Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

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Understanding your Context, Purpose and Skills (Drucker, Part 2)

This is the second post in a series on applying Peter Drucker's four factors of a theory of business to the way we work and think as organizers and individuals. The first factor Drucker suggests we ought to wrap our minds around is the need to understand our context, purpose, and skills as individuals. What does that mean?


Coming to grips with your context is a challenge. It involves stepping back from where you are right now (in your organization, in your career, in your life) and taking an honest look at your environment and your role in it. It requires asking yourself questions like these:

  • Who, really, are the people you share your daily life with, and what drives them?
  • What kind of environment do those people create?
  • What kind of environment does your behavior create?
  • What constraints do your day to day commitments put on the opportunities you can pursue?

Your answers to these questions--if they're honest, and not-self-serving--can help you form a realistic picture of the slice of the world that surrounds you. If you want to understand how to move forward from where you're standing, you have to know where you're standing. Getting to know your context is key for that.


Do you know why you do what you do? Maybe this one is easy. Maybe you get up in the morning and run to work because you do work you believe in. But can't that get hard to remember sometimes? When you're knee-deep in a tedious slog, maybe working with people you don't like, maybe unclear on how this project fits into the vision you're pursuing? This is a question where it's useful to be a little selfish: why do you do this work? What does it mean for you, what do you get out of it, how does it transform you? What's the end you're pursuing with this work?


What are you capable of? Do you stretch your capabilities to test the limits of your skills? Do you need to learn more to continue to grow? How would you go about doing that? What needs to shift in your life to make time for the new learning you should be doing?

If we want to continue to develop as members and leaders of our communities it's crucial to understand our place, our reasons for action, and the projects we're capable of taking on. Just as important as understanding these three categories, though, is that they all reinforce one another. I'll say more about this in the next post in this series.

on 'the platform'

On Quora someone asked what Merlin Mann means when he refers to thinking of your work as "a platform." This was my answer: I keep a text file of some of my favorite of Merlin's jags from Back to Work (ladies). Often when Merlin says something I think is especially brilliant I'll rewind and transcribe it, then work to edit it a little for coherence--the nature of podcasting can lead to some sentences that sound brilliant but are hard to follow on paper.

I opened up this file 'o mine and ctrl+f'd 'platform' to find these edited & concatenated observations from the episode you highlight and, as I recall, the one preceding it. They're very helpful in answering your question, I think. Emphasis mine. As you say.

Time and attention applied well reward you. When you spend your time well you learn what to pay attention to. When you pay attention to increasingly more interesting and challenging things it becomes clear how to spend your time. If you're a dumbass and you waste all your time on things that don't deserve your time and attention, you don't get to complain about why you're sad. Start paying attention to stuff that challenges you and moves you further along.

Ask yourself: what am I trying to build here beyond keeping this job or getting the next one? Are you building towards doing things you increasingly like? Are you keeping your eyes open for the right mix of opportunity and cash somewhere else? Are you looking to get connected with the right people? Accept that it's a process.

This all seem obvious now. You know why it seems obvious? Because it's the next step. It wasn't the next step six steps ago. That's the platform: the approach to your work--specifically your output--that makes desirable next steps more apparent. It's like a clock--let's say noon is your current job. Six o'clock is the full opposite of your work, everything you'll never do. What's two o'clock? Your next step. The next place you want to go."