1. Meaning is understanding not what you’re doing but why you’re doing it.

2. Motivation is much more powerful when it comes from the inside (why do you care about what you do, what are you passionate about, what is the significance), versus outside motivation (rewards, fame, money).  

We’re on the fourth element of building a healthy high-performance team. We’ve arrived at meaning.

What is meaning? It’s not what you’re doing but why you’re doing it: not what your job is, for example, but what drives you. A teacher might ask herself, why do I work as an educator of young people?

Of course, a healthy high-performance team needs to understand the “what” of their work. It’s the task, problem or issue. But the why is much more powerful: it’s the meaning of the work, the larger purpose. What is the significance? How does it fit into the bigger picture? Why does it matter at all?


Most important of all, what is driving each member of the team? Is it the hope of a bonus, a promotion, some sort of reward? It’s an important question, because one thing we have learned about motivation is that when it comes from the outside (rewards), it is far less powerful and far more likely to die off than when it comes from the inside (a deep desire to do one’s best, to advance a cause).

Here’s a story to illustrate how powerful meaning and “why” can be.

Michael Phelps is the most successful Olympian of all time. Yet in 2014, he ended up in a very dark place. He was photographed smoking marijuana, acquired two driving under the influence charges, and had a series of bad relationships. He was very troubled, despite having 14 gold medals and unlimited money. He ended up checking himself into rehab and had thoughts of suicide.

Gold medals are amazing achievements, but they are also external rewards. They don’t fill the meaning gap.

While in rehab, a friend asked him a simple but surprising question: “Is that the best that you can do?” Imagine asking the most successful Olympian ever, really, is that all you’ve got? But Michael listened. And he realized, he wasn’t even close to his best. Not because he needed more wins, though he would indeed earn more. But because he was living “what” (earning medals) and not “why” (his meaning and passion).

He changed his diet. He committed to physical therapy. He added yoga, stretching, massage and functional training to his swimming. He repaired a number of relationships. And possibly the clearest illustration of his shift: he stopped reading things like ESPN magazine and started reading biographies of people like Mahatma Ghandi and Steve Jobs. Talk about two individuals driven by inner purpose!

Michael’s overall shift was away from money and medals (external rewards) and toward meaning (trying his hardest, doing his best, rediscovering his love of training). By the Rio Olympics in 2016, he was truly happy.

That’s the power of why. And it lies at the heart of healthy high-performance teams. A great team is driven by some deeper than praise or trophies: it is fueled by meaning. External rewards are fine, but they are not the meaning of our lives.

Today's POWER-UP: Know your Why

Google’s Project Aristotle revealed that high-performing teams were clear on the fact that their projects had meaning and were designed to accomplish very specific objectives or to create new opportunities.

Just think about the team that created Google Voice - a piece of free software that allows you to talk, for free, to anyone else in the world. That project was not about creating software, it was about connecting people.

So why are you doing what you’re doing? What is the purpose of your team? Why are you working on a project? Or training for an event? Or practicing a new piece of music?

Knowing your why and being aware of the real meaning of the work that you’re doing is absolutely critical to ensuring that you reach your potential as a human being.