That question alone has been the most powerful one in driving all the big changes in my life.
In fact, it drives the smaller decisions too sometimes. It’s one of the few useful pieces of internal dialogue I’ve got going on (swimming around in a shit storm of unhelpful stuff, admittedly…). But I’ve made it shout the loudest.
I was prompted to think about it more today.
A friend asked me earlier if I was worried about what other people thought about offpaper. Specifically about the lack of any tangible delivery like a product, or investment, so far. For the first time (probably ever), I was able to answer “No” to the question about what other people think.
It was a strange feeling, almost like I didn’t believe it myself. I’ve spent most of my career doing things that I think, on some level, were driven by a desire to be liked / respected / approved / validated by others. And right now, I don’t have that.
How the hell did that happen?!
It’s asking that question. “Who am I doing this for?”. I’ll give some examples of how I’ve approached things in the past, for a bit of context…
My career at BMW. I applied there after university because of the brand — that’s it. All the companies I applied to were prestigious ones that I recognised. After all, I had an emergency ‘Management’ degree alongside about a million other people, that taught me the square root of naff all about work or life. So why not just go for the shiny things I recognised.
The longer I stayed there, the more I came to like the association. Being proud to say “I work for BMW” is no bad thing. I enjoyed the fact that with it came the connotations of intelligence, wealth, power… whatever. I liked it.
In a superficial context like meeting new people, it gave me an instant identity.
But the places where my identity was known, like among my closest friends and family, it didn’t mean shit. There’s an interesting distinction right there. I wasn’t doing it for the people I love and who love me — I was unhappy at work, but I was doing it for strangers.
The same happened when I left BMW and went to carwow. I felt so much happier in a small, scrappy startup — but nobody had heard of it. I’d lost some of the respect from strangers that I craved, and some of that identity. So I got an expensive, ridiculous car — just to remind the external world that I was ok, and independent, and still smashing it. Again the same thing — my closest allies probably didn’t even notice the new wheels.
But the strangers on our street, and the ex-colleagues checking out my Instagram did. So = worth it.
So, after the novelty of that wore off I decided that moving to the US was a good call. California, I think. Silicon Valley maybe. I started hunting out jobs and having calls with companies over there. But when it got a sniff too serious, I started asking that killer question again. I realised I was doing this way more for the short-term buzz and the desire to jazz up my outward identity — than for me. I love London. I love my family and my friends here. Why the hell do I want to move to California? I don’t.
You get the picture then. I’ve never been unhappy as such — far from it most of the time. But I’ve also never felt entirely fulfilled. And I think, now, that comes down to doing things too much for my image and too little for me.
So why don’t I care now?
I’m honestly done chasing the next thing.
It feels like a bit of a trick. I’ve spent a long time chasing this idea of happiness, so now that I’m the happiest ever, it feels like it can’t be possible. What’s the “next thing”? I always have a “next thing”. But right now I’m going with the flow, seeing how things move, and enjoying living. The internal dialogue kicks in every now and again to say that’s not right, and that I should be faster, smarter, wealthier, more interesting… whatever. I ignore it.
Judging is easy. Understanding is way harder.
Our minds naturally jump to judgement. It’s just an intuitive, fast response to being presented with information — understand and interpret to get clarity. But what our minds don’t do quite so naturally is to try and understand, because that involves a million pieces of the puzzle that aren’t there. Similarly playing to people’s judgement with outward statements is easy (new car, great job…). But thinking that you need those people to understand your real motives, values and goals is an impossible task. Rationally, it’s not something you can or should do. So I’ve removed it from my sphere of control, and accepted that people won’t (and don’t) need to understand. As long as I do.
Nobody knows what anyone is doing, really.
I don’t know what I’m doing most days, so how the hell can anyone else? I wouldn’t know a thing about how to manufacture steel, or build and programme a new machine. I’ve got no real context for someone doing that well, or not. So rationally, how can I allow myself to care what anyone thinks about what I’m doing? Nobody knows you better than you. Stick to you.
So that question “Who am I doing this for?” — if the answer isn’t always “Me” then you’re doing it wrong.
Sounds selfish maybe, but I think it’s the opposite. To be truly happy and fulfilled in whatever you’re dedicating your life to doing — it needs to start with the real you. Not impressing others. Not helping others. Not influencing others. Getting to grips with what you really want, means being able to channel that happiness and energy into every day whatever the daily ‘thing’ ends up being. Without that, surely we’re treading water and not swimming?
Even now writing this, I feel like it’s easier said than done. If I were reading me, I’d probably call bullshit. I’m questioning whether it makes sense. And simultaneously not giving a shit. Classic.