Book Review: Start with Why
Start with Why is a book that will change how you see everything, including the way you relate to the world.
The author, Simon Sinek, claims to reveal the secret that lets great leaders inspire others, and which, if ignored, leaves even the most well-equipped organizations sounding hollow and insincere, short-circuiting any attempts to inspire loyalty.
That secret is simple: all great leaders and organizations that inspire us start with WHY.
Everything they do expresses their reason for existence. Instead of telling the world WHAT they do, great leaders consider their WHATs almost incidental to their purpose
The book’s refrain: People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
It is a simple concept, but a very arresting one. Sinek explains the Golden Circle, his model for explaining the relationship between WHY, HOW, and WHAT (read my previous post for details). Most of the really important ideas can be gleaned from the famous TED talk. The book, however, does offer the kind of in-depth elaboration that is the hallmark of long-form writing. Sinek works out all the kinks and applies the model to a variety of situations, ranging from individuals to business organizations, to entire cultures.
In terms of businesses, Sinek’s principles have some interesting results.
When companies focus too strongly on WHAT they do, they get bogged down in fierce competition over product features and pricing, often resorting to manipulations–promotions, sales gimmicks, rebates–in order to drive sales.
Companies that are able to express their WHY, on the other hand, don’t even need to compete, as long as they have a decent product. Anyone who is familiar with the cult-like loyalty of Apple’s followers can attest to the fact that people who buy Apple products don’t even consider the competition. This is because Apple doesn’t sell computers, according to Sinek. Instead, they champion individuality and non-conformity. They just happen to sell computers. And MP3 players. And phones. And tablets. And music. And movies.
So, finding your WHY can make a seemingly wide array of WHATs serve a coherent, unified identity.
Apple is the most commonly used example in the book, but Sinek draws insights from the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Southwest Airlines, charities, the Wright Brothers, and many others. His point is clear: no matter the field, focusing on your purpose rather than your means is a surefire way to inspire people and attract the support you need to succeed (according to Sinek, Hitler also used these principles, so the power to motivate can be used for evil).
Sinek is motivated to motivate: Start with Why deals with empowering people to create change in the world. The Golden Circle theory is illustrated in that light: a means to help leaders reach others.
One of the most interesting points Sinek makes is that the principles of the Golden Circle originate from biological foundations. The human brain finds meaning in the world according to its emotionally-driven limbic system, not the rational work of the prefrontal cortex. Our society places a lot of emphasis on the rational part of the brain, but reality (and psychology experiments) demonstrates that we actually make decisions based on emotion. If we need to, we can then rationalize those decisions.
Therefore, in order to appeal to people–to motivate or inspire them–we must appeal to their emotions, their sense of purpose and meaning. Facts and figures are fine after that, but we must first reach people personally. Hearts, then minds, as Sinek points out.
The book was full of insights, but most of them are well demonstrated in the TED talk and the early chapters. The later chapters deal with elaborations of the Golden Circle, techniques for finding your own WHY, and why that is vitally important. It’s a fast read and enjoyable, somewhat comparable to Seth Godin’s Linchpin in length and style, so it isn’t a pain to get through the more nuanced arguments, even if they get a bit repetitive.
Start with Why is positioned as a book on business and strategy, but it’s a lot more than that. I now find myself asking the question, “What is their WHY?” all the time, and looking at life this way has helped me make sense of the behavior of many people and organizations. I has also given me a much stronger sense of purpose and direction in life.
I engage in a wide range of seemingly unrelated activities. I’m a writer, I love gymnastics and holistic movement, and I am fascinated by the study of psychology. I am deeply passionate about protecting the environment, living sustainably, and establishing a strong connection to wildness. I champion local food and traditional foodways. I an a strong believer in the relevance of Buddhist thinking and relating to the world, but I also love the challenge of modern marketing, sales, and communication.
It had been difficult to think of myself with any coherence, mainly because I saw myself in terms of WHAT I did. Once I applied the perspective of WHY, I made much more sense to myself. Over the course of reading the book, I realized exactly what I’ll be doing with the rest of my life, and how all of these differing areas of expertise apply to that (stay tuned for more on that).
I highly recommend this book to anyone who plans to make a difference in the world, or even just wants to feel a sense of fulfillment in their own life.