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Does what you’re doing have a purpose?

The question "What is it for?" can help illuminate the purpose of what we're doing, thinking or saying.

5 min read


What is it for?


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a maxim that Seth Godin likes to use: “What is it for?”

That phrase was mentioned often in his altMBA program I did a couple of years ago, and it can be a good focusing question for any of us.

What does all this mean for leaders? Here are a few areas where you can apply “what is it for?”

  1. Day-to-day scheduling and prioritizing
  2. Bigger-picture thinking
  3. Better communication to others and in how we listen

“What is it for?” in our daily work

So much of our days is regimented by our calendars or ad hoc demands by a boss or client. We do things the way they’ve always been done because that’s what keeps us out of trouble and takes the least amount of energy and time. Most of us, me included, really don’t stop enough to ask, “wait, what is this for?”

Productivity is such a big deal these days (including in the Marie Kondoization of our lives) that you’re probably already thinking about this. That said, it’s easy for events to overtake us. If you’re supposed to be a manager of a team or a division, and yet you’re doing the work of your people, maybe you need to ask “What is it for?” 

Here’s another example: Maybe you delegated at first, but there are just too many requests flying in at you. Using a process like the “Eisenhower box” might help you answer “What is it for?” and get rid of things that don’t serve a purpose.

“What is it for?” in the bigger picture

As someone who’s worked on deadline for my whole career, shifting my thinking and work habits to a longer-term, strategic viewpoint remains difficult, even many years later. And, everyone’s specific situation requires its own answer.

But let’s start here: Asking “What is it for?” and “Who is it for?” (another key Godin phrase) is essential to assessing strategic questions. These can be discussions about whether legacy products still fit or whether a new line of business or M&A are good ideas. This analysis might require a good deal of study and data, but ultimately you’re going to have say “yes” or “no,” and these simple questions can help cut to the chase.

This also applies to strategic hiring. If you’re considering bringing in an outside executive, you might use “What is it for?” to ask, “What do I need this hire for? Is it worth the cost and possible disruption?”

If that person has unique capabilities that your firm can’t survive without, you’ve answered the question. If you’re just trying to place someone with the right title, you’ve also answered the question — why spend and disrupt when you can promote someone who’s already doing the work?

If nothing else, asking these questions about strategic decisions can show you’re curious about new information — and maybe your quieter yet insightful employees will feel empowered to speak up.

“What is it for?” for what we say and hear

The question “What is it for?” is also a communications question. We can look at obvious examples of how we subconsciously answer this question:

  • A CEO will talk differently to a confidante than on an earnings call.
  • A particularly adept comic will mix in jokes tailored for a crowd in Spokane or for a Midwest college campus that won’t show up when performing at a theater in New York City, and vice versa.
  • You have a different conversational style (I hope) with your young child than with your spouse, and both of those styles differ from when you speak on a conference panel.

“What is it for?” can also help us better process what other people say and do. We’ll still have to assess whether such words and deeds are trustworthy or admirable. We’ll still need to make independent assessments as to how (or if) we should react. But, ideally, asking this question will reveal context and perspective. Here are a few examples:

  • Athletes, politicians and other celebrities have learned that the “what is it for?” of social media is often a way to present themselves as “authentic,” pick up some unregulated sponsorships and/or control the narrative. Are they actually being themselves? Maybe, maybe not, but they’ve correctly identified a reason to be on the platform.
  • Is someone in a meeting bragging about themselves? Maybe it’s hubris or they are just a jerk. But, perhaps that person’s “what is it for?” is also to cover up insecurities or to impress a doubter. You can still react as you see fit, but maybe understanding their “why” can help you better deal with the situation.
  • Why is a CEO of a publicly traded company talking about “making the world better” when that’s not the shareholder goal? There’s probably a lesson in public relations occurring. Such CEOs are not necessarily good or bad — the intentions might be real, and maybe this organization can do good and be a viable business — but think about their “What is it for?” and “Who is it for?” when they make such statements.

As always, questions like “What is it for?” are not in themselves answers. But they can offer a focused yet flexible approach to the thorny problems we face today as leaders, managers and employees.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.