Starting With Why

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How did you end up in this industry? And possibly the more important question: Why do you stay in it?

Knowing your “why” is like an internal engine that motivates you to achieve more than just getting through the day. It orients you toward a much larger vision and anchors your daily to-do list in something that transcends “today.” Your why differentiates you from every one of your competitors. No two people share the exact same “why.” The only difference is some people understand, connect with and articulate their “why.” But most cannot.

I know from the painful personal experience of listening to the stories of others that many people feel trapped by their chosen vocation. They wish they had chosen something else at that critical time when they were entering adulthood. Or they lament they did not get the training required to do what they really love doing. Or perhaps even their family started long before they were ready, sometimes unexpectedly.

Even though I sympathize with those struggling with those feelings, I am not one of them.

After spending years working in nonprofits, churches and even briefly as a social worker investigating cases of child abuse, I feel like my true calling found me. It happened to be the family business my dad had started almost 40 years earlier in our backyard as he taught himself how to fix cars from a book. I have always been proud of my dad for starting from scratch in the humble environment of our backyard. After teaching himself how to fix cars, he eventually landed a great job as the head of the body shop and service department for a large local dealership. When that folded in the late ’70s, he set out on his own, eventually helping to establish three thriving shops—and a failed one. But we’ll save that story for a future column.

After 15 years working in nonprofits and churches, how did I end up back in auto body? Well, it came down to money. Not greed, but money. My family was growing and the pay was not keeping pace. I also saw so many projects and dreams fail for lack of just a little funding. It would not have taken much, but time after time I watched little projects falter and then flame out from lack of finances. Good people with a goal to help others. Plenty of vision. Lots of energy and drive. But the funds just were not there to sustain it.

I decided to go back into the family business to make as much money as possible, so I could be generous to community organizations in my neighborhood. And 10 years later, that is happening to a large extent.  I’ve enjoyed giving to dozens of local nonprofits as well as organizing “lunch and learns” for the local business community and helping young entrepreneurs get started on their dream. I have especially enjoyed helping Norwood Rugby take flight from an idea a good friend had to a full-fledged program that has become a platform for mentoring young men from my neighborhood and beyond. What I did not expect was how much I would love this industry and the challenges of growing a local business. Those challenges have served as an enormous benefit as well, as they have kept me interested and intrigued in my trade.

Simon Sinek wrote a book called “Start With Why.” (He also did a great talk that summarizes the book really well.) In a nutshell he talks about the importance of having a deep understanding of your “why.”

Usually people start with the “what.” You hear this all the time in the familiar question, “Hey, what do you do?” Our first response might be “I fix cars.”

The next level, though, is the “how.” And this is where each of us start to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. How you fix cars might include things like great customer service or the latest technology, or with great speed and efficiency. These are the kinds of things that set us apart from other shops doing the same type of work.

But there is a deeper level still and it is truly personal. That is your “why.” Your “why” might be something as simple and noble as feeding, clothing and sheltering your family. Perhaps your “why” is simply making an honest living, or challenging yourself to reach a personal goal.  It does not have to be heroic, although it can be. The important thing is that it motivates you and comes from your unique, deeply held desires and beliefs.  

Once you start this “why discovery process” you might find that true motivation, while personal, comes from a “why” that is outside of you, something that calls to you and is much bigger than you. So even though your “why” needs to be deeply personal, consider how what you are doing might better not only your life but those around you.

So what is your “why?” I would love to hear about it.

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