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Joe Eames for Thinkster

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What are you building?

Where do you work? What do you do?

How many times have you been asked one of those questions? Probably a lot. I’ll bet you have a pretty standard answer you can rattle off without much thought.

You may give an arrogant answer: “I’m a managing senior customer service engineer at a multi-national fortune 500 company”.

You may be ashamed. You may give an answer that is minimalistic. “I’m just a customer service rep,” you say.

But what if you were asked, “What are you building?”

How would you answer that question? What would you say?

The answer to that question will be infinitely more interesting and self-affirming than the answer to the previous two questions.

We can find the perfect example in the commonly told story of the janitor at NASA, questioned as to what they were doing. The janitor answered, “I’m putting a man into space”. This answer is aspirational, inspirational, and shows the vision this person had.

We are undoubtedly building things that aren’t related to our place of employment if we even have one. You are probably building relationships, financial stability, and other people, both while you’re “at work” and while you’re not.

This question also creates mindfulness. It makes you aware of how each task contributes to a much much greater whole. Being mindful at work gives you the opportunity to see the value you are creating.

Answering this question will reduce negativity in our lives. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how stuck you feel, no matter how dead-end your job is, you have an answer for “what are you building?”. And if you answer that question right now, I’ll bet you’ll find that you’ll feel a lot less negative about your situation.

It also gives you the opportunity to “drill up” (a loftier version of “drilling down”) in the purpose and value of what you’re doing. The above janitor could start with “I’m mopping the floor” and then move to “I’m keeping the building clean” then progress again to “I’m providing an environment that lets others work effectively” and then finally arrive at “I’m putting a man in space”.

If you ask me what we’re building at Thinkster, I would start with “We’re creating online development courses”, which then drills up to “We’re teaching developers new skills”. That leads up again to “We’re helping developers be more productive to get more done or get a better job”, and then we finally arrive at what we’re truly building: “We’re helping people improve their lives”.

So the next time someone asks you, “Where do you work?” or “What do you do?”, don’t answer those questions directly. Instead, answer the question “What are you building?”. I’ll bet whatever it is, it’s amazing and important.

Happy Coding!

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