"What inspired you to get involved in the Income Share Agreement space?” I was asked one week ago. Then, a few days later, someone else asked me the question. I have recently started to reflect on the contents of my conversations, and I have found that a lot of my discussions have gravitated toward the inspiration behind my work — the moment when I felt “this is what I want to do”. I have found that this is a very effective question to ask, because it both allows you to get to know how a person thinks, and allows you to measure their attachment to the thing on which they are working. If someone can give you a strong response to that question, they are more likely to stick around when times get touch and continue to work hard — they are mission driven. However, if someone cannot give you a good response, it is an indication that either: (i) they have not found their passion, or (ii) they have only just started to explore the industry and are not yet ready to be asked that question.
In my case, I got involved in the Income Share Agreement industry after reading about Lambda School and hearing student success stories. To me, it was remarkable that there was a school that allowed any passionate individual to attend — the barrier to capital was gone. I have spoken with many people over the last year who are either in college, have went to college, or are considering going to college, and most of my conversations included a discussion about student financing. Lambda School was working on an interesting solution, and so I decided to delve deeper. I listened to podcasts — the Venture Stories podcast on which I was interviewed about ISAs a few months ago was one of the main ones I listened to, ironically — read articles, discovered research papers, and more. As I continued to consume more knowledge, I discovered that student debt was a massive issue, and I realized that if I invested more time in researching the space, I could have a real impact on the world. And here I am, over a year later, as a professional researcher on Income Share Agreements, having published a book, many research papers, and being considered a prominent industry figure by many people. All of that came from learning about Lambda School.
In a few of my calls over the last week, I have asked the person what inspired them to start working on X problem, and I have found that it has been a great conversation accelerant. After hearing about a person’s story, I have had follow-up questions, and have taken notes on various things the person has mentioned which may be good conversation starters in the future. The reason you can derive so much information from this question is because people often end up telling a story, and stories convey a wide variety of information. Interestingly, stories often go off on tangents too — a commonality I have found in many of my answers, and the answers of other people — which help you learn even more about the individual. Even if they have never thought about the question before and have not prepared an articulate answer, most people will be able to share an insightful response and often pinpoint that one moment where they felt “this is what I want to do”.
Let me give you an example. I had a call yesterday with a friend of mine, who said that he had gotten involved in the mental health space because he had met a professional on a trip, and had an interesting conversation about mental health. He quickly started to research the mental health space, and his curiosity was sparked. As he continued to read more and started to talk with more people in the space, he found out about a lot of the complexities of the industry, and felt an attachment toward working in the space. Our discussion went off on a tangent about his future employment, and he mentioned that he “still had a lot of work” that he wanted to do in the space — he was committed to the industry. The story allowed me to learn more about how he broke into the industry, but also about his values — integrity, commitment, among others. I did not expect this when I answered the question but after reflecting on all of my other discussions, I find that this is common — people share their values when they are being asked this question.
Asking someone about their inspiration allows you to gain a firmer insight into how they think about the world. I have been reading “The Upstarts” lately, a book about the history of Airbnb and Uber. This book provides a comprehensive insight into the founders’ mindsets who started these companies, and describes how they had a different view of the world. Travis Kalanick of Uber envisioned a world where the taxi industry would not be so dominant and that access to high-quality transportation was democratized. I envision a world where student debt is no longer a major problem, and a world where people can attend college and bootcamps based on their passion and ambition, rather than their ability to access capital.
Learning about how someone sees the world can help you ask better questions in the future, but it also inspires a sense of curiosity -- you want to learn more about that person. If they have told you a humorous fact on a tangent, you will want to learn more. If they say that they discovered Lambda School in an Uber (apparently a semi-frequent occurance), you will want to ask more questions about that. Overall, finding out about someone's inspiration helps you connect better with them, and develop a culture of trust from the get-go.
I also find that asking this question makes it easier to find things you have in common with another person. In the aforementioned example, both myself and the other individual had a commitment toward a national issue, and we continued to discuss what we had in common even after we had exchanged stories. Hearing about what inspired someone to get involved in the space in which they are working today allows you to find out all of the elements that went into their decision and, oftentimes, they will have used the same mental models as you. Or perhaps, like the aforementioned example and like my story, they discovered an interesting industry serendipitously, and were so interested that they wanted to continue to find out more. If you ask this question at the start of a discussion, it will make it easier to ascertain points of commonality, and thus allow you to ask more informed questions as the discussion progresses.
Asking about someone's inspiration also makes you spend more time reflecting on your life and your story. When I was first asked this question, I already had a good answer -- the brief story I mentioned above provides you with an insight into my inspiration. However, as I started to ask people, I found that I was spending more time looking within, and thinking about how my experiences are similar or different to the other person. I became more self-aware, in a sense, because I was more carefully contemplating my own story, and using others' responses to help inform how I should best share my thoughts.
If you are looking for a good way to get to know someone better, ask them about their inspiration. Ask about the moment they knew that they wanted to learn more about the industry in which they are working right now. Ask follow-up questions about their story if you have any, and spend time reflecting on the information they have given. One's inspiration is the fuel that helps guide them through their journey -- if things go bad, strong inspiration helps them continue. Therefore, learning about someone's inspiration is very powerful -- you can learn about what motivates other people. It may seem like a simple question. That's because it is a simple question. But it often results in a thoughtful discussion about each other's inspiration, and helps you get to know the other person better. In most of my discussions with friends, I now ask them "What inspired you to pursue X?", sit back, and listen.
What inspires you to work on the problem you are passionate about?