Trite though it may seem, one of my favorite films is It’s A Wonderful Life. When I was a kid, my grandparents made it compulsory watching, but unlike lentils, this was a mandate that I could get down with. I still watch it at least once a year, usually around the holidays. Yes, I appreciate the Capra film’s sentiments about gratitude for what you have, but it’s another theme that runs through the movie that has carved deep grooves in my psyche. It’s the idea that George Bailey, the film’s hero, is tempted by greed and riches time and time again but chooses a more modest—but more personally meaningful—path, building affordable housing in his community. While it never makes him a materially wealthy man, he’s able to provide a lovely home for his family, and by the film’s end, he realizes that his choices have helped him create an enriched life and community.
As I came into young adulthood, I naively regarded George Bailey as one archetype of the “American hero”: the American Businessperson. I thought that America was a land of great opportunity, where a person of ambition could “make something of themselves.” But I believed that it was George Bailey, not Mr. Potter or even Sam Wainwright, who provided a model of who I should aspire to be. Someone who finds something they’re passionate about—in George’s case, improving the lives of people in his town of Bedford Falls—sees an entrepreneurial way to fix it, and finds a sense of satisfaction and pride in building something that creates homes and jobs for the community around him. I believed that businesses should have heart and that success could be defined by more than the balance at the bottom of a bank statement.
Decades after It’s a Wonderful Life was made, the thinker and former advertising executive Simon Sinek would put a name to this theory in his 2009 book and Ted Talk, “Start With Why.” Sinek argues that understanding the purpose of a business, a movement, or an organization is the key to not only better and happier work cultures, but potentially transformative ones as well. In my own experience—first in my 15 years as a small-business entrepreneur and even currently as a working artist—knowing and communicating my “why” has been a crucial tool, helping me determine not only how to prioritize my time and energy, but also how to evaluate my own successes. My first business was a luxury-social-event production company—hardly curing cancer or aiding world peace, and certainly not destined to grow into an Amazon or a Starbucks. But my partner and I were clear on our “why” (life is worth celebrating well) and passionate about what we did (creating flawless, creative, and fun events), and were therefore able to recruit staff that were equally passionate. My inner George Bailey was able to take pride in a job well done and in retaining a happy team, even in moments of bitterness and frustration (when, say, a surge in fuel prices ate away all of our margins on flowers, or any of the myriad other obstacles that small-business owners weather on a daily basis).
Of course, it’s easy to stay focused on your “why” when your business is small. And while the majority of U.S. businesses are small, most people employed in the U.S. work for midsize-to-large corporations, with a steady and growing number of people working for “giant” companies (those with 10,000 employers or more.) These are places where, particularly of late, the answer to “why” seems to be a combination of growing even larger, delivering shareholders the largest profit margins possible, and ensuring the ability to float the eight-figure salaries of CEOs.