This One Question Will Offer Career Clarity

Woman looking out at river

Like most nonprofit professionals, my nonprofit career is rooted in a deep desire to help people and solve problems. But when I began my job search, I found that “an interest in helping people” was somewhat vague for a cover letter. Deep down though, I knew I was meant for a career that involved impact—not just income; I just didn’t have a clue where to begin.

“What separates people who have career clarity from those who don’t?” I wondered. “Why do some people seem to have it figured out while I’m so overwhelmed that I’d rather close the laptop and take a nap?”

Then I met the one question that changed everything: “Why?”

At first, it seemed too simple, but when I really thought about it, my path to action became clear.

Here’s how it works:

The Golden Circle

In 2009, author and speaker Simon Sinek introduced a simple concept called “The Golden Circle” at a Tedx Conference.

Sinek drew three concentric circles on a chalkboard and labeled each: “what” in the outermost ring, “how” in the middle ring, and “why” in the innermost circle at the core of the diagram. He then went on to explain that instead of asking “What do I have to offer?” or “How will I accomplish my goal?” the greatest leaders and innovators begin with the question at the core: “Why?”

In Sinek’s research, he found that the most successful people and organizations were able to harness the power of “why” in order to provide clarity because, according to Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

Starting your career planning with the “why” may be just the shift you need in order to establish a clear direction.

How does the Golden Circle apply to career clarity?

The conventional process of job searching and career exploration unfolds in a typical way for most people. Usually, you dive into the “what’s” and “how’s” first, considering questions such as, “What am I good at doing? What am I qualified for? And what job titles interest me most?” Then, wade through the possibilities, choose something that fits those criteria, and figure out how to pursue it without ever stopping to consider the deeper “why” behind your interest in a career change.

The Golden Circle model asks us to deviate from focusing on the “what’s” and “how’s” of specific job titles and instead, focus on the purpose behind the search. This isn’t terribly dissimilar from the reasoning behind our target employer list.

How to use “why” as your career compass

In order to use “why” to guide your next steps, you must first define your personal “why” as it relates to your career.

Simon Sinek loosely defines “why” as “the reason you get out of bed in the morning,” and your main source of motivation.

Step One: Grab a pen and answer the following questions:
  • If you could solve one problem in the world, what would it be, and why is that issue important to you?
  • Whom do you want to serve, and why do you feel connected to this particular group?
  • What is your vision for the future? What kind of world do you want to live in?
  • How does your work bridge the gap between the issues of today and your vision for the future?
  • What are your personal experiences with this type of work?

I recently worked with a client who had a long list of accomplishments on her resume, but not much focus or clarity.

“What would happen if we stopped focusing on specific titles and started focusing on why this is so important to you?” I asked her.

In exploring these questions, we discovered that she had a passion for helping others make healthier lifestyle choices and that promoting healthy living was important to her because, as a child, she saw her parents suffer through preventable illnesses.

We found her “why.”

Step Two: Use your answers to create a “why” statement.

Using what you journaled in step one, experiment with several statements until you find the right one, and be as specific as possible.

You’ll know you’ve created a strong “why” statement when:

  • You’ve identified a specific, tangible impact.
  • You are able to articulate your passion in a way that prospective employers can understand instantly.
  • You are able to connect your work to the vision you hold for improving the world.
  • Reading the statement excites you and inspires you to take action.

For example, here is my client’s “why” statement:

“I will contribute to an organization that promotes healthy nutrition for families so that my community will experience lower rates of lifestyle-related illnesses.”

Though we hadn’t yet narrowed it down to a specific job title, we were able to identify a clear direction.

Step Three: Use your “why” statement to direct your next steps.

Make a list of the top three aligned actions needed to make your “why” happen.

My client’s aligned actions included researching local organizations focused on community health, crafting a cover letter that included her “why” statement, and rewriting her resume to highlight her experience as a hospital volunteer.

When she sent out mission-oriented cover letter, they were so impressed with her vision that they immediately offered her an interview, and she got the job!

Use your “why” statement to decide which actions will be most helpful in achieving your goal and then get started.

Approaching your career from a mission-oriented perspective of “why” will allow you to focus your energy and move forward. Naming and claiming your “why” is the fastest way to gain clarity around what you believe and how to use it in your work.

Now it’s your turn: create your personal “why” statement and share it with the community below. This is a friendly space for feedback and questions, so don’t be shy! We’re all here to support each other.


Amy Everhart headshotAbout the Author: Amy Everhart is a certified coach who helps difference-makers find purposeful careers. She has led nonprofit programs that empower and inspire teachers and students to tell their stories through writing and has served as a recruiter and job placement specialist. Amy is passionate about coaching, storytelling, and the ripple effect women’s empowerment has on the world

Tags: ,

Related Posts

Today's post was written by a guest contributor. We invite our community members to share their experiences and ideas on how to find a job that makes a difference. Want to contribute? Email us here Please note: We do not accept submissions from writers at content farms. Thank you for your cooperation.
Template Toolbox | 2 Email Templates for Networking How to Test-Drive a Graduate Program


  1. I will contribute to an organization that provides resources and therapies for the disabled and thier caretakers. I will always be a compassionate advocate on thier behalf.

  2. Planning with the question “Why?” is indeed a great strategy. Most people do not know why they’re doing the business or for what purpose and that’s why their business fails. Well, this will also apply to searching for a good career path.

  3. I want to reconnect people with nature. I want people to realize that many of the problems facing the world are initiated at an individual level. People become disconnected with nature and end u leading lives contribute little, if anything, to the common good, and, ultimately, further disconnect people from the natural environments around them. I want to teach people how to find harmony again.

    • Christi V.
    • August 11, 2017

    Thanks for the thoughtful article! I will contribute to an organization that assists artists with disabilities to create and display art, so that my community will be inspired and more inclusive.

    • stephanie
    • September 4, 2017

    I will contribute to an organization that provides access to education for individuals and “non-tradtional” students so they can create employment opportunities for themselves.

  4. Pingback: Ask Victoria | Exploring options for a career in social impact - Idealist Careers

    • Andres Escobar
    • October 21, 2017

    The article was very helpful. Thank you. I will serve by example and by teaching those around me to influence them to make better choices that promote a Christian faith life style, for opportunities to give the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  5. What if when you’re done you don’t have any idea what organization can help you achieve your goal? Or even where to start? My goal is to work for an organization that seeks to connect people to their deeper, spiritual selves. It is my belief that every problem in our world is a direct reflection of this disconnect and I’d like to focus my energy on fixing this. I can’t exactly go on your average job hub and state my intention there and expect to get a job out of it. I honestly can’t think of a good starting point…. maybe yoga? I can work to help people. There are many avenues for that, but I don’t know of any organizations that have a focus on spiritual enlightenment. At least not one that pays. I could be a Buddhist but I wouldn’t be able to support my family or live out my other dreams that way. I’m still pretty lost

      • Amy
      • November 1, 2017

      Hey, Kaitlyn!

      This is a great question, and I first want to let you know that you are absolutely not alone in feeling lost! It can be extremely frustrating to finally hone in on your “why” and then not understand how to embody it in real life.

      First, I want to reflect back that you aren’t as lost as you think you are. : ) You actually exceptionally clear to me on how you want to make a difference and what your “why” is: to reconnect people to their higher selves. I’m curious as to how true it is, really, that you can’t contribute to an organization focused on this “why” AND still support yourself financially. I know that so much of our culture surrounding the nonprofit world operates on the belief system that, “doing good doesn’t pay,” but I’ve found that to be simply untrue in many cases.

      A great starting point to work with would be to look for evidence of someone doing what you want to do AND making money. You could start with exploring the web or social media simply to find proof that what you want exists, and then reach out to someone living your dream and ask how they got their start. Most people are happy to share insight with people with similar “why’s.”

      I think research is definitely your first step here. If you truly can’t go to your average job hub with this desire, don’t shut down your desire! Simply find where you CAN go. That starts with believing it’s possible, so do some good, old-fashioned internet research and see what opportunities and directions you find.

      • Kat
      • December 2, 2017

      Hey Kaitlyn,

      a family member of mine has transitioned into being a Spiritual Director. Her “Why” is probably similar to yours. If you’re unfamiliar with this career field, I would encourage you to check into it. Most Spiritual Directors work one on one, similar to a psychotherapist, or sometimes do group work as well. Many are Chrsitian, but there is also a wide range of folks doing this work from different religious backgrounds or from a place of spirituality without religion. Best wishes!

  6. Pingback: To Quit or Not to Quit | Is That Really the Question? – Recruitology Careers Blog

  7. Pingback: To Quit or Not to Quit | Is That Really the Question? - Idealist Careers

  8. Thanks for the article.
    I would like to work for an organization that cares deeply about education and children nutrition. To help them bridge the gap of illiteracy and malnutrition in all corners of the world and particularly in my country (Mozambique), in Africa, where many children have no access to proper education nor food. The future is bright when a new generation is prepared to live in it and take care of the next generation after them.

    • LAURA
    • November 18, 2017

    Thanks for the article. I am a biomedical researcher working on pediatric leukemia and I would like to contribute to an organization that promotes diagnosis and treatment of children in poor countries. I would like to use my experience and knowledge learned in the laboratory to improve the health system in developing countries. Thanks!

    • January 3, 2018

    If I could change the way I feel with myself it would be better for everyone. I don’t feel that I’m not good with anything excepted helping people. I feel self confidence is the best thing you can change.
    I want to belong in an organization to serve the public because that’s what makes me feel happy and needed knowing I was there for someone when they were down. Being a hero is what I mean. I want to live in a world with happiness, peace forever but that will never be. A place that makes sense where I’m needed.
    Helping to save a life when time is near and continue into to do so in the future. Finding new Interventions and ideas to succeed with my job. Getting the proper recogination.
    One time in the middle of the night got a 911 response a man was found lying in the street apperantly he was beaten up and hit by a car. I arrived on scene to find this man bleeding to death and barel breathing I immediately controlled his bleeding then pursued with maintaining his airway at the same time my partner called for back up. When the other team came we immediately transported this liveless person to the hospital and saved him. The feeling I had was fear and happiness because I was there to help him stay alive .
    Now I don’t know if this experience and the feelings I had is what my calling is I don’t know. One day I will come to realize who I am but what I discussed above maybe is who I am.
    P.S. If anyone has any ideas please let me know

    • Sandra
    • May 12, 2018

    Amy, thank you so much for sharing your coaching approach. I have a long career in HR (organizational development and training) but am looking to use my skills and experience and give back. Your process helped me get clarity on the net phase of my career. I would appreciate questions and feedback on my statement:

    “I will contribute to or lead an organization that helps find or provide services and care for the aging population for quality of life.”

    • Paige
    • June 7, 2018

    Terrific article and questions. I’ve heard concepts like this posed before, but framed this way with tangible, prompting questions I found to be really helpful.

    I want to bridge gaps and ignite empathy where ignorance and separation reside by sharing human stories of groups that don’t have a lot of interaction.

    I’m not quite sure just yet what career to make of that – conflict resolution, community outreach, etc. – but this feels like a great start!

    • Elisabeth Waagensen
    • June 9, 2018

    This article was exactly what I needed to read today. I am a medical doctor, health coach, and currently finishing a masters degree in Disaster Management. I often feel like the most confused and lost person on the planet. Although it is a bright and beautiful day here in Copenhagen, and I turn 35 tomorrow, I am feeling all kinds of blue.
    I am in the process of applying for jobs – and I have sent out about 30 applications in the last 2 months., I have heard back from ONE position – and that was the only unpaid internship that I applied for. I simply can’t afford to go unpaid any longer.
    My “why” would strike most people as obvious, if they were to write a statement for me… something along the lines of: Helping promote fair and equitable access to healthcare. But I’m not sure that that actually stirs anything deeper in me. I mean, everyone wants that right?
    The UN system and other major Humanitarian organizations face a huge hurdle these days, by the sheer weight of their own beaurocracy, that a person such as my self continually is told: “You are too overqualified” or “You don’t have enough experience”.
    I’m sorry for the long winded reply, but I truly am feeling stuck and disillusioned.
    Any words of advice?

    • Heather
    • June 23, 2018

    This article is awesome and just what I need right now in my life. I did the Q & A part but have not done my why statement yet. I have so many things that I want to change about the world. My biggest thing right now is that I am 51 years old and do not have a college degree. I did graduate high school and do have some college courses under my belt. I worked for a few years after high school but got married and started a family soon after. So basically I have been a stay at home mom for the past 30 years, with some short jobs in between. I am currently a single mom to a very bright 13-year-old daughter who was unschooled this past year. She is going back to school this next school year but I am NOT happy about it. I believe our whole school and work system in America needs a MAJOR overhaul. Due to me not really working all these years me finding a job is next to IMPOSSIBLE. However, I do not want a job…I want a meaningful career where helping people and making a real change is my daily work. I just really do not know where to even begin.

  9. I will contribute to an organization that promotes and facilitates young adult cross-cultural exchange for the purpose of connecting people with diverse backgrounds and broadening their perspectives about those who seem dissimilar.

    • Amy
    • July 16, 2018

    I want a more relaxed loving society like we had in the 80s. My business is around health and wellness but I have no experience in this. So I am thinking this is where I am stuck and keep feeling there is this huge thick wall I can’t seem to knock it down to build my business bigger.

Comments are closed.