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I usually open the semester by asking my students why they are taking my Composition course.
A handful of students will share that they are genuinely excited to improve as writers, but the most common answer I receive is “because I have to.” My university requires all undergraduates to satisfy a General Education “College Writing” requirement in order to graduate, so I couldn’t blame them for their honest answer. Writing is not always an easy task, even for those of us who do it for our careers.
In fact, I sometimes feel that my own writing is more in the “have to do” camp than the “feel passionate about” camp. I’m currently working on a pretty big project with a November 30th deadline, and I want to manifest as much intentional purpose and passion to engage with what could be a stressful drafting process. Hence this month’s focus: purpose.
This week’s post explores the function of identifying and narrowing our purpose through the lens of why. I cover the Golden Circle, a well known model for working with purpose, and I adapt it for writing purposes. I find that this method contributes to upped confidence and increased clarity through writing within intentional boundaries. Even if you’re not a writer, I hope you will find tools that you can use to shift your perspective around having a purpose on purpose.
Starting With Why
Simon Sinek is well known for his 2009 TedX talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” In his talk, Sinek attributes the success of businesses and individuals to a hierarchy of focuses: first, why they do what they do, next, how they do what they do, and third, what they actually do. He calls his concept the Golden Circle, which looks like this:
Image: “The Golden Circle”
In the article “The Science of WHY,” Sinek’s Start With Why team explains how our brains engage differently with feelings and language in ways that align with his hierarchical model of why, what, and how:
“The outer section of the Golden Circle—the WHAT—corresponds to the outer section of the brain—the neocortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for rational and analytical thought. It helps us understand facts and figures, features and benefits. The neocortex is also responsible for language.
The middle two sections of the Golden Circle—the WHY and HOW—correspond to the middle section of the brain, the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for all our behavior and decision making. It’s also responsible for all our feelings, like trust and loyalty. But unlike the neocortex, the limbic system has no capacity for language. This is where “gut feelings” come from. It’s not our stomach. It’s a feeling we get about a decision we have to make that we struggle to explain.”
When we root our venture (be it a business plan or a term paper) in our why, we establish behavioral and emotional foundations that will support and enable our how and what actions.
Life and executive coach Kate Snowise extends the function of the Golden Circle to self development in her podcast, Here to Thrive. In Episode 54, “What is Your Why (and Why it Even Matters),” she adapts Sinek’s circle in three key ways:
- What do you do? Snowise calls this “what we see everyday. It’s often the way we classify ourselves,” and so it can be a label or title, such as coach, teacher, scientist, healer, etc.
- How do you do what you do? This is the verb of what you do, such as market, write, coach, research, heal, etc.
- Why do you do what you do? Snowise suggests that we think of our lives as a whole, or take a big picture view, asking ourselves why doing what we do matters to us.
How to Write With Purpose on Purpose
Although my initial goal for applying the Golden Circle to my writing last week was to simply identify my why and use it as a guide for drafting my paper, I ended up getting much more done that I had expected and feeling calm and confident through the process!
Using my purpose on purpose as by guide gave me three results:
- Upped my clarity in both planning and writing
- Set achievable writing goals via establishing boundaries
- Renewed my faith in my abilities as a writer
In the takeaways, I share my three experiences as actionable prompts that you can use to identify your own purpose on purpose and apply to your own writing (or whating).
Clarify Your Why, How, and What
Identifying my why, what, and how helped me to better articulate my purpose for the paper I’m working on, which gave me a lot of clarity about how exactly I should and shouldn’t be filling up those pages.
To do this first takeaway, select a project you’re working on (this could be writing, creative, business, etc.) and write three clear sentences that identify your why, what, and how (so, one sentence per question word). Be sure to start with why and end with what! Revise them until they feel like they fit your purpose and the scope of the project.
Set Purposeful Boundaries
Once I had clearly identified my own why, how, and what, I incorporated them into a concept map that outlined my paper’s introduction. I linked my why to my contribution to my field of study, my how to my method, and my what to my analysis. My goal was to establish a clear and limited scope for my paper that made sense for the length and assignment requirements.
Below, you’ll see my map with my paper’s details swapped out for generalized and actionable language that you can tweak for your own purposes. This map is limited to my why, how, and what, so, depending on your purposes, you may need to rearrange, add, or cut some of the steps (or simply use it for inspiration!). If you want a PDF version, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: “Kate’s Introduction Map with Why, How, and What” (made in Scapple)
The Raccoon Report
I bounced my why, what, and how plan off of my Sweetie after I had drafted my concept map. One of the parts of her job is facilitating, so she always has great suggestions about how to manage a project. We agreed that my scope seemed reasonable, but I wasn’t confident about how to transfer from planning to writing. She suggested that I start with a “Raccoon Report,” a term that one of her middle school teachers had used in a writing class.
A Raccoon Report is similar to what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft,” in that its purpose is to make you get words out of your brain and onto the page. It gets its name from the ways one might write a first draft of a report on raccoons: “Raccoons looks like little bandits. The fur on their faces looks like masks. They have striped tails. They have tiny hands. They eat cat food sometimes.” As you can see, these sentences function simply to report information; they can later be finessed via transitions, changing the ways the sentences begin, and can be made more complex. Right now, however, the goal is to WRITE.
The Raccoon Report method helped to restore my confidence in my ability to convey my what. I recommend the Raccoon Report method to anyone who is struggling with getting words on the page or who is unsure how they will ever meet a length requirement.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.