Last week, I was invited to an intimate brunch with a group of Latinas working at top businesses. We sat at a sunny Cuban brunch spot in Chelsea, received white wine on the house with frozen blue berries floating in the glasses, and bonded over our shared heritage and hustle - there were women running events for People en Español, writers for The Huffington Post, a woman leading up multicultural marketing with Google. The vibrant group went around the table to introduce ourselves.
I'm still working on the "pitch" around my professional journey. My 20's have not been a straight shot, having started in politics, policy and nonprofits, pivoted into startups, and now working in human-centered design. While this story doesn't give me as much anxiety as it used to, it can still make me self-conscious.
I heard myself saying that a common thread between the different industries I've explored is that "I'm a 'how person'". Several people's ears perked up to this.
After the brunch, several women came over to me saying that "we need to talk", and went into how they are good "idea people", but needed help on execution. These interactions made me feel great about my marketability, though also led me to want to explore further what being a "how person" means and the value behind it?
I've never considered myself most strongly as an "ideas person" - someone with an idea to disrupt an industry or who much spends time lost in thought and conversation around what "could be". Since I can remember, I've found my stride when I put pen to paper to start creating "how" to get something done. Frankly, living too much in what "might be" gives me anxiety. This has manifested in running and organizing clubs and events since middle school, starting organizations in college, and leading political organizing efforts the years after. I've always been a proponent of the quote "a dream without a plan is just a wish" - and overall, this has proven true to me. I've "planned" my way into many successes - getting into competitive colleges, hustling my way into jobs for which I was under-qualified, training for varying athletic events, and pulling off professional goals. My default is action.
The perceived rigidity that can come with "a plan" (as the popular quote goes - "if you want to make God laugh, tell him/her your plans"), however, and seeing the success of many "idea" people has made me recently question the merits of being the person behind the "how". Also, if focusing too much on "how" has handicapped me as a leader?
I've been listening to Simon Sinek's popular book "Start with Why" on why all great movements, businesses, and revolutions have been based on compelling ideas - "why's" rather than "how's". (Check out Sinek's famous TEDx Talk, to get the gist of it.) Paraphrased from Sinek, millions didn't show up to Marin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington because he said "I have a plan", they came because he said "I have a dream"; they came because his dream - his "why" - resonated with theirs - the "why" behind their actions. They ultimately came for themselves.
Sinek goes on, however, to say how every great "why" person needed strong "how" people to make their dream a reality. Behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington was an army of organizers - "how" people - who were able to orchestrate the day; behind every Steve Jobs visionary, there's a Wozinak who knows a product well enough to build and deliver on it. Without these "how" people, these "why's" fade into obscurity because there is no follow-through. The ability behind the "why" or "idea" people to get buy-in from the "how" people is thus essential.
I look back on my accomplishments, and see that there have always been strong "why's" behind them - "why's" that stirred up enough emotion in me to silence the practical-leaning side of my brain that tells me I need to have the perfect plan before action. The "why's" that motivated me to be a student leader in college - starting a women's mentoring organization, being elected to student council - these "why's" moved me to DC after college, where I hustled my way into free housing, and worked for civil rights organizations, connected to a larger, idealistic goal of a more equitable society for all. My "why's" are what led me to move to New York last summer without a job or an apartment, only a gut feeling that this is where I needed to be.
These "why's" spurred MY action, though when coupled with my "how" default, I was able to execute on these lofty visionS successfully.
I sometimes worry that by not identifying mostly as a "visionary" or as an "ideas person" that there's something lacking in myself as a leader. As I reflect on my successes - and backed by researchers such as Sinek - I'm learning to embrace that there must be a strong "why" and "how" behind success. A "why" is only as strong as the "how" that disseminates it into an organization through systems, habits, and processes. This validates my "how" skillset, though also encourages me to lean more into my "why".
I'm working to allow myself to dream, hope, and live in the ambiguity that comes with embracing an idea or dream without a plan - to let it sink into my bones and marinate long enough to point me in the right direction.
"How" and "why" people are both necessary for the health of an organization, just as our "how's" and "why's" are essential in reaching our personal goals. The magic happens when we put in the work to build bridges between these different ways of looking at the world with our colleagues and partners and to develop these seemingly opposed skills in ourselves.