Understand Your WHY to Boost Your Happiness and Motivation

Edmond Lau

Edmond Lau

Co-founder of Co Leadership. Author of The Effective Engineer.

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What makes some people excited to go to work every day while others can't wait for the work day to end? What determines whether you find deep fulfillment from your work or see work just as a way pay the bills? What motivates people to take initiative or just to do what they're assigned?

I used to think that finding meaning in my work was largely influenced by being part of a company with a compelling mission.

When I worked at Quora, our mission was to grow and share the world's knowledge. [1] Given my own personal love of learning, the idea of building an Internet-scale library of Alexandria would often light me up. But even in that context, there were some times when I'd struggle with staying motivated and would go home dejected.

In contrast, when I worked at Quip — an enterprise software company that's still figuring out its mission in the world — there were times when I felt highly motivated. And that's not something I might've expected from enterprise software.

It turns out from the research, when it comes to work motivation and fulfillment, there's something even more important than how a company views the purpose of its work. And that's how we view the purpose of our own work.

Do You View Your Work as a Job, Career, or Calling?

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at the Yale School of Management, has been studying how people make meaning from their work for the past two decades.

For the same role, people can experience their work through three different work orientations, either as jobs, careers, or callings.

For example, an engineer can view the code she writes as a way to pay the bills and support the rest of her life (a job orientation), a step along the way to move into leadership positions with more scope, scale, and authority (a career orientation), or as a fulfilling way to delight and impact users or co-workers through the software she builds and thereby transform their lives (a calling orientation).

Our work orientation directly affects our happiness, motivation, and performance.

  • Job-oriented people tend to do just what they're tasked with and to contain their work as much as possible — they'd much rather be doing something else.
  • Career-oriented people draw motivation from their next promotion and are willing to put in the work, but only as long as career advancement remains in sight.
  • People with a calling orientation have higher levels of intrinsic motivation, engagement, and performance and suffer from less stress, depression, and conflict both at work and in life. [2] Because they find their work more fulfilling and rewarding, they may also choose to work harder and longer because they want to and are more likely to get ahead. [3]

While not all of us may have the privilege of changing jobs, all of us do have the ability to change one thing: our mindsets. And that's often enough to shift our work orientation.

In one study, Wrzesniewski looked into the work orientations of hospital janitors. As expected, some treated their work as menial, cleaning jobs. But others actually framed their work as callings to provide cleaner environments for patients so that they could recover quickly and stay healthy. They built relationships with patients, even learning from patients which chemicals would irritate them less or writing them letters after they were discharged. The calling-oriented group found more fulfillment in their work. [4]

Same job, different orientations, and very different levels of fulfillment and performance as a result.

That's as important a finding for us as individual contributors as it is for us as leaders. The more that we can help the people around us frame their work as callings (and this doesn't have to be in a religious sense), the more we're all likely to succeed.

Moreover, when we view our work as callings, we also feel more agency around what Wrzesniewski calls “job crafting:” redefining our work to include what motivates us, what we're good at, and what we love doing. [5]

Even I was just an engineer at Quip, the times when I felt most fulfilled were when I viewed my role through the lens of a calling. I ended up designing a custom role for myself with the head of engineering. I would spend a third of my time leading the user growth team, a third coaching other engineers and managers, and a third driving leadership initiatives like engineering circles and leadership workshops.

So what can we do to transform the jobs and careers we have into callings? One of the most powerful ways is to articulate what Simon Sinek calls our WHY, the purpose behind why we're doing what we're doing.

Articulate Your WHY: What is Your Contribution and Your Impact?

In his books Start with Why and Find Your Why, Simon Sinek shares a simple but powerful framework to clearly articulate your calling.

It's a single statement that captures the purpose that drives what we're doing in both work and life. When we focus on expressing that purpose, we're at our best.

The WHY statement looks like this:

To ______ so that ______.

The first blank captures the contribution that you make. The second captures the impact that your contribution has on people.

Sample ones that Sinek shares in his books include:

  • to inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world.
  • to enable people to be extraordinary so that they can do extraordinary things.
  • to propel people forward so that they can make their mark on the world.
  • to cultivate relationships so that the lives of others are enriched.

What's most important is not how good the words sound to other people, but how much the words emotionally resonate with you. The desired outcome is produce a personal WHY statement that captures the contribution and impact that excites you the most.

Done well, the exercise of articulating your WHY creates a north star for yourself. It's something you can use to orient yourself toward what makes you most fulfilled, which will increase both your motivation and success.

To formulate your initial draft of a WHY statement, think back to stories of peak moments in your life that have really shaped who you are.

Maybe it's a time when you said or did something that you were really proud of. Maybe it's a decision you made that led you to feel most alive. Maybe it's a tough or eye-opening conversation you had that had a lasting impact on how you viewed the world.

For each moment, jot down:

  • What was your contribution to the lives of people around you? What was the action that you feel most proud of?
  • What was the impact of that contribution on the people around you? Don't stop with the first impact. Instead, go deeper and keep asking yourself, “So what? What's important that impact?”

You can do this exercise with a friend (or with a coach if you have one). Notice the patterns and themes that show up and pick the one contribution and impact that resonate most strongly with you, to fill in the blanks.

Your first draft doesn't have to be perfect, just good enough. You can keep iterating on it over time to make it more emotionally resonant. I've been working on mine and refining it for over a year and a half.

My WHY statement is “to show people what's possible so that we can co-create a more abundant world, full of adventure and connection.”

It's what drives my work, my life, and my relationships. It's what makes me view my work on Co Leadership as an expression of my calling and gives me the level of fulfillment that I didn't know how to get to before.

What's yours?

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  1. Adam D'Angelo, "Our Mission", The Quora Blog. ↩︎

  2. Amy Wrzesniewski, "Callings", Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. ↩︎

  3. Achor Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life (p. 78). The Crown Publishing Group. ↩︎

  4. Jessica Stillman, "What You Can Learn About Job Satisfaction From a Janitor", Inc.com. ↩︎

  5. Amy Wrzesniewski, Justin M. Berg, and Jane E. Dutton, "Managing Yourself: Turn the Job You Have into the Job You Want", Harvard Business Review. ↩︎

Understand Your WHY to Boost Your Happiness and Motivation
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