Why are you here?

By Slow Dad - May 06, 2017

If you can't explain to a seven year old, in one sentence, what you do for a living then you are either incompetent or your role adds no value.
I have long held a theory that if you cannot explain to a seven year old, in a single sentence, what it is you do for a living… then the chances are pretty high that you are either incompetent at what you do, or that your role adds no real value.
If you can't explain to a seven year old, in one sentence, what you do for a living then you are either incompetent or your role adds no value.
If you can't explain to a seven year old, in one sentence, what you do for a living then you are either incompetent or your role adds no value.
At this point some of you are getting up to start burning me in effigy, organise a lynch mob, or find some pins to stick into your voodoo doll. Before you do, think about this for a second.

Builders build things.

Bakers bake things.

Doctors heal people.

Mechanics fix engines.

Accountants keep track of finances.

Programmers (attempt to) tell computers how to do things.

Not all jobs do what they say on the tin

Then there are some jobs that don’t sound like much, but perform a valuable function.

Animal Husbandry Assistants give randy animals a happy ending.

A Bar Useless collects empty glasses and generally tidies up after drunken pub patrons.

Show me the value

But what exactly what value does a senior vice president in charge of marketing operations do?

How about a procurement architect... surely if you are renting or buying a solution as implied by the title then there is a very limited amount of architecting going on?

If somebody really had all the answers, would they need to be selling their life off by the hour as a certified life coach?

How do you quantify the tangible value add of a Beer Specialist?

What precisely are the duties of a full time Viscountess?

You get the idea.

Tales from the trenches

A few years ago I briefly overlapped briefly with an obnoxious old fellow who possessed a truly impressive sense of self importance and an equally impressive disdain for pretty much anyone that wasn’t him.

On my first day on the client site I attended a meeting during which this guy dramatically shoved his chair back, leaned forward glowering over the conference table, pointed his finger accusingly, and demanded loudly “Why. Are. You. Here?”.
Why. Are. You. Here?”.
The target of his ire was a thoroughly incompetent project manager who, to be kind, would have had trouble managing his way out of his own bathroom.

The poor guy physically flinched, his mouth gold fished a couple of times, he stammered unintelligibly, broke out in a sweat, before emitting a vaguely Beaker-esque squeak and bolting from the room.

While the way the question had been asked was certainly lacking in subtlety and tact, it is a question that has often crossed my mind during meetings. “Why are you here? What value do you add? How can you justify your salary/day rate?”.

"What value do you add?"
This has been particularly true of anything labelled a “programme”, or where project work has been outsourced to one of the large consultancies... inevitably there will be vast hordes of expensive consultants holding meetings, producing endless slideware, and being seen to work long hours. Of course the majority of the real work is performed by starry eyed cannon fodder graduates, while their more experienced colleagues spend a lot of time looking very busy performing some indeterminate function for which they don’t seem to be personally accountable.

looking busy
looking very busy performing some indeterminate function
Anyway back to my theory.

So tell me, why are you here? Seriously.

Were seven year old with a short attention span to ask you what you did for a living (not your job title, but what you actually achieve each day), how would you respond?

Should an obnoxious old guy demanded to know why you were in his presence, not to mention daring to be getting paid while being there, what would you say?

Imagine a jaded and cynical semi-retired blogger called you out for not adding any real value, how could you prove him wrong?

You did have a sensible, plausible, quantifiable answer... didn't you?

What I want you to think about is whether in answering these questions you needed to stop and think?

Did your answers sound sensible and reasonable?

Or did they reek of bullshit, uncertainty, or incompetence?

So what?

If you aren’t able to articulate, and quantify, the value that you bring to your current role then do you ever wonder why you are there at all?

We each only get one shot at life, it would be a great shame to waste a sizeable chunk of each day spending our time in some make-work placeholder role that doesn’t really actually achieve anything of value. It certainly won't make you happy.

Acceptable incompetence is a plague on society, help to solve that problem by becoming good at what you do... if you can't do that then don't you owe it to yourself to try doing something else?

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  1. "I help make medicines to make people better or stop them from getting sick."
    As I thought of that while reading your post, that's been my job description at a lot of jobs now.
    What value do I add? I care that the results affect both the patients who will receive this 'medicine', and government approval.
    What I'll do this evening is teach a yoga class...because I've found, I can't not teach. I light up when sharing information. Yoga is a great venue to combine my teaching, and my caring. I want my students to do the pose safely, and get what they need from the class, while learning something about themselves.
    After many years in this industry, I have been asked to help the training department, and have the potential to combine my two passions. :)
    At the same time, I've seen from turn-over in this industry, I am replaceable at my 9-5. Other companies are making other medicines that help people too. I worked extensively on a medicine at the last place I worked, and it is doing well and healing a lot of people. Those people have no idea who I am. That's part of where the teaching makes an impact when I see the light bulb of understanding pop on. :)

  2. Sounds to me like you're adding value and doing good deeds in both roles J Wuertz. Well done!