The question gets asked almost everywhere I go. Parties. Bars. Church services. It doesn’t matter.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a designer,” I answer.
“Oh, so you like arrange interiors?”
“Not really,” I say.
“Then you program stuff with computers?”
I’m sure you know the feeling. You’ve been asked that question a million times yourself. You know it would take hours to define the details of your day-to-day, your importance to the world, and how you truly break the mold of all their preconceived notions for your profession. Sometimes I go there. But most often, I politely respond, “Yeah, something like that.”
We all deal with the “the what.” It’s hard to define what you do for a living to people who may not understand. But it’s a fair question. It’s usually one of the first things I ask others. As frustrating as it may be to explain your job to others, I’ll say this: I think it’s even harder for us to define why we do something.
The Stories in our Roots
I think about “the why” all the time. I think it can be just as interesting to find the cause of something than to observe the actual thing itself. If you think about it, understanding “the why” is almost like unlocking a mystery or decoding a puzzle. There’s a sense of accomplishment, almost like a reward. You’re discovering something deeper, something yet unexplained.
Think about “the what” and “the why” in terms of what we see and what we don’t. Let’s take a plant as a metaphor. There’s beauty in the outward appearance of the plant, with the stem, the leaves, and maybe even the bloom of a flower. But if we were to pull that plant from the ground, we would see that there exists a totally different sense of beauty. There’s the primary root of the plant and a multitude of secondary roots, each providing a support structure for the steam, leaves, and flowers above. There’s a story hidden in each one of those roots.
I’d like to think the same goes for us. We have roots that provide our stories. We have reasons why we’re in the place that we’re in and why we do what we do. Our chosen occupation or current position may not be a perfect reflection of everything we value. But our job does say something about our past, our present, and maybe even our future.
I started asking myself “the why” during the final months of my undergraduate Art and Design program. A few things occurred to me during this exploration. First, I realized that I enjoyed being in a creative role that allowed me to ideate. I also liked that design was a strategic endeavor that enabled me to bring a sense of order to incomplete content. Thinking through a problem and crafting a response was something that seemed to resonate with my personality and skill-set.
These reasons why I became a designer are still valid for me today. But there have been times when I became a little disillusioned with what I was designing. As we all know, situations at our place of work can cause some unrest. It’s human nature to feel frustrated, tired, and burnt out at times. As a result, I decided that I needed a bit of a change. That change for me was getting my Master of Design degree.
I won’t go into all of the details of my graduate school experience. But one important moment stands out in regards to “the why.” At the end of a particularly long day, I received a text message from a good friend. She explained that she was just ending another stressful 12-hour session at her marketing firm. I complained that my thesis project was in shambles and I hadn’t been sleeping well.
“Why do we do this to ourselves?” she asked.
I paused, thought for a moment, and then it hit me.
“Why? Because passion matters,” I replied.
There was no better explanation for me. I knew that I had taken on this new challenge because I deeply cared about the practice of design. The initial reasons I became a designer are still a part of my story, but I discovered that passion is my primary root. I am fueled by the opportunity to create meaningful experiences. I’m devoted to it. So much so in fact, that the phrase “passion matters” has become something of a mantra for me now. It’s a reminder of why I do what I do.
It would be untrue if I said that ever since that conversation with my friend, my days as a designer have been easy. They haven’t been. And they never will be. I have good days and bad days, great projects and no-so-great projects. I’m sure some of you can relate. But every time I question myself or my work, I always come back to that primary root: my passion for design.
To me, passion means that you care. And caring means that you’ll do your best work. And your best work will make a difference (even if you don’t realize it at the time). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every project will save the planet. It doesn’t mean that every task will have a meaningful component to it. But do I know there are moments where you will have the opportunity to feel particularly proud of your work because it made a difference to someone else. And that matters.
You might be thinking that passion is well and good, but your current position doesn’t allow you to be passionate. Well, good news: you don’t have to have the same “why” to do your job. I’ve had plenty of other jobs that didn’t require passion. Your “why” might be because you have a sense of responsibility to your country. Or maybe you just need to provide financially for you and your family. That is reason enough.
I’m not sure what direction my career will take in the future. Maybe you don’t either. But I do know that I will take a look back before I take a step forward. I’ll remind myself of the roots underneath the surface. I know that I do my best work when I’m truly passionate. I’ll use that knowledge as a guide for the next challenge I take on.
I urge you to think about “the why” for yourself. You don’t need to have the best answer to the question—it’s enough that you have an answer. Because knowing why you do something is just as important as knowing what you do.