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What Is Your 'Why'? How I Learned to Live My Purpose

Image source: Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action"

What is your why? It is a question that you have most likely been confronted with at some point in your life. But, do you truly know what it means? And more importantly, have you been able to clearly define your why? Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is a great place to start in getting to the answer of these questions. This little talk has been a great inspiration for me in finding my why.

Your why is your purpose. It is your reason for getting up in the morning. It is what motivates you to action. It is what keeps you focused each and every day. No one has the power to take your purpose from you. But, while it is yours, many can share your purpose. Aligning shared passions, shared beliefs, and shared value is how one finds common purpose. Purposeful leaders leverage common purpose to inspire, unify, and drive collective action to achieve their goals and desired outcomes. Purpose-driven brands find the common purpose across organizational stakeholders, their customers, and society to achieve business sustainability and to have a positive impact in the world.

Every individual has a purpose. While you may not have been able to identify your purpose just yet, it does not mean it does not exist. If you are constantly stressed, demotivated, unfulfilled at work, pessimistic of the world, or feel your life lacks meaning then these are clear indicators that you are not living your purpose. And if your company does not appreciate its employees, possesses a negative culture, focuses just on increasing margins, and operating in silos, it means your company has not yet aligned around a common purpose. The good news is that it is never too late to find your purpose. I just found my purpose less than five years ago. Although once I did, I can honestly say I have never been happier and life has never been more fulfilling, both personally and professionally.

Over the past 25 years, I have taken many turns in my career. I was a young entrepreneur in my late teens and early twenties. I sold graphic design and printing services, helped manage a recording studio, and was a NYC nightclub promoter. But in 1996 a little something known as the Internet truly had me shift directions (as if my life had any real direction prior).

From 1996 to 2009, you could consider me a digital marketer. During this period of time, I owned and operated two successful digital marketing firms, Mass Transit Interactive and Burnham Marketing. However, after the bubble burst in 2001 I entered into a dark period. For five years, I was faced with both personal and professional challenges that took an emotional and physical toll. In 2006, we sold Mass Transit to Horizon Media, and I felt like an incredible weight had been lifted. Contrary to popular belief, I actually did not make a lot of money from selling Mass Transit (I left Horizon long before I could reap the benefits of the earn-out); my health and happiness were more important than money. My time at Mass Transit was a great example of putting the pursuit of money before a pursuit of purpose. And I paid the price.

I left Horizon not really knowing what my next move would be, though the stubborn entrepreneur in me knew that I would be starting another company, so at the very least, I got incorporated — Burnham Marketing was formed. Only this time around, my personal wellbeing came first. I was fortunate to have a strong network of peers who referred me business to help get me started. With a focus on digital marketing strategy and consulting, Burnham Marketing organically grew and could have easily been considered a lifestyle business. I was working from home, I kept my workweek to under 30 hours, I traveled more, spent more time with friends and family, and generally just put my happiness first. However, I was not passionate about the work.

In 2009, my career would once again change course. At the iMedia Agency Summit in May 2009, I was introduced to John Furey, the founder of a company called MindTime — a social science research company that specializes in understanding how people think and created a methodology for measuring cognitive drivers of people’s perception and behavior. Seeing the obvious applications to marketing, I entered into a joint venture with MindTime to develop new products and services in the fields of research and marketing communications. When I initially started working with MindTime, the digital marketer in me immediately thought about ways to use MindTime science to improve everything from behavioral targeting to content delivery and, of course, increasing sales conversion.

This was the spark that I needed to steer me on to the path that would eventually lead me to my purpose. MindTime was exciting to me. I have always had a passion for behavioral science. Growing up, my mother — a social worker and a human rights activist — kept two big bookcases filled with books about psychology, human relationships and cultural movements. From an early age, I would pick books off the shelf as a means to learn about social behavior. This was fun for me — it was a subject matter that I could not get enough of and became a focal point in everything I did. I always felt that the more I could understand how people think, how to build relationships, and how to positively influence people that it would prove beneficial in countless ways through my life.

In 2010, I hit a moral crossroad. I was designing products and methodologies as a means to help businesses manipulate consumers at the cognitive level in order to sell them more crap they didn’t need just to increase sales and profitability. This conflicted with my personal values. If I was going to develop methodologies for influencing changes in behavior, I wanted to have a more positive impact in the world. I wanted to empower businesses to be change agents for social good and sustainability. I wanted to help businesses create purpose-driven brands and build relationships with consumers in a way that created positive social change. The social entrepreneur and activist in me were emerging! As a result, I changed the focus and direction of Burnham Marketing. I was now a social engineer and culture designer set out to help purpose-driven brands infuse more sustainable behaviors into society.

I didn’t have that ‘a-ha!’ moment where my purpose just came to me. It really manifested as I continued to pursue my passions and seeking fulfillment in my work. I also didn’t differentiate between my personal and professional self. I am one person, with one purpose. Your purpose should be lived out in every aspect of your life. Your purpose is determined by leveraging your skills and aligning your needs, values, and aspirations with the impact you want to have on the world.

I encourage everyone to develop a purpose statement. My purpose statement is:

Improving lives through relationships and experiences.

Notice how flexible my purpose statement is and how it can be applied to every area of my life, as well as any future endeavors I may explore professionally:

Improving lives through …

  • interpersonal relationships and emotional experiences.
  • business relationships and brand experiences.
  • political relationships and government experiences.
  • institutional relationships and educational experiences.
  • societal relationships and cultural experiences.

Your purpose should ignite your passions and inspire you to be the best you that you can possibly be. It should utilize your skills and past experiences, while stimulating personal growth and future opportunity. It should be aspirational, yet achievable. It should challenge you, while fulfilling you. And it should have a positive impact on everyone who comes into contact with it. Once you define your purpose, everything else begins to fall into place. It guides your behavior, who you build relationships with, how you engage with the world, how you lead in your work, and the experiences you create with everyone that interacts with you.

Once you define your purpose, how can you begin to live your purpose? For starters, think about the realistic, yet aspirational, impact you can have on the world. Ask yourself, how can I leverage my skills, passion, values, and resources to achieve that impact and how much time do I need to achieve my goals and desired outcomes? This will begin to shape your personal mission and vision. Like your purpose, I also recommend creating mission and vision statements for yourself. Your mission statement should describe how you would deliver on your purpose and your vision statement should describe the long-term impact you aim to have by fulfilling your mission. My mission statement is:

Empowering people to be change agents for social good.

Once again, I was sure to incorporate flexibility within my mission statement so that it could be applicable both personally and professionally. For example, people can easily be substituted by businesses, governments, institutions or society. Think about how powerful and enriching it can be to have a mission that you can live out every moment of your life. My mission motivates me to be the best person that I can be; to touch each life I come into contact with in a positive way and to help them be their best selves; to find fulfillment in helping others and contributing to making the world a better place. Purpose is where the meaning of life is planted and your mission is the water that makes it grow.

Humans have the ability to imagine a future that has yet to occur and are capable of seeing possible outcomes based on their behavior. This is vision. Your vision is why you have a purpose — it’s what commits you to fulfill your mission. Your vision is your belief in what is possible and knowing you have the ability to influence the future. My vision statement is:

To create a better tomorrow and a sustainable future.

My vision gives me my focus. With each decision I make and each action I take, I make sure that I am taking one step forward each time towards my vision. I am a better, happier man for it. I live a more fulfilling life as a result of it. And I am making a positive impact while doing it. When you bring your purpose, mission, and vision statements together, this forms your positioning statement and value proposition.

I improve lives through relationships and experiences that empower people to be change agents for social good, to create a better tomorrow and a sustainable future.

That is the essence of me. It took over 40 years of experiences, personal growth, humility, vulnerability, perseverance, and the ability to empathize and demonstrate compassion to get me here. This is my brand. All of you can define your brand. And all brands can be more human. Individuals with purpose are attracted to businesses with purpose. People want to work for companies where they are empowered to live their purpose. People want businesses to behave responsibly and transparently. People feel good when they spend money on products and services that have a positive impact on the world. People want businesses to align with their needs, values and aspirations. This alignment cultivates deeper relationships between people. It is how you build stable businesses and sustainable brands.

Your organization is the parents that gives birth to your brand. You give it life, instill it with the right values, and shape its image and view of the world. But your brand will grow — it will mature and learn from its life experiences. It will interact and engage with many different people, all who will perceive it in different ways. It will evolve with culture and adapt to social norms. Some will love it. Some will hate it. It’s okay. Your brand does not need to be perfect or loved by everyone; it just needs to be authentic. Your brand can make mistakes. It’s how you address your mistakes and right your wrongs that your customers will care about. People are very forgiving when you are empathetic to their needs and genuinely want to be the best you that you can be. Be mindful and purposeful.

As you go through the exercise of finding your purpose, challenge your organizations to do the same. Every company and individual should have a purpose, mission and vision statement. Every company and individual should be operating under a set of core values and behaving in a responsible and transparent way. This is how you attract customers. This is how you build strong relationships. Like Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you are selling, they buy why you are selling it.” People buy into the brand experience. They buy in to how you make them feel, how you emotionally connect with them, your ability to relate to them, and the memories you create from the experience they have with your brand. Brand yourself and humanize your brand.

So, I’ll ask you again … “What is your why?”


Jason Burnham thinks systemically about the impact business has on society. He has dedicated his career to helping his clients deliver triple bottom-line (economic, social, and environmental) results. Burnham’s professional purpose is to improve how businesses operate and innovate towards… [Read more about Jason Burnham]


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