In Venezuelan folklore there is a story of a wealthy man who takes his family on vacation to a tropical island. Once they arrive, they make their way down to the beach and are met by a smiling sunburnt local holding a guitar. The man with the guitar asks the wealthy out of towner: “What do you do?” “I work in business in the city,” the foreigner replies. Unmoved, the man on the beach continues, “and why do you do what you do?” Confused for a moment, the businessman tells him honestly, “well, so I can make a lot of money.” “And why do you want to make a lot of money?” asks the man with the guitar. “So I can sit on the beach with my family,” responds the businessman. Smiling, the man on the beach then looks back at the man from out of town and says, “well that’s what I do.”
The easy misinterpretation of this narrative is that one man is lazy and the other is ambitious, but that reading is superficial. The parable forces us to consider why we do our work, not what our work is. The man on the beach does nothing more than hold a mirror up to the man from out of town and force him, through dialogue, to consider the purpose behind his work.
Though sadly I had not traveled to a tropical island there too came a time when I looked in the metaphorical mirror. I remember sitting at my desk as a management consultant looking at an image on my phone that said “Mathematics Ends, Philosophy Begins.” I began questioning why I was doing the work I was doing.
Consultants leverage mathematics to help businesses address complex problems, but history has shown that mathematics alone is insufficient to guarantee a company’s success. As the image on my phone indicated, when mathematics ends, philosophy begins. Sure math is important, it tells us how something works, but it struggles to tell us why.
I studied philosophy in graduate school, and after reading the image on my phone and reflecting at my desk upon what I saw in the mirror, I left my job in consulting to co-foundwhat in many respects can best be described as a philosophy company. I had been part of a business that told other organizations how things work, but there are plenty of companies like that in the world. No coaching firm or consultancy that I knew of doubled as the man with a sunburn; somebody needed to hold the mirror.
Like the man on the beach, we help individuals and organizations prosper by fostering powerful conversations that expand self-awareness, strategic vision, and performance. But you can easily start by taking a figurative - or literal - trip of your own and carefully considering the purpose behind your work. We’re not asking you to reflect on your company’s mission, but rather why you do what you do.
Sometimes we do our work out of necessity. Harsh reality can exceed the luxury of reflection. My elderly aunt, for example, worked in a factory opening boxes for nearly fifty years. Her parents became ill when she was a young woman and, unmarried with no other means of support, she drove to the factory to apply for a position, a position she held her entire professional life. But if she were standing on the beach beside the man with the guitar, her initial answer would have been satisfactory; she opened boxes because she had to provide food for her family.
Fortunately, many of us enjoy different circumstances. And while our work is necessary to provide food and shelter, we have a myriad of options available to us for doing so. If we begin working in our early twenties, we’ll spend nearly half a century getting out of bed and going to the office. Understanding why you make the commute is, in my opinion, of paramount importance to leading a fulfilling life. How do you know the direction you’re going if you don’t understand the reason you’re in the car?
In an odd way, once you look in the mirror, people around you start looking as well. A handful will immediately reject the reflection as the experience is too powerful. Chances are they are unhappy in their role, and while they may wish you the very best, the experience of looking is simply too difficult to endure. Others will be disinterested; the experience of reflection isn’t painful they’re just simply indifferent. But for some, your act of gaining self-awareness encourages them to do the same. Pretty soon, you’ll be the sunburnt local holding the guitar.
To reach that point, it requires stepping into the shoes of both the man on the beach and the one from out of town. I discovered my purpose by playing the role of each; I was simultaneously a foreigner working for superficial reasons and the smiling local that wondered why. By engaging in a simple act of philosophical reflection - asking yourself the true reason why you are doing something - you’ll be able to powerfully enhance your self-awareness, strategic vision, and performative behavior. Not only will you become more autonomous in life and work, but you will empower others around you to do the same.
So if you find yourself sitting on the beach this summer, look for a man with a guitar.
(This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.)