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Finding the focus for a new year

By: Michael Atkins – Viewpoint

 | Jan 03, 2014 - 3:46 PM |
I have been extraordinarily lucky.

When I was 22 years old I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. When I was 23 years old, I fell into a journalistic job in Thunder Bay and knew that was it. When I was 25, I started my own business in Sudbury and I’m still at it today. This is unusual.

I don’t mean to suggest all this has all been easy, but it has been lucky. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find simpatico in a field they love, have some affinity for, and connect that proclivity to an economic course that allows you to put food on the table.

So when it came to the question of, “Why do I do what I do?” 40 years ago, the answer was, “I love it.” As my role morphed from just writing and editing to owning and managing and banking and worrying, I lost track of the “WHY” sometimes.

I was talking about this a few weeks ago when someone put me on to a book written by a fellow named Simon Sinek. It is called Start with Why. Of course, when I started in the early ’70s there weren’t books on every motivation known to man but, to be fair, we had not slid into the information age, much less the digital era. Although I haven’t read the book, the idea of the book is valid. It struck a chord with me and it appears young Simon is making a living talking about “WHY.”

In this manic and cluttered world, it is entirely possible to go for weeks without thinking at all. Like most media people in this challenging time, I can keep myself busy with tactics, strategies, summaries, reports, research, brainstorming, negotiating, hiring, downsizing, starting up, and generally moving things along without much contemplation. We use our brains but with limited reach. We are managing but not leading.

Mercifully, we do a number of interesting things in the Laurentian Group of companies, but none are static. They all require daily measurement and calibration. You can lose your way in a New York minute if you aren’t paying attention. The speed of this arc is addictive and exciting but in most ways debilitating.

What got me going this week was the time to think on a plane. I started thinking about WHY. This may strike you as odd. You would think people with choices would know why they are doing something. I’m not so sure.

The more I thought of WHY, the more I slowed down. I make my colleagues nervous when I venture outside of the What and the How. Most of us who are in business, and are not monks or poets, live in the what and the how. What do our customers want and how do we deliver it?

One of the best examples of straying from the WHY is our music company in Halifax. We teach music to kids around the world. We do it by distributing digital software that allows kids to learn how to play music with a keyboard and a computer.

It is affordable, exciting and an important antidote to the retreat from music in schools around the world. Learning music is important; it is rewarding, it is fun and it is ennobling. I’m glad I’m involved.

That said, we have been so busy expanding and pushing and shoving our way into various markets and trying to make a business out of this software we stopped talking about the magic and focused on price points and process.

New recruits thought we were in the software business not the music business. If you are going to sacrifice your time and energy and money and soul for something don’t forget the inspiration, or why bother?

Same thing happened to me 25 years ago when I grew from five newspapers to 30. I forgot about falling in love in Thunder Bay and became enamoured with growth. Growth was not the WHY.

Today in Northern Ontario our readers never let us forget our purpose. They ask WHY all the time.

It is a new year. As you enjoy your eggnog take a moment to think about WHY you do what you do. Then have another one and figure out how you are going to get back to it. Happy New Year.

Michael Atkins is president of Northern Life.

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