As an engineer, you are more than the field work you do or the hours spent manipulating an Excel spreadsheet — you’re a human helping other humans. Here’s how to talk about the “why” of what you do, and why connecting to a higher purpose matters.
A waiter walks past carrying a tray laden with wine and beer. You wonder if you should have another — you’re at a networking event for work, after all — but decide it’s good to have something in your hands. You’ll just sip it. Someone sidles up to you. A young graduate, bright-eyed and eager to learn from the sages of the industry.
Brief introductions, and then the grad is right into it. “So, what do you do?”
You pause for a moment before answering. Do you want to answer the question? “What” you do is not usually very exciting. You spend your days answering emails, looking at spreadsheets of data and managing the stress of impending deadlines. But the purpose of it is uplifting and motivating; it gets you out of bed every single morning. So instead, you say: “I design cities to become more liveable and sustainable for our future generations.”
As engineers we shape the world around us, but we aren’t always great at communicating the positive impact we have in society. It’s easy to talk about the data we look at or the buildings we build, but this is what we do, not why we do it.
Take a hospital that was erected quickly in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This isn’t just a collection of bricks and mortar but a place people can turn to for help. When we talk about the positive impact this building will have in our society, we are talking about purpose. We are talking about the human problems we are solving and the lives we are improving through our work.
When we describe our work like this, we tell the story of engineering in a way that inspires both ourselves and others. This inspiration is critical for engagement and high performance, for attracting the next generation of engineers into our profession, for doing good work that helps people, and to create careers that have us feeling fulfilled and excited.
Why talking about purpose is important
While it might seem obvious that we invest huge amounts of time, energy, thought and money into shaping the world around us, it’s surprisingly uncommon for organisations to talk about their work from a place of purpose.
Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek describes this in his book Start with Why, in which he discusses a model called the “Golden Circle” based on what he has observed in inspirational leaders.
Sinek describes purpose — “the why” — as being at the centre, and says communicating this “why” is critical for purpose-driven work and inspirational leadership. Inspiration comes when we understand purpose, and when we feel that the work we do is having a real, positive impact.
When you understand the real purpose of the work you do, you and your team will be more engaged, you will understand better what your client and the community needs, and you will deliver work of real value.
Inspiring yourself and others
This translates to our own work in a powerful way. When you we driven by a motivation deeper than just getting to 5pm, on an individual level we will be happier and more fulfilled, and will do better work. But we will also create a culture that is driven by doing good, and we will create a more attractive profession.
Energy is contagious; when you are fuelled by a deeper purpose, this energy can be caught by the other people in your team. This is how we can inspire one another to do our best work, show up as our best selves and deliver work that matters.
You can also think of this on a broader scale. If the desire for meaningful work is prevalent in each of us, then to attract new and diverse talent into the engineering profession, we must talk about the positive impact our work has. Our profession is made up of you and me, so when we each think about how we tell our story to our daughters, our friend’s son or our niece, we are as individuals collectively creating the tapestry of our engineering story.
How to describe purpose-driven work
We know that talking about purpose is important, but how can we start? Well, the great thing is that our work is already purpose-driven at its core.
Instead of just talking about the what, you can start to talk and think about the what and the why combined. Talk about the spreadsheets, but also talk about why they are important. Talk about the bridge, but talk about who you’re helping because of the structure. Simply translate what you do into how you are helping people.
For example, the data you study might be a part of the work needed to build a highway that will save lives and connect communities. The air conditioning system you are designing might be a part of a new sustainable building.
You’re not just doing calculations day in, day out. You’re a human, helping other humans.
Our work is already purposeful, we just need to see it. Let’s flip the script in the engineering profession and become inspired. Let’s lead from purpose-driven centres. We’ll not only inspire others with the work we do, but we’ll inspire our teams to be adaptable and continue working to find solutions to help us serve our communities.
What change would you feel in your daily life if you felt constantly connected to a higher purpose?