Engineers can inspire themselves and others by talking about the “why” of what it is they do in their work.
The waiter walks past, carrying a tray with an array of 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 so exciting. You spend your days answering emails and looking at spreadsheets of data and managing stress from impending deadlines.
But the purpose of it is uplifting, motivating, and it gets you out of bed every single morning.
So instead, you say: “I design cities to be more liveable and sustainable for future generations”.
Why we do what we do
As engineers we shape the world around us, but we aren’t always the best at communicating this 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.
When we talk about the positive impact a building will have on society — maybe it’s a hospital and it was quickly erected to respond to COVID-19 — 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 in this way, we are telling 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 industry, for doing good work that helps people, and for creating careers that make us feel fulfilled and excited.
While it might seem obvious that we invest huge amounts of time, energy, thought and money into shaping the world around us for real, purposeful reasons, it’s surprisingly uncommon for organisations to talk about their work from a place of purpose.
Simon Sinek describes this in his book Start with Why, in which he developed a model called the Golden Circle based on what he observed in inspirational leaders.
Sinek describes purpose — the “why” — as being at the centre. 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 better work of real value.
Talking about purpose
This translates to our own work in a powerful way. When we are driven by a motivation deeper than getting to 5 pm, on an individual level we are happier, more fulfilled, and do better work.
But we also create a culture that is driven by doing good and a more attractive industry. Energy is contagious, and when you are fuelled every day by a deeper purpose, this energy is 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.
For us as engineers, reminding ourselves of the purpose and the part we play in creating something bigger than ourselves can also help to maintain faith on those days when the work is hard.
Think of this too 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 industry, we must talk about how our work is meaningful, and how it positively impacts people.
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 talk about why they are important. Talk about the bridge, but also talk about who you’re helping because of the structure. Translate what you do into how you are helping people.
For example, the data you study might be needed to build a highway that will save lives and connect communities.
The air conditioning system that you are designing might be part of a new sustainable building. Maybe you are learning the technical fundamentals of a building foundation design so that later that afternoon you can stand on site with your client and understand their needs to better serve them.
You’re not just doing calculations day in, day out. You’re a human, helping other humans.
When you tell your story about the people you are helping, or the community you are building, or the country you are shaping, you connect your work to people. You are more than the field work, the hours spent writing code or manipulating an Excel spreadsheet.
Connecting to your purpose as an engineer will help you become a better engineer; it will help you through the hard days when your stakeholder meeting doesn’t go as planned, or there’s a bug in the model and a looming deadline, or when there’s an issue on site that needs to be solved straight away.
Let’s flip the script in the engineering industry 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 community better.
Are you an innovative engineer or know someone who is? Register your interest at bit.ly/InnovativeEng2021 for the Most Innovative Engineers listing. create will call for nominations in January 2021.