Why Are You?

Published: November 23, 2021

I greeted a friend recently with the question “How are you?” A freight train happened to be passing by at the moment I asked so she misheard the words as “Why are you?” Her answer surprised me. In less than 30 seconds, she served up a theme-based version of her life story. It was a veritable purpose statement. It got me thinking about how many of us are seeking direction when the destination has already been well established. Perhaps it’s just the path that hasn’t yet been chosen.

The career course I teach at Elmhurst University begins with exploration. Students take the course to help discover an academic major and professional path that aligns with their interests and values. By the end of the semester, however, they can see that the direction they are headed has already been shaped. We begin with simple questions.

Who and what are the most influential people and events in your life?

It’s often not until we have the benefit of hindsight that we can see our lives are driven by a higher purpose. Maybe it is to honor someone we respect. Perhaps we are paying back a debt or righting a wrong. It could be that an elder taught us how or how not to navigate the world. Maybe a trauma altered everything.

What are the accomplishments for which you are most proud and why are they important to you?

I’ve had many students who are the first in their family’s history to go to college. They have parents who have sacrificed everything to allow them to have better opportunities. Some students tout championship competitions in everything from music to debate to tennis. Other students talk about the day they realized they were smart and capable of anything. Their growth mindset exploded into limitless possibilities. Obstacles became problem-solving challenges.

What are your goals and aspirations, near-term and long-term?

Naming a goal and sharing an aspiration makes it more likely to be achieved. Start with the big picture. “I’d like to discover the cure for an incurable disease.” “I’d like to write a bestselling book.” “I’d like to make the environment safe and sustainable for the next generation.” “I’d like to help those less fortunate.” “I’d like to be a professional athlete.” “I’d like to build generational wealth.” “I’d like to own a successful restaurant.” Whatever the big picture goal, make a plan. Start with key strategies and move to specific actions. Make timelines and accountability checks along the way. Celebrate the outcome and move on to the next calling.

How do these all connect? Is there a common thread that runs through your influential people/events, accomplishments, and goals?

Usually, these variables tie together to create a life narrative. Your journey tells a story that most likely had plot lines in place before you were born. We are on the planet for a fleetingly short time. Why now? To do what? Are we extending someone else’s legacy or beginning our own?

The environment has a way of blending destiny with free will. Our purpose in life, personal or professional, is influenced before we’re old enough to know any better. Yet, each day brings choices that shift the plot. There are many paths to the same destination. Be clear about where you are going. How you get there is up to you.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.