In 2009, Simon Sinek gave one of the most-watched Ted Talks ever with his How Great Leaders Inspire Action Speech.  His talk was followed by his Start With Why book in 2011 and started a movement among leaders who began rethinking how they were going to lead their brands and individuals who sought out to define their “why”.

I am a big believer in defining our “why” i.e. our purpose. I have the pleasure of being able to work with individuals and organizations in helping them define their “why”. I myself had to go on a journey to discover my own “why” and it is one of the things that led me to write The UnAmerican Dream. However, what I found along my journey and I find in others I work with is that often there is an intense struggle with defining your “why”. For many, it seems elusive to understand why they are here and define their purpose; it leaves them exasperated. 

After a good number of these conversations and looking back at the work I have done to discover my purpose, I believe I now understand the challenge of starting with “why”. And it is because we cannot start with “why” until we understand “who”.

My intent here is not to debunk anything Sinek has discussed as I have mad respect for Simon, his thinking and have watched his Ted Talk at least half a dozen times. However, my premise is that we cannot properly define our purpose until we are clear on our identity or what I call our “Who”.

Our identity, simplistically, is how we view ourselves, what we believe about ourselves, our values; it is the basis by which we make decisions. If we do not have a proper view or understanding of our identity then we will most often mistakenly misidentify our purpose. The struggle that many like myself face is that our identity is often misshaped when we are young and because of our youth, we do not realize the tragedy of it. 

When I was 13 years old living in upstate New York, I was working around my house helping my father with some chores. We owned several horses so there was always something that needed to be cleaned, fixed, or tended to. On that particular day, one of my chores was to coil up a hose that had been warped by the cold and by years of being in the outdoor elements.  While it seemed like a simple task, it proved quite challenging because I could not get the hose to do what I wanted it to do. After several minutes my father came over clearly frustrated. He grabbed the hose and asked me why I was taking so long? I simply responded, “I have tried, but I can’t.”  Still frustrated with me my father looked me dead in the eyes and stated “that’s the story of your life, you can’t.”  I was devastated and unbeknownst to me at such a young age, I adopted that as my identity . . . I can’t.  “I can’t” became my identity and was the basis that informed my journey to finding my purpose. 

That heavy cloak of my identity was foundational to how I viewed not only myself, but the world around me. It instilled in me a need and deep desire to prove myself, to show everyone wrong, and a general attitude of telling doubters and authority to shove it.

While I would not have been able to articulate this even just a few years ago; the foundation of my identity as being “the one who can’t” not only impacted my life but numerous others. How could it not? My core wiring and the belief about who I thought I was as a person was defective and therefore any attempt to define my purpose i.e my “why” would be equally so.

This mistaken identity in myself infiltrated every aspect of my life as I was on a mission to not live out the “I can’t” prophecy that had been declared. How I related and operated as a husband, a father, professional, and friend were all impacted and some with devastating consequences. 

In 2015, after 31 years of running from the words “I can’t” and living with a perpetual chip on my shoulder, I hit rock bottom. My marriage imploded due to my infidelity, my relationship with my children was strained, I had no true friendships due to my unwillingness and inability to be vulnerable, and I had lost all ability to lead effectively in my business. My fraud had been exposed. 

The days and years that followed included therapy, accepting and granting forgiveness,  rejecting the lie that I believed at 13, and embracing my worthiness. I learned to truly love myself, the one who is soft-hearted and sensitive at my core, quick to laugh and cry, loves people, and wants the best for them. I started the long road to restoring relationships; first with my wife, my kids, my dad, and many more who I had shut out for years, in the false belief and fear that they too would realize my story was one of “I can’t”.

Understanding who I am today is who I was when I was 13. Knowing and being firmly grounded in my true self, my true identity (my “Who”) has allowed me to define my purpose (my “Why”) which quite simply is helping people. 

If you are struggling with the journey to find your purpose, perhaps first begin with exploring your identity. Begin the journey of getting back to who you were created to be so you can define your purpose; it is then you will realize that anything is possible.