Always start with ‘Who?’

New Year’s day is the day everyone decides they want to change. We want to lose weight, get a different job, save more money, finally take that vacation we’ve always dreamed of and about a thousand other things. It makes sense. New year, new you. We call them resolutions, but walk into any fitness center come March and you’ll see just how un-resolute real life can be. Packed to the ceiling the first week of January, a couple months later, everything has gone back to normal and you don’t have to wait for the machines.

I’ve done it. Everyone I know has done it. Very few people I know have bucked the trend and actually seen things through.

Why is that?

Is it because the work, the workouts, the saving is too hard? That’s possible, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because when we take stock and make plans for the new year, we start by asking the wrong questions. We ask ourselves what we want to achieve, what we want to accomplish. Good questions both, but achievements and accomplishments are binary – we either do them or we don’t – and, if you hadn’t done them in the previous year, you’re used to living without having done them. It’s actually easier for things to remain the same, so it takes an extraordinary act of discipline to focus on achievement and actually see things through.

Don’t believe me? Stroll through the magazine aisle at your bookstore. What catches your eye? For me, it’s the fitness magazines screaming in bold fonts that I can ‘blast belly fat now’ and ‘lose 10 pounds in 10 days’ and making all kinds of promises that are left to me to keep. Now, how many copies do you think Men’s Health would sell if losing weight were actually that easy?


So how do the people who achieve do it?

By asking ‘what’ they want to do, but ‘who’ they want to be.

As a recovering journalist and active writer and marketing strategist, I know that there are only six questions a person can ask- who, what, why, when, where and how. Asking them in the right order makes all the difference. The first thing I do when I work with a new client in my agency life or when I have workshops on writing and storytelling for people from elementary school through adults, is ask ‘who?’

Who is the story about? Who is the person you are trying to reach? Who are the customers you need in order to accomplish your sales goals?

I start with who, because it is the bedrock on which all other questions are built. It doesn’t matter how clever your product is, how interesting your story or film is, how ingenious your ad campaign; if you can’t understand the people you’re trying to reach, it will all just be noise.

I was once doing some work with an American motorcycle manufacturer (no, probably not the one you’re thinking of) who was trying to make some gains in their market share. They had an incredibly well-designed and manufactured product that, in all tests, was superior to their competitions in performance and feel. It was safer, faster, stronger, all the ‘-ers’ that you’d think would lead to bigger sales, yet, nothing. The company had set out to accomplish a better motorcycle and had achieved it, but it didn’t seem to matter.

I asked their brand manager who their target customer was and he rattled off an impressive list of statistics about median age, income, likelihood of having a military background, likelihood of having certain kinds of jobs. But to me, it felt like he was treating his ‘who’ like the technical specifications for one of his products – data, not people. So I asked who they really were and it became clear that the answers he had for ‘who’ were not as helping as he had imagined. He had taken for granted the real people that would make all the difference. So, we rethought our approach and designed an opportunity for immersive observation. Go out into the world and listen to, speak with, pay attention to the people that had become so many statistics in his marketing database.

It quickly became obvious that none of the statistics mattered, that the thing that set his customers apart from his competition’s wasn’t anything that could be quantified in a ‘median’ way. It was a way of thinking, they way they viewed the world, their reasons for riding. Not where they had been, but where they were going. We made some simple changes to his digital marketing and sales went up.

His company’s achievements were not actually measurable in performance or even sales – they were measurable in a better understanding of people.

So, what does this have to do with resolutions to lose weight, get a better job or save money? Well, it has to do with the fact that a weight loss goal, a career goal and a financial goal look an awful lot like my client’s goal of building a better motorcycle. They are binary. They are achieved or not. If you say you want to lose 50 pounds in the new year, you will either do it or, more likely, you’ll lose some weight quickly, but then things will plateau for a while and eventually you’ll get frustrated and stop going to the gym. You’ll feel like a failure at the end of 2018 because you started off with a very specific what and fell short.

But if you were to start with ‘who,’ you will probably have a better chance for success. If you made your resolution to become the kind of person who can commit to an exercise regime; to become the kind of person who is capable of overcoming the fear of physical change; to become the kind of person who makes careful decisions about what they eat; to become the kind of person who puts effort first and delays gratification, then you’re focusing on who you want to be along the journey instead of a binary outcome.

Resolutions are fine and dandy, but I believe you are much more likely to succeed if you shift the focus from the end goal to the process and realize that achievements are an outcome, not a strategy. In the new year, focus not on achieving binary goals, but on rewriting your story and making updates to the draft as you go. Start with the ‘Who’ because it will make the answer to every other question much more likely to be true.

Remember, our pasts are written in ink, but our futures are written in pencil. Write well, my friends, and rewrite as you go.

Happy New Year.


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