The Relentless Pursuit of “Why”: How To Figure Out What You Want and Forge Your Own Path
This week I started a 10-week intensive coding bootcamp. We had our first professional development session, where our instructor showed us the image below and asked us to write our “why” statement.
“Why” statements are personal mission statements. They get to the core of what you want to do in this life, both personally and professionally. They are broad in scope, intrinsically motivated, and often emotional in nature. Here’s mine:
I believe everyone is creative and that believing in your own creative potential is a powerful tool to living a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. I want to build stronger, more creative communities.
After the exercise, a classmate asked me how I came up with such a strong “why” statement. The answer: I’ve spent the past two years creating it.
As someone who is notoriously multi-passionate, the initial thought of distilling my existence into one statement made me irritated. “How dare you ask me to put my amazing, wonderful, crazy life into one sentence?!”
But over the past two years I’ve worked really freaking hard to get to the core of what I care about and why. Through books, mentors, podcasts, online classes, and personal projects, I’ve slowly built my “why” into something that inspires me on a daily basis.
My “why” statement is the root of all of my writing, art, design, and code. This blog stems from that “why” statement. It fuels me to wake up and do what I do every day.
But as I said, it took me two years of personal and professional development to figure it out. The process has not been linear or clean or without failure. Here’s kind of what it looked like:
October 2015 to March 2016
Only a month into my new full-time job and I was already feeling listless. I started reading personal development books and listening to creative/business podcasts. Started exploring the idea of a creative career change. Found a bunch of online business owners who inspired me.
*Actually committed to big change and creative endeavors!*
Started building my graphic design portfolio and looking for personal projects to do.
Launched my blog. Didn’t have a clear idea of what to write about and struggled a lot with writing content that felt authentic to me.
Did a branding project for my cousin and was really proud of the result. I knew this project was special.
Started my 100 Cats in 100 Days project. Also started saying “no” to any and all activities that didn’t feel creative or energizing. Stopped going out with friends for drinks.
Started working with a design client! (It ended horribly and was a complete failure.)
March 2017 to July 2017
Completed a couple more design projects for friends. Feeling more confident about my skill as a designer. Did some smaller projects that taught me a lot, mostly about what I didn’t like doing. Started writing an ebook but it didn’t feel authentic, so I stopped.
Turning Point — August 2017 — Felt Full of Momentum and Focus!
Rebranded my blog to TheMinimalistCreative.net. This was a turning point for me. I stopped trying to do what everyone else is doing and just started writing. This is when my “why” statement really came together for me. At this point, I was committed to getting blog readers and subscribers. I was successful!
Found out I was going to be laid off from my full-time job. Started applying for graphic design jobs but felt discouraged at the opportunities in my small city.
Messaged an old friend who told me she was now a web developer. I decided to sign up for the bootcamp she recommended. I even found funding that would pay for the whole thing!
Despite being excited about my upcoming bootcamp, I still fell into a seasonal depression. I couldn’t get out of bed some days. Felt really hopeless.
Started a full-stack web developer bootcamp. Feeling completely energized and focused. This is the creative career for me! The future feels limitless and full of possibility.
If you’re in a place of feeling lost and want to find your “why”, here is my very best advice: accept that it is going to take a lot of time, dedication, and work to figure it out. It will feel very discouraging at times. Trust the process. Keep pushing forward.
Here are the processes that worked for me:
Start now and commit for the long haul (2–5 years or more!).
This is not the type of activity that you can figure out in an afternoon. Don’t trust anyone who says you can.
Revisit the following four reflection questions often.
Answer them this week and review them every 3–6 months.
1. What did you love doing as a kid?
Oftentimes we find something special about our unique gifts by looking back to our childhood and picking out the activities we loved doing. For me, it was arts and crafts. I would have been happy doing arts and crafts all day every day. This was my first clue into figuring out my “why” statement.
2. What experiences in your past felt fulfilling, motivating, and inspiring? List them out. What about those experiences lit you up?
For me, it was being part of the cross country team in high school, working on a literary journal in college, and teaching myself graphic design. I know that I am happiest when I am part of a committed team that is working hard toward a common goal. I also know that I like pushing myself to learn new skills. This was my second clue.
3. When do you find yourself getting “the jealousies”?
I’m not sure who coined the term “jealousies” but Jenny Blake talked about it in a recent podcast episode. Jealousies are feelings you get when other people are doing things that you want to be doing. This gives you some clarity on what you want in your life.
Who are you jealous of? Decipher what about these people makes you envious.
For me, there is a girl who grew up in my hometown and is now a full-time writer and spoken-word poet living in Boston. She goes on tour speaking to colleges. Her life excites me. I don’t think this kind of jealousy is bad since it motivates me to think about all the possibilities in this world. Because of her, I’ve dreamed of living in Boston, writing a book, and trying my hand at spoken word poetry. This is another clue to your “why”!
4. What are your three core desired feelings?
Focus on how you want to feel. Your feelings won’t tell you exactly what you should be doing with your life, but they will probably point you in the right direction. This one is coined by Danielle LaPorte. Look through her library or read her book and decide which three feelings resonate with you. Let these feelings guide you over the next couple months.
Try a ton of different things and iterate as you go along.
Quit projects that don’t feel right anymore.
Seek out mentors and soak up EVERYTHING they will teach you.
Mentors can be books, online or in-person classes, podcasts, and people. Anyone who inspires you and is creating stuff that resonates with you can be your mentor. For me, James Victore and Debbie Millman are two designers (and teachers) who inspire me. The work they have created blows my mind. Find those people, the ones who are the best of the best, and listen to every word they say. Here are some of my favorites:
Pivot by Jenny Blake (she also has a podcast)
A Brand Called You with Debbie Millman — online course
Become a better person.
This is another lesson from James Victore:
“Becoming a better designer means becoming a better person.”
I’d argue that you can replace “designer” with any kind of career or hobby. Commit to being 1% better than the day before. Take walks, drink less alcohol, wake up earlier, call the people who matter, learn how to apologize, listen more and talk less, go to therapy, let go of anger, heal.
Release your ego.
Think about why you want to do what you want to do. Is it for selfish or vain reasons? If so, that’s okay (for now). Who doesn’t want to be successful? When I first started pursuing graphic design, I wanted to be a well-known designer and live in New York and have fabulous, fashionable friends. Now, I love design so much all I can think about is how I can transform my community through my work.
At a certain point, if you want to make work that truly matters, you will have to let go of your ego.