Often at parties, someone will approach you and strike up a conversation. Inevitably, the question, "What do you do?" will rear its head. You might reply, "I am a lawyer," "I am a strategy consultant," "I am a fashion designer," or something in that vein. You will likely follow it immediately with a qualification such as "I represent media companies in patent violations," "I specialize in innovation and digital branding strategy,” or "I use only recycled materials for my clothes.” Your new acquaintance will similarly provide you with information on what he does and how he does it. When you walk away, both of you may think, "Well, that was nice,” and forget about what you talked about as soon as someone else approaches you.

Why is it that we when we talk about our work, we inspire neither those we address nor ourselves? Perhaps it's because we've forgotten what it means to be inspired, or what motivated us to choose our vocation in the first place. The joys and stresses of corporate politics, dating, marriage, and children, all obfuscate why we spend 8 hours a day at our job.

Not everyone is caught in such a blind alley, however. According to Simon Sinek, what separates successful leaders like Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs from the rest of us is that they are always clear about the motivation and vision for their work. Whereas we always describe what we do, followed by how we do it, and finally, (if we remember) why we do it, superstars always think about their work in the reverse order.

In a fascinating and inspiring TEDx talk, Sinek explains what he means by starting with why: "What's your purpose? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?"

 

What happens when you know why you are working? You stop working, and instead start pursuing an idea, decoding a puzzle, and reaching out to collaborators. You stop wasting time browsing the Web, running after dates, and indulging in long-winded arguments. You have perspective, and every aspect of your life starts clicking into place: in other words, you achieve balance.

This all sounds suspiciously like something Deepak Chopra would say. Maybe it is. But mindfulness about one's purpose in life is going to be key in the hyper-competitive economy of the future. It's a cold fact that you'll need to be more self-motivated and driven today than was ever required in the industrial age. With distractions multiplying like rabbits around us, the only way to remain focused is to have a strong idea of why you are pursuing a line of work. In yoga, gurus emphasize paying attention to one's breath to focus the mind; in the business world, you have to center your energies around your purpose to achieve success.

Sometime between Halloween and Christmas, set aside a moment to ruminate on what inspires you and how you'll translate that into productive work. Use your reflections to guide you throughout 2011. Also, teach your children to approach work in this manner; it may be the best Christmas present you ever give them.

For inspiration, read Simon Sinek's Start with Why and Daniel Pink's Drive.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.