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This One Question Will Offer Career Clarity

A woman looks out at a tree lined river.

Like most nonprofit professionals, my nonprofit career is rooted in a deep desire to help people and solve problems. But when I began my job search, I found that "an interest in helping people” was somewhat vague for a cover letter. Deep down though, I knew I was meant for a career that involved impact—not just income; I just didn’t have a clue where to begin.

“What separates people who have career clarity from those who don’t?” I wondered. “Why do some people seem to have it figured out while I’m so overwhelmed that I’d rather close the laptop and take a nap?”

Then I met the one question that changed everything: “Why?”

At first, it seemed too simple, but when I really thought about it, my path to action became clear.

Here’s how it works:

The Golden Circle

In 2009, author and speaker Simon Sinek introduced a simple concept called “The Golden Circle” at a Tedx Conference.

Sinek drew three concentric circles on a chalkboard and labeled each: “what” in the outermost ring, “how” in the middle ring, and “why” in the innermost circle at the core of the diagram. He then went on to explain that instead of asking “What do I have to offer?” or “How will I accomplish my goal?” the greatest leaders and innovators begin with the question at the core: “Why?”

In Sinek’s research, he found that the most successful people and organizations were able to harness the power of “why” in order to provide clarity because, according to Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

Starting your career planning with the “why” may be just the shift you need in order to establish a clear direction.

How does the Golden Circle apply to career clarity?

The conventional process of job searching and career exploration unfolds in a typical way for most people. Usually, you dive into the “what’s” and “how’s” first, considering questions such as, “What am I good at doing? What am I qualified for? And what job titles interest me most?” Then, wade through the possibilities, choose something that fits those criteria, and figure out how to pursue it without ever stopping to consider the deeper “why” behind your interest in a career change.

The Golden Circle model asks us to deviate from focusing on the “what’s” and “how’s” of specific job titles and instead, focus on the purpose behind the search. This isn't terribly dissimilar from the reasoning behind our target employer list.

How to use “why” as your career compass

In order to use “why” to guide your next steps, you must first define your personal “why” as it relates to your career.

Simon Sinek loosely defines “why” as “the reason you get out of bed in the morning,” and your main source of motivation.

Step One: Grab a pen and answer the following questions:

  • If you could solve one problem in the world, what would it be, and why is that issue important to you?
  • Whom do you want to serve, and why do you feel connected to this particular group?
  • What is your vision for the future? What kind of world do you want to live in?
  • How does your work bridge the gap between the issues of today and your vision for the future?
  • What are your personal experiences with this type of work?

I recently worked with a client who had a long list of accomplishments on her resume, but not much focus or clarity.

“What would happen if we stopped focusing on specific titles and started focusing on why this is so important to you?” I asked her.

In exploring these questions, we discovered that she had a passion for helping others make healthier lifestyle choices and that promoting healthy living was important to her because, as a child, she saw her parents suffer through preventable illnesses.

We found her “why.”

Step Two: Use your answers to create a “why” statement.

Using what you journaled in step one, experiment with several statements until you find the right one, and be as specific as possible.

You’ll know you’ve created a strong “why” statement when:

  • You’ve identified a specific, tangible impact.
  • You are able to articulate your passion in a way that prospective employers can understand instantly.
  • You are able to connect your work to the vision you hold for improving the world.
  • Reading the statement excites you and inspires you to take action.

For example, here is my client’s “why” statement:

“I will contribute to an organization that promotes healthy nutrition for families so that my community will experience lower rates of lifestyle-related illnesses.”

Though we hadn’t yet narrowed it down to a specific job title, we were able to identify a clear direction.

Step Three: Use your “why” statement to direct your next steps.

Make a list of the top three aligned actions needed to make your “why” happen.

My client’s aligned actions included researching local organizations focused on community health, crafting a cover letter that included her “why” statement, and rewriting her resume to highlight her experience as a hospital volunteer.

When she sent out mission-oriented cover letter, they were so impressed with her vision that they immediately offered her an interview, and she got the job!

Use your “why” statement to decide which actions will be most helpful in achieving your goal and then get started.

Approaching your career from a mission-oriented perspective of “why” will allow you to focus your energy and move forward. Naming and claiming your “why” is the fastest way to gain clarity around what you believe and how to use it in your work.

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About the Author | Amy Everhart is a certified coach who helps difference-makers find purposeful careers. She has led nonprofit programs that empower and inspire teachers and students to tell their stories through writing and has served as a recruiter and job placement specialist. Amy is passionate about coaching, storytelling, and the ripple effect women’s empowerment has on the world.

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