By: Michelle Bogan

A number of years ago I read an amazing book by Dave Eggers entitled What is the What. It is about Valentino Achak Deng, a child refugee who immigrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program. Valentino faces immense challenges, trials, and changes throughout his young life, and as he grapples with his fate, he struggles to answer the question, “What is the what?”

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Inspired by this, I embarked on a “What is the what?” exercise for myself, doing some soul searching and challenging my own assumptions about how I make choices in life. The result is in a picture I have tacked on a board in my office — and saved on my phone — and come back to time and again. It reads:

What is ‘the what’ for me? It is living with love for myself and others, presence in this moment, good health, humor, intention and courage, kindness and compassion, connectedness to friends and community, faith, joyfulness and peace.

It has become my personal guidepost and scorecard. It is how I measure if things are in alignment for me. Am I in the right job? Is the next opportunity the right one for me? Am I spending time on the things that matter to me? Are the people in my life in congruence with my “What is the what?” or are they tugging me away from what is important to me?

Doing the work of creating my “What is the what?” has quieted so much of the noise around the “shoulds” that are thrown at us constantly. You should go here, you should work on that project, you should volunteer to help with that, you should get to know that person.

Says who? If that “should” does not align with my “What is the what?” then I say no and let the chips fall where they may. The thought I put into my “What is the what?” gives me the confidence to make decisions based on what is important to me and not second-guess myself.

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It is so easy to get pulled along by momentum, and before you know it you’re in a job you don’t like (or worse), and have no time for yourself or the people and things you care about. And so much time can pass before you realize what has happened. This is why figuring out your “what” is so important — as is building the habit of checking in with yourself on how you measure up against it.

What my gut, my heart, and my brain all tell me is wrapped up in my “What is the what?” Not any guilt, shame, or others’ expectations of me. Just my expectations of myself.

What is your purpose? Your North Star? Your guiding light? What will make you feel fulfilled at work? Knowing this will enable you to know that you are putting your time and energy into what is meaningful for you.

I hope sharing my “What is the what?” gives you some inspiration to write your own.

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Throughout her twenty-five-year career, Michelle Bogan has mentored colleagues and clients, founded and led women’s groups, and helped promote many women and men to leadership positions. In 2018, she founded Equity for Women to advance the mission of empowering women at work.

Originally published at

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