When you are working for yourself, the ‘why?’ question is one you will face many times, both from yourself and others. I believe it has a number of facets; Why me? Why now? Why this? Why not that? Simply, why? The five whys, if you will!
I believe that in this new era of distributed, global teams working across timezones, your answers to these questions can allow you to find the teams and networks where you best fit and so can make your most significant contribution.
With so much ‘signal’ out there about ‘purpose’ (think of it as chatter/interference), it is critical to be ever clearer about ‘your why’ if you want to find others that want your unique take on the world, and have values you can work with. Values that blend and complement yours.
Because even if we disagree fundamentally on the best way to achieve the outcome (isn’t that the beauty of diversity?), shared or complementary values can connect us across continents and cultures.
In this article, I will attempt to answer the five why questions above, giving you an insight in to my values, so you can work out whether ‘your why’ and ‘my why’ complement.
So, why me?
I have always seen myself as an outsider. I went to private school, for a time on scholarship. I kept my head down and rarely felt like I fitted in.
As I journeyed through, there were people who did the exact opposite. People who put their head WAY above the parapet.
The sports champion, who won everything. The bone-china teapot drinking enthusiast with a gramophone and collection of Noel Coward records. The IT genius, now programming robots to take over the world (actually working on APIs). The newspaper editor, who believed in ideas and getting to the heart of a story. And now works as a Doctor.
People who ploughed their own furrow and who saw in me values they liked and shared.
When I think further about the ‘why me?’ question now, there are two values which impact all I do today; fairness and freedom.
Over the last 18 years, much of my work has been alongside those on the margins. Those with little power, but lots of need. Those whose voices and struggles I can amplify, using the privilege my networks and education has gifted me, getting them to take centre-stage.
At the same time, I have always wanted the freedom to roam. To see what is just round the corner. To ask the tough questions, and to follow through no matter what.
Freedom is not always easy. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I wonder where the next job will come from and whether I have p*ssed off someone just that little too powerful. Usually, I drift back to sleep, uncertain of the answers.
I have run my own business for three years and love it. I love the independence and the difficulty. The chance to find out new things everyday and learn without limits.
Part of my answer to the ‘why now?’ question is ‘because it is time’. It is time for me to keep trying things that are very difficult and learn faster. Life is short, and learning makes things hugely interesting.
I recently heard a podcast where one of the interviewees talked of “entrepreneurship like defying gravity”. Oh, but what fun when you take off!
I believe our uncertain times also demand I step up. Whether it is the refugee crisis, Grenfell Tower, deaths at the hand of the state or adults buying social care; I have always wanted to be alongside and working to design answers to these problems first hand. I have always wanted to see with my eyes what is going on. And hear the stories of those who struggle.
Like the little Iraqi Kurd girl, I met in the Jungle camp in Calais.
I will never forget her head popping out of the ruined caravan, in that rain-sodden camp. Her dad was so hesitant about bringing her to the doctor with me and my fellow volunteer, an Arabic linguist and all round b*d*ss.
It was as if slipping their whole-family bond for just one second could see them parted forever. That one encounter told me more about the love between parents and their kids than anything else. It has been a gift I have carried as I parent my two.
We eventually persuaded them both to come to the camp doctor. I was expecting a plush medical tent. Instead another caravan. A huge, snaking queue of people waiting for help. And the interpreter bringing this girl to the front of the queue and getting her seen straightaway.
As her and her father disappeared, so did I. To go round the corner and weep big, angry tears. Tears at a world that forced families to trek continents. A world that allowed children and families to be unwell. A system that relied on volunteers, rather than governments, to help.
I am a customer researcher. I work with organisations that want to grow profits and their ability to tackle the biggest challenges faced by humanity. My work is digital-first, combining online focus groups and depth interviews, backed by my knowledge and experience of making real change happen (and how to do it again)
Over 15 years, I have worked on armed sieges, abuse scandals, deaths in the NHS, the future of management consultancy, innovation and more. Throughout these projects the constant has been to grow organisations, so they can improve lives, tackle tricky questions, and be profitable.
I see the three as inextricably linked. Someone said (shout if you know who and I will credit), “no margin, no mission”.
Why not that?
Right now, this is where I want to be. It is at the sweet spot of customer research and humanity defining questions.
I never went down the route of a profession. Despite the university degree, I am mostly self-taught. Self-taught through 15 years of trying things, failing, launching again better, winning (wondering why) and winning again (knowing why).
I use this experience, combined with extreme curiosity about people, to grow organisations so they can be profitable and improve lives.
So in summary, why?
I am an outsider, who loves an underdog. I believe in the power of customer research and getting off your a** to grow profits and make change happen.
So, what about you? What’s your why? Why not leave a comment below?