Engineers, You’re Doing It Wrong! How to find your purpose as an engineer!

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When you woke up this morning, how did you feel?  Was it giddy excitement for what the day ahead holds?  If not, then you are likely not living your purpose.  Not pursuing your life’s work.  

For me, the idea of pursuing my life’s work became exponentially more important in 2013.   Over the past 3 years, I had gotten married (yay!), became a mother to my husband’s 5 year old son (double yay!), had a daughter (triple yay!), lost my mother to 5 year battle with lung cancer (tears! lots and lots of tears!), and become pregnant with a baby boy (due January 2017!).   

Prior to 2013, working my typical nine-to-five was worthwhile to me.  It provided a challenging, productive and well-compensated way for me to spend my time.  I had ample time outside of work to volunteer or put in extra hours at my company on projects that were more aligned with my passions than my day job.

With a shift in priorities and new “life is too short” mentality, it became more critical for me to really, truly enjoy my job.  Now, if I am going to be doing something that keeps me away from my family, it better bring me tons of joy or money (that I can spend on things that bring me joy – like a vacation)!!

Now, you might be thinking, “Ashley, I don’t have time for this hippie, pie-in-sky stuff.  I have a job to do, bills to pay, and a life to live.” And my response would be “Exactly!!”. Because you have work to do, bills to pay and a life to live is EXACTLY why you should be living your purpose.  Not only do people living a purpose-filled life report high levels of satisfaction, they also are more productive.

Relative Employee Productivity

Source – Adopted from Bain & Company and EIU Research, 2015 as published  in Harvard Business Review.

The graph above, adopted from a recent Harvard Business Review article discussing research from Bain & Company, shows the relative levels of productivity for employees based on their engagement levels.   Inspired employees – those that get meaning from their company’s mission – are 1.5x as productive as even the engaged employees.  In fact, employees working with purpose,  are 2.25x as productive as employees who are merely satisfied and a whopping 3.2x as productive as dissatisfied employees.  Another way to the think about it is that you are pursuing your life’s work, it would take more than 3 dissatisfied employees to do what you do.  Think about how much more awesomeness you could be doing if you were 1.5 – 3.2 times as productive!  

Now you may be thinking, “OK, Ash, so you have me convinced – living my purpose will make me more satisfied AND more productive!  But how do I find my purpose?” For many people, this is the hard part.  It certainly was for me.  This took time and much reflection.  A simplified way to think about it is that your purpose is the combination of your strengths and skills, your passions and curiosities, and the needs of others.  Your purpose is where all three of these intersect!  For most professions, this works out well.

                        purpose

For engineers (and other highly trained professionals), this way of thinking about pursuing your passions can limit the outcome.  What I have found is that many of us who have spent years and years developing particular skills, often have a challenging time recognizing our innate strengths.  For you, my technical friends, I suggest thinking about your skills and strengths separately.  So for our discussion, instead of this venn diagram….purposex

 

…we will use this one!

purpose-4

So let’s get to the good stuff – finding YOUR purpose!   The steps are simple. Super easy. However, the process can (and should!) be challenging.   Dedicate some time thinking through the questions posed.  You will need to spend time reflecting, and be super honest with yourself.  It might be surprising. It might be eye-opening.  It WILL be worth it! Work through these steps and you will be well on your way to finding and living your purpose!

Download the free Discover Your Engineering Purpose workbook to help you on this journey of finding your purpose as an engineer.

Explore Your Passions

Discovering what you are passionate is a critical part of pursuing your purpose.  However, this part of the process was extremely difficult for me.  It was not that self-discovery was something new to me.  It was just that previous efforts to self-discovery revolved around strengths.  What I was good at.  But passion is something very different.  Passion is what you would do or pursue if money were not an issue.  So how do you figure out your passions? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What would you do with your time if you won the lottery (I am talking about multi-millions here!)?
  • What did you enjoy as a child?
  • What activities did you participate in growing up?
  • What piques your curiosity most?
  • What are your hobbies?  
  • How do you spend your *free time*?

Make a list of all of your answers to the above questions.  Now think about WHY.  What was it about those activities that interests you? Why do those topics make you curious?  Now think about what all of these have in common.  Are there certain themes that keep popping up?  

When I was going through a similar exercise of exploration, there were three buckets that most of answers fell into: Coaching, Developing, and Inspiring.  Whether it was building development programs for up-and-coming engineers, coaching high school soccer, or organizing leadership conferences, all of the tasks that I would volunteer for revolved around helping others see their capabilities and then building on the talents they already had.  So as I was reflecting on what I wanted to be doing, I knew that it in some way needed to be through inspiring others to grow and develop to reach their highest potential.  But how?  How was I being called to help others grow?  This is where skills come in……

List Your Skills

Often this is one of the easiest steps for STEM professionals.  Incorporating your skills is an important crucial aspect of finding and pursuing your purpose because it will use what you have already been trained to do.

Are you a computer whiz?  An excellent writer?  Maybe you are awesome at breaking down complicated things into simple things (YES, this is a skill!).   Trust me, whatever your skills are, no matter how insignificant they may seem, there is a way to use them!

In listing your skills, you should think about the following:

  • What have you been trained to do?
  • What skills do you use on the job?
  • What subjects or projects did you excel in during college?

Some of my most developed skills include chemical engineering, business analysis, basic computer skills, and communications.  These are skills that have developed over time through learning and training.  What are your skills?

 

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Determine Your Strengths

Now that you’ve listed your skills, let’s go a step further and determine your natural strengths.  Recognizing your strengths is a crucial aspect of finding and pursuing your purpose.  Although continuous improvement and being aware your weaknesses is important, understanding what you do naturally well is wildly more helpful in pursuing your purpose.  You should be thinking about what you do extremely well and build from there.  In my opinion (and those of many thought-leaders!), spending time worrying or trying to improve too much on what you do poorly is a waste.  

Often, we overlook our natural strengths, because they come so….naturally.  And they should! Again, differentiate your (innate) strengths from your (learned) skills.  Think about it this way – you did not come out of the womb with the ability to use a computer (skill) or figure out differential equations (skill – though not for me.  I struggled through that course!).  However, you probably did not have to learn to be curious or be drawn toward data (strengths).

In determining your strengths, you should consider the following:

  • Do you often receive praise when you do a certain thing (not a skill)?
  • When you were young, what sort of things did you find naturally easy or appealing?
  • What were your StrengthsFinder 2.0 results?

If you have not read StrengthsFinder 2.0 –  DO. IT. NOW.  What is awesome about this book is it focuses on discovering your top 5 strengths. As engineers we often default to what subjects we do well – math, science, etc.  However, your strengths are far more reaching than just the skills you excelled at! StrengthsFinder 2.0 helps you see past the obvious.  It includes an online quiz that hones in on your talents.  Then you receive a personalized guide with actions and career suggestions for your specific strengths!  The importance of this is it allows you to use what you already do naturally well.  By taking actions and roles that *fit* with your innate strengths, you will be more effective and more satisfied (and so will your boss!).  It will make it that much easier to live your purpose!

Discovering my strengths has been life-changing.  While I was very aware of my learned  skills – chemical engineering, business analysis, basic computer skills, communications – my natural strengths were not as obvious to me.  My StrengthsFinder2.0 personalized strengths guide revealed that my top 5 strengths were Futuristic, Significance, Learner, Focus, and Restorative.  Here is how each of these strengths manifests for me.

    • Futuristic
      • Prior to utilizing StrengthsFinder2.0, I knew that I was always thinking about what the future – what was to come.  But now, I see that with the strength of Futuristic,  I am inspired by the future and what could be, and am able to inspire others with my visions of the future.
    • Significance
      • My strength in Significance means that I am always striving toward exceptional, have an independent spirit and want to be recognized as credible and professional.  Why, yes. Yes, I do!
    • Learner
      • As a Learner, I have a desire to learn and continuously improve. I loved school, and still enjoy attending interesting courses.  Personal and professional development is important to me and something I love helping others with as well!
    • Focus
      • With strong Focus, I instinctively evaluate whether or not certain actions will help reach a given goal – and ignore those that don’t! Like cleaning. And landscaping.
    •  Restorative
      • The strength of Restorative means that I am a problem-solver.  I enjoy the challenge of analyzing the situation, identifying the issues and finding a solution.  When something is wrong, I have a strong urge to help “restore” it to normal. The struggle is real!

Understanding these as strengths has allowed me to  hone in on the value that I uniquely add to a given role.  Discovering your own strengths and skills will allow you to do the same.  So similarly to with your passions, make a list of all of your answers to the above skill- and strength-related questions.  You can think of this list as a list of all of the tools in your career toolbox.

 

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Identify the Needs of Others

Figuring out what other people need is the fun part.  In sales, this is typically called a “pain point”.  Essentially, it is the problem, real or perceived, that you can help to solve.  Sometimes this may be a big issue, but it does not have to be.  Basically, in identifying the needs of others, you are figuring out how you can help them.  

The first step in identifying the needs of others to determine who you want to serve.  This could be the customers that the  company you work for serves.  Maybe it is your peers or coworkers. If you have your own business, this should be your target audience.  

My passion for engineering leadership development grew out of recognizing the needs of others.  What I have seen over the years is that there are some incredibly smart, incredibly capable folks who struggle to make the impact that they wanted to be making.  I observed that these folks tended to fall into three groups – Group Introvert,  Group Focus, or Group Youth.

  • Group Introvert, because of their natural tendency toward keeping to themselves, sometimes lack the confidence in their social interactions to influence others effectively.  
  • Group Focus, on the other hand, has just never dedicated the time to strengthen their leadership muscles – instead relying on their crazy awesome technical skills to carry them through.
  • Group Youth is ambitious and outgoing, and lots of leadership potential but just has not had enough work experience to command authority.

Which group are you – Group Introvert, Group Focus, or Group Youth?

This was disheartening to me because I saw folks that were wildly more skilled and talented than I was not achieving the same career success and impact.

So why was I finding this success and others weren’t?

The difference was I had continued to hone my leadership skills, along with my technical skills.  I had participated in several leadership programs after I graduated and worked on numerous “developmental assignments” that strengthen my ability to influence others.  Seeing how useful these classes, programs and assignments were to my growth as a leader inspired me to help others. I knew if I could do it – so could they!

So I set out on this journey to help other engineers make an even bigger impact with their already amazing analytical and technical talents by improving their leadership skills! This was my overlap….

 

Find the Overlap

Now that you have discovered your passions, determined your innate strengths and identified the needs of others, you can pull it all together to figure out your purpose.  This process is so different for everyone.  Do not get sucked into the trap of thinking that other people can determine your purpose for you.  

Don’t get me wrong – it is important to get feedback from others along the way. However, you (and you alone!) are the only person who can know when you’ve truly found your purpose. It sounds corny, but when you’ve found it – it will click.  Your whole outlook will change, and everything will just make sense.  

For me, this process took several months of soul searching.  When I began this process, my job was not satisfying me.  I had been managing a team of chemical engineering subject matter experts for 3 years.  Together, we had achieved some great success, but I  was ready for a new challenge.  Everything looked different than it had when I took the role – my life, my priorities, my career goals.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the importance of living my purpose had become even more critical between 2013 and 2016. Over those 3 years, I had gotten married (yay!), became a mother to my husband’s 5 year old son (double yay!), had a daughter (triple yay!), lost my mother to 5 year battle with lung cancer (tears! lots and lots of tears!), and become pregnant with a baby boy (due January 2017!).   

So when I set out to figure out what my purpose was, it really felt like I was starting over in many ways.  Sometimes it was hard to accept that what used to be inspiring and engaging to me, no longer was.  A couple of times, I had to start this process over because I found that I hadn’t been as open or honest with myself as I needed to be.  

After recognizing my purpose of using my strengths to coach technical folks to higher levels of impact through leadership development, I was able to negotiate a new role at my company – Program Leader for Engineering & Technical Development.  It was a perfect fit! And now, I have been able to expand my impact to help even more engineers through AshNorton.com and our Engineers with Impact Facebook group!

If you really make finding your purpose a priority, it will be so rewarding when you (finally!) figure it all out.  Rewarding in all ways – emotionally, spiritually, and financially!  It will also benefit your company – remember that living your purpose means that you could be up to 3.2 times as productive!  How big could your impact be then?  

 

Don’t forget download the free Discover Your Engineering Purpose workbook to help you on this journey of finding your purpose as an engineer.

 

Think you’ve figured it out your purpose? How will you pursue it?  Read more on how to ace your interview to snag your dream job here!!