In our work lives, we are constantly asking questions, evaluating our options, and making decisions. This swirl of considerations can be overwhelming at times, and with so many questions to ask it can be hard to know which is more important. The most important career question you'll ever ask is only three letters long, but packs one heck of a punch. The question is...why? It's such an important question; I recommend you ask it five times over any time you're making any major decision at work or in life.
I learned the "5 Whys" tool from Martha Beck, a coaching mentor of mine. Here's how it works. You identify a stressful thought or an action related to your career or business (e.g., I should quit my job), and then you drill down the rationale behind that thought by asking why five times, going deeper each time.
I use this exercise to help my clients get a better understanding of their thought processes -- to determine whether the thought is true, or is simply misguided. You start with a thought or inclination, and with each why you drill down closer to the motivating assumption. Let's try:
I should apply for a promotion. Why? Because other people are going to apply. Why does that matter? Because I don't want someone else to get it over me. Why? Because I don't want to be in a lower position. Why? I don't want to have no power. Why? I'm afraid I'll be taken advantage of.
Aha! You've uncovered some valuable information. This appears to be a fear-based decision.
It could also go like this:
I should apply for a promotion. Why? It's the perfect job for me! Why? I'd love that job. Why? I'm good at all of those things. Why? I have experience with those activities. Why? I've volunteered for those types of projects before.
You can see that the motivating thoughts in these two examples are quite different. Let's try another common one:
My business needs more social media presence. Why? Everyone else is on Twitter. Why does that matter? A business needs to be on Twitter to be successful. Why? Because that's where the customers are. Why? Because they're interacting with other people. Why? Because it's fun and social.
You get the gist. In this example, the person's thinking might be correct or misguided, depending on the type of business, target market, and marketing strategy. If you operate a dry cleaning business, for example, something like Twitter may be far less relevant than for someone whose services -- say, outdoor adventure travel -- translate well to social engagement. The point is to dig down to where the seed of your thought is planted and evaluate it.
Note that in both of the above examples, the word should or need is present. Pay close attention to any business or career decision that is driven by a forced or constraining undertone. In the coaching community, we call these types of thoughts "shackles on" -- thoughts that feel restrictive and binding. Are you simply trying to keep up with the Jones', or are you making a well-thought-out decision for your business? The former suggests a panicked and potentially irrational decision, while the latter is more likely to be a good choice.
Doing anything that feels "shackles on," without being in line with your company's strategy and values, is a shouldy way of thinking (say it out loud). Steer clear of this type of decision-making. Asking why five times over is especially helpful for sorting out anxiety-inducing thoughts, and it works just as well for personal decisions as it does for professional ones. Try this exercise when you're struggling with any decision that stresses you out. Better yet, have a colleague or friend take you through it so you can answer aloud. You'll be able to peg your rationale as either wise or misguided the moment it leaves your lips.
20th-century American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) is most known for his contributions to the Beat Generation. But before he found success through writing, Ginsberg held a <a href="http://www.rooknet.net/beatpage/writers/ginsberg.html" target="_blank">variety of jobs</a> including a dishwasher, spot welder, night porter, and cargo ship worker. Eventually, Ginsberg quit his day jobs to write full time. His most famous poem is "Howl," which became a bestseller and brought Ginsberg instant fame.
Today, Nate Silver is known as a leading statistician and journalist. But before he grabbed the attention of the nation by analyzing and predicting the results of the 2008 United States presidential election, Silver held a not so exciting position. He worked as an <a href="http://adage.com/article/campaign-trail/15-fun-stats-number-wizard-nate-silver/238183/" target="_blank">economic consultant</a> at KPMG, but quit in 2004 and turned his attention to playing poker and analyzing Major League Baseball.
After graduating with a law degree from University of Pisa, Andrea Bocelli worked as a defense attorney and did not begin mesmerizing the world with his voice and instrumental genius until age 34, when he left his job to sing full-time.
Better known as Mr. Chow from <a href="http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1640917/how-ken-jeong-went-from-doctor-hangover-villain-mr-chow.jhtml" target="_blank">The Hangover series</a>, actor/comedian Ken Jeong is actually a physician. Jeong earned his MD from the University of North Carolina in 1995, completed his residency at Ochsner Medican Center in New Orleans, and then began his practice in California, with no intention of becoming an actor. In 1995, Jeong won his first comedy competition, "Big Easy Laff-Off," and after a string of stand-up jobs he landed his first feature film role in Knocked Up as what else? A doctor.
Dan Salls left his job as a <a href="http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/Living-Our-Dream-Couple-Quits-Jobs-Opens-Food-Truck-206274271.html" target="_blank">stockbroker </a>to open up his dream food truck known as, "The Salsa Truck." Whipping up authentic Mexican food from scratch, "The Salsa Truck" is Chicago's first mobile food service.
Before stepping into the ring and fighting heavyweight champions, actor Sylvester Stallone held some not so glamorous jobs. Most notably, he worked as a deli-counter assistant and cleaned lion cages at the Central Park Zoo for $1.12 an hour. So, he did what any unhappy employee would do: wrote a hit movie that stars himself as the hero.
Before being named Showtime's Funniest Person in America in 1982, comedian and TV host Ellen Degeneres worked as both a paralegal and an "oyster shucker" at a restaurant.
The next time you go online to find reviews for that new restaurant in town, you have Tim and Nina Zagat to thank. Both graduates of Yale Law School, Tim and Nina held jobs as corporate lawyers for over 20 years before dropping their careers to pursue working on their dining survey service, ZAGAT.
This famed American chef wasn't cooking up delicious French cuisines until age 36! Before that, she worked as <a href="http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26186498/ns/us_news-security/t/julia-child-cooked-double-life-spy/#.UcCD9PZbrGA" target="_blank">a spy</a> for the U.S. Government.
Founder of West Point Thoroughbreds Racing Partnerships and Stables, Terry Finley spent the early part of his life out of the race track and in the <a href="http://www.cnbc.com/id/46104358/page/4" target="_blank">U.S. military</a>. Just before finishing his military service, Finley and his wife bought a horse and after he won his first race, there was no going back. Finley quit his job as an insurence worker and put everything he had into West Point Thoroughbreds. This leap of faith certainly paid off. Today, West Point Thoroughbreds buys up to 25 horses a year and purses total in at more than $16 million.
While we all know him as Hans Solo, many people first knew him as the <a href="http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9162702/harrison-ford-career-arc" target="_blank">guy that fixed their roof</a>. After his performance in "American Graffiti" left him with little reward, Ford decided to give up on acting for something more financially stable: carpentry. Ford was a carpenter for many years until he met up again with American Graffiti director George Lucas to audition for Star Wars...and the rest is history.
After spending much of his career as a securities attorney, David Arrick left Wall Street and took it to the kitchen instead. Frustrated by all of the new bakeries advertising their "cute" cupcakes, Arrick opened <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/eats/butch-bakery-david-arrick-puts-macho-spin-cupcakes-article-1.1012200" target="_blank">Butch Bakery</a>, an original kitchen that puts a masculine spin on cupcakes.
Host of The View and the Joy Behar Show, Joy wasn't always the confident and lively comedian we all love. In fact, Behar was a high school english teacher until the age of 40, when she first decided to pursue her childhood love for comedy.
Writer of the beloved "Little House" children's book series, Laura Ingalls Wilder (left) did not publish her first book until she was 65. Before this, Ingalls worked a number of other jobs including seamstress, farm worker, and Secretary-Treasurer of Mansfield Farm Loan Association.
Also known as Grandma Moses, the famous American folk artist didn't even put paint to canvas until her 80's. For most of her life she worked on her farm in Staunton, Virginia, churning butter, selling potato chips, and practicing embroidery. When her arthritis made it too difficult for her to hold a needle, she picked up a paint brush instead.
In 2011, busy single mom Kristina Kern quit her job at a high-end catering company in DC to start her own mobile food business. Kern left her dazzling and sophisticated life of gourmet food, caviar, and crystal and hopped behind the driver seat of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristina-kern/stellas-popkern_b_2839663.html" target="_blank">Stella's PopKern</a>--her own gourmet-popcorn food truck.
Co-founders of the Marthas Vineyard-based tie and clothing company, Vineyard Vines, Shep and Ian Murray weren't always living the nautical life. Until the grand opening of their first store in 2005, both men <a href="http://bostoncommon-magazine.com/personalities/articles/the-brothers-behind-vineyard-vines-talk-ties" target="_blank">held corporate jobs</a>, Ian at a public relations firm and Shep in advertising. Missing their childhood days of spending weekends on the beach, Shep and Ian quit their jobs and began selling ties out of the back of their car and on the beach. Today, Vineyard Vines has 20 stores and can be found in over 500 retail stores. Just let the front page of their website say it all: "We're brothers, who quit our jobs in New York City to make ties so we wouldn't have to wear them any more."
Perhaps the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan made an epic career change after he retired from the NBA in 1993 to pursue <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2010/aug/24/entertainment/la-et-0824-jordan-espn-20100824" target="_blank">his lifelong dream</a> of playing pro-baseball. At age 31, he made the transition to right fielder for the Birmingham Barons.
Eveybody loves a bank teller. That's right. Until a stand-up comedy competition in 1989 that launched his acting career, Ray Romano worked as a bank teller.
Dreams didn't always come true for Walt. The founder of The Walt Disney Company started out as a newspaper editor until he was apparently fired because <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/15-people-who-were-fired-before-they-became-filthy-rich-2011-4?op=1" target="_blank">“he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”</a>
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