Start with Why: Key Takeaways from Simon Sinek’s Book

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Start with Why by Simon Sinek is one of my favorite books on finding your purpose. It is a book that focuses more on businesses in understanding the purpose of a business, but everything about it is as essential for the individual as it is for a multibillion dollar company.

Simon Sinek is known for a TED talk that went viral (have you noticed that a number of the authors mentioned in this book started as TED speakers?). That talk introduced the Golden Circle, a concept at the core of this book.

The Golden Circle is a way of looking at the world in which we start by understanding why we do something before moving on to how we do it and what the results are. 

In the business world, so much emphasis is put on what we do and how well we do it instead of why we do it. The problem with this perspective is that it’s reactive rather than proactive. It’s all about responding to what others want or need from us as opposed to figuring out what we want to bring to the table.

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The Golden Circle

The book starts with this key concept of the “Golden Circle”. Visually, this circle is actually three circles within one another, with the course circle representing “WHY,” the middle circle representing “HOW,” and the outer circle representing “WHAT.”

Let’s take a look at each of these individually:

  • Why: This is the driving force. The reason that you start something or do it in a certain way. It’s what inspires people to get out of bed everyday, even when they don’t feel like it and go through all the motions because they believe in their purpose.
  • How: This answers how we do things. If your WHY is “to help people,” then this would be how you go about doing it. Your HOW is a combination of your values and principles, skill sets, knowledge base, etc.
  • What: This is the result that we’re getting from our WHY and HOW. It’s what we do on a daily basis in order to reach out goal for WHY we started something.

The WHAT of what we do has far more variation than the WHY. In fact, you could easily have the same Why in a variety of different businesses.

For example, my why is to help people become the best version of themselves, starting with myself. That is a purpose shared by a lot of other people and companies. But when you start factoring in my skills and interests, which I use to develop my how, suddenly my business takes on a completely different form than most people.

But the why is still at the core of what I do, and it helps inspire others who believe in the same thing, as well as guides my actions when making decisions about my business.

But let’s take a closer look at some of the key takeaways from this book.

Inspirational Marketing vs Manipulative Marketing

Simon Sinek goes into a deep dive of all of the different marketing techniques that are manipulative. He talks about how these techniques start with the what instead of the why and how they can be very damaging to not only a business, but also to society as a whole.

These include low price, promotions, fear, aspirations, peer-pressure, novelty-factor, etc.

instead we want to focus on inspirational marketing, marketing that stems from our why. If we can do that we will easily find the people that believe in our why, and those people will remain incredibly loyal to us.

“People Don’t Buy What You Do, They Buy Why You Do It”

Let’s face it, there are a lot of companies that make computers. But there is a reason why Apple stands out above the rest. They have a very clear why, one that Simon Sinek describes as challenging the status quo.

This is why Apple has succeeded when many others don’t. This is why when Apple created an MP3 player known as the iPod, it worked for them, whereas when Dell decided to do the same thing, their idea flopped. We can’t see Dell making MP3 players, because that’s not part of their why. But Apple set up to disrupt the music industry, they just happened to do it through MP3 players.

The same can be said of the iPhone, the iPad, the original Apple, and many more of their products. This is why Apple has such a devout following, even though many disagree with their products. No tech company has the kind of customer loyalty that Apple has, and that is because of their why.

A Why Guides Your Decisions

When you start your business or build it upon a foundation, the why is what guides us through all of our decisions.

For example, if my WHY was to make money (which it shouldn’t be), then this would guide me to start businesses that made more and more each year with little regard for anything else.

But instead if my WHY was to help others, then I would start businesses that had a positive impact on the world.

I’d be less focused on making money and more concerned with helping people reach their goals or live better lives. And this is what leads me down many different paths which are all based around why we do things rather than just doing them.

This also helps us to understand which business practices are not appropriate for our business. There are a million different ways you could take a business, but when you look at them through the lens of a why, it becomes clear whether each business practice or idea is in alignment with that why or not. If it is not, discard it.

Building the Cathedral

Sinek shares a metaphor of two tradesmen building a cathedral. One man hates his job, and when you ask him what he is doing, he tells you that he is putting up bricks.

But if you asked the second man what he is doing, he will tell you that he is building a cathedral. He understands the why of his work, and it brings him a lot more inspiration and fulfillment.

This is one of the secrets of the why. When you understand it, work suddenly becomes much more fulfilling.

Putting a Plan to the Why

Now despite everything I just said, a why with no action is useless. That is why we have to put a plan in place that is in alignment with our why.

This is the “how”. This is the next step in our journey.

It is what we do to make our why a reality.

For example, if my why was to heal our natural environment, our how could be by increasing clean energy or reduces pesticides. Then you can select your what by starting a business that manufactures solar panels or sells organic food, just as an example.

This is what makes our why more than just an idea, it’s also the action we take to bring this about. And if you start your business with WHY first and put the HOW in place second, then even though you may be taking action based on your why, there is no guarantee that your business will be successful.

This is because you haven’t done enough to align the why with what you are doing, and this can result in businesses struggling or failing.

But start by understanding WHY first, then put a HOW framework in place second (and don’t forget about it), THEN start taking action based on these two things.

Trust is Needed

Simon Sinek’s book is one of leadership. In it he frequently cites examples of people like Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King Jr. One of the core aspects that he touches on regarding leadership is trust.

The first and most essential component to establishing trust in your company is to develop trust with your staff. Second, you must back up your words with actions.

We see this over and over again with companies like Continental Airlines, which is cited in the book, losing trust with their employees and customers. But when CEO Gordon Bethune took over, all of that changed. Simply gaining trust from everyone within the company led to huge successes on the outside.

Having your why is a big part of what makes it easier for employees to trust you.

Best Quotes from Start with Why

“Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it… Henry Ford summed it up best. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” he said, “they would have said a faster horse”.”

“Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do to compete?” the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and market opportunities available today?”

“Great leaders are those who trust their gut. They are those who understand the art before the science. They win hearts before minds. They are the ones who start with WHY.”

“When you compete against everyone else, no one wants to help you. But when you compete against yourself, everyone wants to help you.”

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

“There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”

“Happy employees ensure happy customers. And happy customers ensure happy shareholders—in that order.”

“Leading means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.”

“You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”

“Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.”

“All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year.”

“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”

“Great leaders and great organizations are good at seeing what most of us can’t see. They are good at giving us things we would never think of asking for.”

“Working hard for something we do not care about is called stress, working hard for something we love is called passion.”

“Some in management positions operate as if they are in a tree of monkeys. They make sure that everyone at the top of the tree looking down sees only smiles. But all too often, those at the bottom looking up see only asses.”

“People are either motivated or they are not. Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward, they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you’ll be stuck with whoever’s left.”

“Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of WHY. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.”

“When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.”

“Passion alone can’t cut it. For passion to survive it needs structure. A why without how has little probability of success.”

“Innovation is not born from the dream, innovation is born from the struggle.”

“Our behavior is affected by our assumptions or our perceived truths. We make decisions based on what we think we know.”

“If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate WHY the organization exists in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work?”