How to Use the ‘5 Whys’ to Clarify Your Career Goals

How to Use the ‘5 Whys’ to Clarify Your Career Goals was originally published on Vault.

If you’ve been looking for a way to understand what makes you unique, prepare for interviews, or decide between competing job offers, let me introduce you to the 5 Whys.

The 5 Whys is a “root cause analysis” that aims to identify problems you're trying to solve, then drill down to their roots to solve them. The analysis is just what it sounds like—a series of five “Why?” questions. The 5 Whys was originally developed as a manufacturing methodology by Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese inventor who founded the parent company of the automaker Toyota. The analysis can be used to solve both personal and professional problems. 

A few years ago, I used the framework to realize that lack of sleep was the root cause of my unhealthy eating and constant feeling of frazzle. Last year, I rediscovered the 5 Whys, which has been resonating with my students (I work in the careers space at Duke University). They like the structure of a framework and having a formula to work with. I work with engineering students, so the origin within an automotive company seems to carry additional credibility for them, too.  

To illustrate the power of the 5 Whys, here is an example. Recently, I worked with a student searching for product management roles. The student wanted to craft a better answer to the “tell me about yourself” interview question. They knew their answer was a little generic and wanted to share their motivation for the product manager role in a unique way. Enter the 5 Whys. Below is how our recent conversation went.

Me: Why do you want to be a product manager?

Student: To develop technologies that impact people’s lives.

Me: Why do you want to develop technologies?

Student: Because my ability to empathize helps me connect to users. I know I can really unlock what they need.  

Me: Why can you connect to users?

Student: Because empathy is my superpower. I realized this in my first role after undergrad. You probably don’t understand this living in the U.S., but I was encouraged by family and friends to downplay my empathy. They saw it as something not valued in our patriarchal society. In my first role, I was doing work similar to a product manager but without the title, and I saw that empathy was magic. It wasn’t something to be downplayed at all. It was something I needed to reach out and embrace.

Me: Why was empathy magic?

Student: Because the users opened up. Empathy helped me see more from their point of view. It helped me establish trust. It helped me anticipate. It helped me communicate the user needs better to the rest of the stakeholders who were working on the product, or backing the product. I became known as one of the “go-to” people on the product team because of this.

Me: Why were you one of the go-to people?

Student: Because I had a lot of value in a role and environment where the user is at the center. If we can’t understand the user, how can we possibly get the product close to what they need. 

By using the 5 Whys framework, the student was able to clarify their motivation and strengths for the product manager role. They discovered that their motivation for working in a product management role comes from a focus on the user and the way they use empathy (their strength) to access the true needs and requirements. They started with the 5 Whys, and along the way found their superpower of empathy and an interesting story they could begin weaving together to make a compelling introduction in interviews.

Jenny Sloop Johnson works with Engineering Master's students at Duke University in the careers space. When not coaching students and alums on their job or internship search process, she loves to consume books on Reese's Book Club List, test vegan recipes, and explore outside with family.