are all there, whizzing around making the object what it is, but they are invisible to the human eye. You see only the sum of the parts.
Inside of each of us is our why, and with some detective work, you can find yours. But before you embark on your mission, you will need the following:
1. Time. I can’t tell you how long this process will take. It could be minutes or could be much longer than that. Patience is essential – you’ll know when you’ve found your why.
2. Buddies. Whether it’s your business partner, spouse, a friend, or a coach, you’ll need people to bounce your ideas off of and talk things through with. Identify people who will challenge you.
3. An open mind. Detective work is most effective when you don’t decide what the outcome is going to be before you even start.
There are many techniques to find your why, but I want to share two that I have found to be the most powerful.
The first is how I helped Laurie find her why. The second is how I found my own.
“Why are you a hair stylist?” I asked Laurie. “To make someone’s day,” she said. “They come and they sit in my chair, and I get to make them feel pretty and special.”
“Why is that important?” I asked. “Because you never know what someone is going through,” said Laurie. “I might not know it, but I might be the best part of someone’s day.”
“And why does that matter?” I inquired. She screwed her face up in concentration, confused as to why I was asking the same question over and over. She humored me. “
“Ummmmm……because……because how you feel about how you look shapes so much of how you live your life. And if I can make someone feel better about their appearance, I will be the best part of their day, but I’ll impact their life too.”
“So why does THAT matter?” I asked.
“Because people don’t do everything that they can do because they don’t believe in themselves,” Laurie replied. “They just go through life. They don’t know what they’re capable of.”
“And why is that important?” I asked.
“Because people can live full lives!” she exclaimed. “I do what I do so people can live full lives instead of just existing!”
Her whole body lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I need to write that down!” she said, throwing down the comb and scissors she was holding, and running to get her notebook as fast as she physically could. Like I told you, you know when you’ve found your why.
Some people say if you ask “Why do you do what you do?” five times, you’ll find the true, core reason. Others say it takes seven “why’s”. I have done this exercise with a few people, and sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less. But you know when you find the right answer. It feels like ice cream hitting a sensitive tooth.
How I found my why
I found my why last summer when I was nominated for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce Athena award. Going through the application process forced me to consider: why do I do what I do? Or put another way: what is my story?
It was a painful process, which quite honestly, I hated. Trying to break apart the tangled web of your experiences to find the thing that makes you you is hard. It’s unnatural, really.
In writing, rewriting and practicing answers to questions about my work, everything fell into place. My vision, my motivations, and my story came out of me. But, I didn’t have a lightning bolt moment like Laurie. Mine came out of me slowly and gradually. I refined and tweaked my story. Then, I talked about my story with my closest people and I thought about it a lot. But I knew I was on the right track and I knew when I had found the right words to explain it. Finding my why felt like when you’ve tried five different keys in a lock, and when you put in the right one, the door swings open in front of you. All the frustration just goes away.
The most powerful combination is when you can articulate what your why is and how your experiences gave you that why.
The most influential person in my life has been my older brother, Rory. Rory and I spent just six months together before he died in an accident. And while I didn’t realize it until later in my life, Rory has made me who I am today. Because it seems to me that the playing field isn’t even. So much of what we can do in life is predetermined by our race, gender, the country we grow up in, and the things that happen to us and our families. I do what I do so that I can give more people an equal shot at life. By supporting people, policies and organizations that want to advance equality and kindness too, I will even out that playing field. Even if the change is just a millimeter, think how many lives would be forever different.
This is my why. It’s what keeps me going on bad days, and it helps me make tough decisions. It’s what helps guide how I talk about myself (see my post on self-promotion). It’s what motivates me to bare all in this blog, and it’s what drives me to build Javelina into a globally impactful business.
Finding your why isn’t easy, but it is simple. Arm yourself with some time, your buddies and an open mind and go find it. I can promise you one thing – you’ll know it when you do.
Catherine Alonzo is the CEO and founding partner of Javelina, a company that brings brand experience to life for non-profits, businesses, campaigns and individuals. Having played a pivotal role in growing Javelina into a leading branding and marketing firm, Catherine specializes in effective messaging, brand development and business strategic planning.
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