We tend to ask people when we first meet them about What they do for a living. We almost never ask them Why they do what they do, nor do they care to tell us, but it’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because it never even crosses their mind, let alone them even knowing why they do what they do.
Simon Sinek, a leadership expert, says that most of us (individuals and organizations) know What we do (sell products/services), some of us even know How we do it (our value proposition or that thing that makes us different and/or better), but very few of us know Why we do what we do (our raison d’être).
He introduced a concept called The Golden Circle, which is based on the Golden ratio, a simple mathematical relationship used by people throughout the ages. Picture two sets of three concentric circles. In the first set, starting from the inside out, we have Why, How, and What. In the second set, we have the limbic brain that corresponds to the Why and How, while the neocortex (our newly-formed brain) corresponds to the What. Our limbic brain is responsible for our emotions, feelings, instincts, and our “gut” reactions, while our neocortex is our “thinking” brain that is responsible for analytics, rational thought, and language. Our limbic brain is responsible for all human behavior and decision-making, but has no capacity for language. This is not just a communications hierarchy — it’s how most of us think, act, and do things.
Let’s take my work for example. I could start by saying What I do (management consultant), then I could get into How I do it differently and/or better. My Why could be about living to my fullest potential by using my skills, interests, and what the world needs. You’ll see that this messaging isn’t effective for the reasons stated above.
Now, what if I had started by talking about the things I believed in (my Why) — I believe in living to my fullest potential, because that’s how I contribute to the world, then I could get into How I work — using the existing talents and resources in organizations to improve customer satisfaction and to reach business goals. Finally, I would talk about the things we do (What) to realize our Why and How — improve individual and organizational effectiveness through different ways. If you read the About page and Services page, you’ll see this exact framework in action.
Sinek says that when we communicate from the outside in (What, How, Why), we’re being ineffective at best because though we are able to communicate what we are doing (the What), those things don’t drive behavior (the Why). But, when we communicate from the inside out (Why, How, What), we are talking directly to the part of the brain responsible for decision-making while our language part of the brain allows us to rationalize those decisions. As a result of this messaging, the people who believe what we believe will come talk to us.
Here’s the thing: People don’t buy What you do — they buy Why you do it. Your Why is simply your cause, purpose, or belief — your reason for existence — while your What serves as the tangible proof of your cause. You see, logic (What) makes us think, but it’s emotion (Why) that makes us act.
To find your Why, ask yourself: Why do you (or your company) exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? Why should anyone care? Your How is the actions you take to realize that belief. Of course, your actions are value-based. For example, instead of saying that your value is integrity, which doesn’t mean much, say that it’s doing the right thing. Values have to be actionable (verbs) as they guide our decision-making. Values could include taking care of the people in your organization in this order — employees, customers, stakeholders. Values could include accepting or changing things without complaining. Our values serve as the tangible proof of our beliefs. Finally, our Whats are the results of those actions — everything we say and do.
Sinek says that when we say, act, and do consistently in this order, we are being authentic.
Stop defining yourself based on the products and/or services you offer. Stop competing on price, quality, features, and service, since they are ways of manipulating human behavior, which is short-term focused. Instead, focus on what makes you uniquely you. What are the things that inspire you? Why do you do what you do? When you know what you believe, you will attract others who will believe what you believe, and only then would they want to work with you. Again, we do/buy things because of the Why.
Sinek says that we buy things because of the Why and then we rationalize our decision because of the What. We buy things because they make us feel good about ourselves in some way; it’s not logical, but emotional. Then, we justify our decision for getting those things by pointing out the tangible features.
Companies try to sell us What they do, but we buy Why they do it. Our Why has nothing to do with our What; What they (companies) do no longer serves as the reason to buy; they serve as the tangible proof of their cause. The Why focuses on output/results (1,000 songs in your pocket), not on inputs (5 GB MP3 player).
Our clients want to work with us because they believe the things we believe in and because they believe we can do things to help them. That’s the only reason to do business with each other.
Our decisions have more to do with who we are and less to do with the companies or the products/services we are buying. It’s false to assume that differentiation happens in How and What you do because What you do is not as important as Why and How you do it. Those of us who differentiate based on the What/How will never be able to compete in the long run; only those who know their Why can inspire behavior because others believe what you believe.
Look at companies like Apple, Baron Fig, Field Notes, Rapha, Rolex, etc. They all communicate from the inside out. They all have a cause that they strongly believe in; they have a reason to exist. The products they sell are merely a manifestation of their beliefs and values. They seem to have a strong following because those of us who believe what they believe follow them.
Everything we see around us has a purpose in life: plants, objects, whatever. We are all meant to serve a purpose. Knowing that higher purpose brings clarity to our lives. You’re no longer driven by the outside world because you believe in something bigger than yourself. That is what drives you, and what you do simply serves as the proof of the cause or purpose you believe in. Only when we know (and live) our Why, can we live to our fullest potential, thereby helping ourselves and others along the way.