April 20, 2012

I was jogging along one morning listening to Simon Sinek’s TED Talk where he powerfully proves that people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. He explains that the goal is not to sell to people what you have; the goal is to connect with people who believe what you believe. I had heard this talk before and it resonated but this time around it literally stopped me in my running tracks. I had been on 204 flights in one year and later that morning I was headed to the airport for my 205th meeting with the friendly skies. Simon’s theory is not his opinion; it’s a proven fact based on biology, not psychology, and the study of the human brain by real scientists.

So, I realized something was definitely off and thought to myself, if you don’t know why you do what you do, how can you expect anyone to follow you? Yet I had 1.2 million people following me on Twitter for the past three years and had no clue why I was truly doing what I was doing. Admittedly, I was extremely passionate about innovating and I was riding an on-going wave of adrenaline as I navigated through the social media wild, wild, west. However, making celebrities and powerful brands more influential for the sake of _____ wasn’t filling my purpose bucket. It was bone dry but I disguised the drought and gallivanted across the globe still having fun. Until then, there had been an undefined deficit and finally this was the moment that the universe was shaking me and yelling loud and clear with flashing red lights: “U-turn!!! You have a purpose problem”. So that experience was fun. Not.

Rewind a few months back, I had witnessed social media and purpose colliding first-hand the evening of the Japan Earthquake. It was undoubtedly one of the most impactful experiences of my life – thus far.

So, I kept running and started thinking about why I do what I do. I grew up moving around often, lived in a trailer with my wonderful family. In my mind, opportunities resided in the “real” cities with populations larger than 200. Places like (gasp) New York City or Los Angeles where dreams came true. Have you ever seen that movie Secret of My Success? Yeah, that sums it up. I even lived in Kansas like Michael J. Fox. Anyway . . . my point is that opportunities weren’t located in places like Bullhead City, Arizona, Sheridan, Wyoming or Abilene, Kansas where I grew up.

The thing that drew me to social media was the fact that it was an equal opportunity space. There were no geographic boundaries or gatekeepers. Equal access was granted and value always seemed to rise to the top regardless of whether you lived in small town Wyoming and went to school on a horse and buggy or if you lived in the City of Angles and went to a private school in 90201. That was a portion of my purpose, I quickly realized. But now what? Go start a charity? Nope, I texted my best friend and team member, Alana, a few ideas/thoughts:

This is our tipping point of “work” further transitioning into “purpose”. Long road ahead but I really think we will enjoy where it takes us. Deep! (Maybe I should lay off the TED talks a little. LOL.) I just finished an amazing run and semi-defined why I’m doing what I’m doing. Social media provides an equal playing field for everyone and everything. I’ve used it to build a business and it’s an equal opportunity space. We can inspire people to use technology & social communication channels to accomplish what they want — get a job, build a brand, connect with family, become a rock star, become inspired. It provides access to anyone and everyone. We can help bring back the American Dream. Boom. I leave for the airport in a bit.

Alana must have felt something big was happening that morning as well because she copied the words in the text message and emailed them to me with “Save” as the subject line. I filed it away in my “Amy Jo’s Rad Emails” folder.

We had a small epiphany, together via text, and then I carried on to my countless trip through airport security. I kept thinking about this and I knew I had to do something, something big and meaningful. So later that week I blogged, of course. Yep, I blogged from my favorite tequila joint, The Canteen, while sipping on a skinny margarita. (Which is exactly the thing I’m doing now as I write this post.) This is what I wrote that night while reflecting on my ‘why’.

So that was a cathartic exercise and I started to integrate Simon’s beliefs, which I had fully embraced, into my keynote speech. I thought about this more and more and shared Simon’s theory every chance I had. In meetings with CEOs, on airplanes with strangers, with celebrities, with interns, in staff meetings, in pitches – you name it.

Turns out my blog post crossed Simon Sinek’s path. He called the Digital Royalty office one day looking to collect on the lunch date I proposed in my blog post. (I listed Simon Sinek as someone on my list of people I’d like to take to lunch or have a cocktail with.) My office gave him my mobile number and he called me. I was in San Francisco and it happened to be a poignant day. I wrote this post just prior to hearing from him. Simon and I spoke; we connected and agreed to meet up weeks later in Beverly Hills. We had lunch and I asked (begged) Simon to help me figure out my “why”. Why do I do the things I do? So he did.

The first question was, “What’s the first happy childhood memory you can recall?” I racked my brain, experienced brief anxiety and then fessed up that I couldn’t think of one memory even though I did indeed have a wonderful childhood! Yikes. I felt guilty. Apparently, that’s a normal reaction and many of his subjects aren’t able to think of something on the spot. Whew. I’m normal. So then he asked what my first childhood memory was, regardless of whether it was a happy memory or not. Immediately one came to mind.

I vividly recalled going snow skiing with my family for the first time. My dad took me straight to the top of a double black diamond ski slope and proceeded to tell me he was going to help me get down the “hill”. Let’s call a spade a spade – it was a scary straight down slope of a mountain. Anyway, he told me to make a pizza shape with my ski tips and he put my skis between his. I didn’t have to worry about poles, I was that young – pre ski poles age. So we navigated down the hill and I skipped the bunny slope all around.

Back to Beverly Hills where I was lunching with Simon Sinek and secretly recording our conversation via voice notes on my iPhone in my lap. He asked me, “Were you scared when your dad took you to the top of the mountain?” I said no. My father was an expert skier and I trusted him. Then Simon, armed with his magical ‘why-defininig’ powers, said something I’ll never forget.  “So your dad helped you do something very difficult like ski down a double black diamond the first time you ever skied. Has it ever occurred to you that nearly everything you set out to do is quite difficult? Almost to a fault, it seems you’ve never been a bunny slope type of person. Has it ever occurred to you that you don’t easily accept help in difficult situations?” He had my attention at this point and I knew something special was happening. Simon the stranger knew things about me that I didn’t know about myself – after 32 years. He said “Possibly your “why” is to help others do very difficult things in their lives. And, this was a double black diamond so maybe you need to start accepting help as you continue to do difficult things.”

Boom. There it was.

That’s my ‘why”.

Given my personality, I tend to get ahead of myself and immediately I was ready to act on my “why”. Simon slowed me down and we talked about it some more. After lunch we walked around The Grove and he suggested we go and find something in a store that would represent my potential “why” so I could be reminded daily. We couldn’t find anything that made sense so Simon pulled me into a Mac make-up store and drew two black diamonds on my wrist with black eyeliner. The Mac makeup artists just watched and I decided to just trust the process, fully willing to purchase the eyeliner if asked, ready to invest in my ‘why’. We walked around some more, bought a few of our favorite books in the book store for each other and prior to parting ways, he made me promise that I wouldn’t just jump into my new found “why” but I’d think about it and make sure we hadn’t misdiagnosed my “why”.  I promised and then eventually went and bought a black stone, which I wore on my right hand for the following six months – a black diamond to remind me daily of my ‘why’.

The next few months were filled with difficult black diamond mountains. It was, by far, the most difficult time of my life. Turns out, if a purpose problem goes unaddressed, it manifests within your mind, body and soul and eventually you have a beautiful mess. I kept wondering if I had jinxed myself and Simon’s words rang in my head “Bunny slopes aren’t for you.” At times I prayed for a bunny slope.

So part of my epic “why” discovery was that I don’t accept help very easily. I decided to start there and conducted a personal brand audit. I traveled and met with childhood friends, mentors, my life coach, family members and co-workers I trusted. A few similar underlying trends surfaced and just as an audit is defined, you don’t always like the results — but they’re real. I decided these people would officially be my Personal Board of Directors. I decided to innovate my life and treat my life a little more like a business that’s accountable for results. I started to innovate my life — truly designing my own day, scheduling “ready set pause” meetings and walking the talk.

Quite a bit has happened in between, personally and professionally, but I’ll spare you the details and share my steep lessons in the book. Last weekend, my best friends planned a “Next Chapter” trip for me in Las Vegas where I decided to officially own my “why”. Cheers to taking the difficult path down the mountain, helping others get down safely as well and allowing others to help you when necessary.

So why am I sharing this story? I pretty much ask everyone if they know their ‘why’ and many people never even think about it. Most people never discover their “why”. I encourage you to give it some thought. Identifying and owning my “why” has changed and innovated my life. (Thank you, Simon.) It’s a work in progress and as soon as I started focusing on my ‘why’ things started happening. I look forward to sharing more in the book.

In the meantime, leapfrog those bunny slopes and go straight to the top. Double black diamonds have much greater ROI.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s going to be easy but it’s going to be worth it.” ~ Art Williams

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