Why start with ‘why’ isn’t the start we all think it is

There’s a whole group of people who are excluded from Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. And I think I’m one of them.

Somehow I missed the original invite

The invite to the Start with Why block party of the century.

Over 48 million people arrived at Simon Sinek’s house party ‘Start with Why’ way before I did.

I’d heard about Simon Sinek’s global phenomenon that is the book Start With Why but I must have been on a different planet for a period because I never got round to watching the TED talk ‘How great leaders inspire action.’  

Everyone was talking about it, except me, and whilst that tells you a lot about my personality – I feel the need to veer left when everyone else is veering right – I eventually read his book earlier this year.

And like many others, it really inspired me.  

Golden Circle, Start with Why

I was at a stage in my business where I had set up a HR consultancy and was offering services that I thought people with my background should offer.  And because I was new to this world of being a solo business owner, like many entrepreneurs before me, my ‘why’ was based on ‘what’.

What I do.

How I do it. 

Who I do it for.

And even the ‘why’ was more about reinforcing the value I believed I offered in this space that tied to what I have done.  As a distinction to what I enjoy and why I enjoy doing it.

The missing piece of the equation

So when I got to page thirty-seven of his book and was introduced to the Golden Circle, I thought that’s it. This is what I’ve been missing.

My website at the time was talking about the what.  When I was introducing myself in networking events, I was describing the what.

But after reading Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, I realised I was missing a vital piece of the equation. It should be what I do, why I do it and who I do it for. 

It’s revolutionary in its simplicity, isn’t it?  Still, after all this time.  

So off I went and spent some time revising my copy.  

Start With Why solved a problem many of us had.

How to stand out in a crowded market when lots of other people produce the same thing or offer the same service we do.

Don't start with why
Photo by Rupert Britton 

And it’s not that it doesn’t work.  I can see the relevance in business and in leadership.  I understand the importance of aligning teams behind a common goal and making sure they understand the reason why decisions are made.  There is value in this. Of course there is. My whole career has been built on how helping leaders manage and lead their teams in a way that maximises engagement and performance. 

It’s not that it’s wrong…

So what’s the issue with Start With Why you’re probably thinking.

Well, when you start with why, it assumes you’ve clarified the what.  Therefore, it should be the second stage not the first.

The principles of the Golden Circle kick in when you’ve already made a decision to do something.  To create something. To offer a service. Because at that stage, you’re clear on the what.

But what if you’re still figuring out who you are and what you want to do?  Or if you’ve realised that the ‘what’ of what you do no longer inspires you? And the ‘why’, when you’re explaining to clients and potential customers, becomes just a bunch of words you’re so used to saying, you lack the conviction in the delivery never mind in the message you’re trying to convey.  What if you’re starting to realise that the career you’ve spent ten, fifteen or twenty years to build is no longer the career you want? That the life you’re living is no longer giving you the satisfaction you thought it would?

What happens then?  

Would starting with why really help recalibrate and get you back on an even keel?

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle hones in on what you’re doing.  To the extent, you have to take a step back and think about why.  And that’s a good thing.

But if you’re still not sure about what you’re doing, you can’t take a step back and you certainly can’t articulate why.

I have issues with the word ‘why’

And ‘why’ as a question is problematic.

Let’s think about it for a second.  When you say something and someone asks you ‘why’?  What’s your first reaction?  We rarely process it as a positive question.

Managers use the word why as another way of saying ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying’. School teachers would use it as a way to coach us into self-identifying what we’d got wrong in our homework or an answer we’d given in class.  And if your CEO called you into their office right now. Picked up a piece of your work and I said ‘Why did you do this?’  your instinctive response is to say ‘Urmmm I don’t know?’  Because when faced with the word ‘why’ we react as if we are under threat and therefore it brings out a stress response.

Why is a good start when you have something concrete.  When you’ve already gone through the process of figuring out what you’re doing.  When you’ve had time to mull over the pro’s and cons.  

When ‘why’ is not so good

But when you’re still trying to figure out the ‘what’, talking about the ‘why’ is not particularly helpful.  Our inability to clarify the ‘why’ of what we do or our ‘why’ of our existence, can suck the energy out of any drive we initially had to decide about the ‘what’ in the first place.

So when everyone else is using ‘tell me your why’ as a clever way of building rapport or a much better alternative than ‘what do you do,’ I ask a different question instead.

But what if you’re still figuring out who you are and what you want to do? Or if you’ve realised that the ‘what’ of what you do no longer inspires you?

Shereen Daniels

“What do you care about?”

I’m recommending it because it was only when I asked myself this question that I realised there was a disconnect between what I do as a job, and therefore why I do it, and what I care about.  Sometimes what you do is a manifestation of what you care about. But other times it’s not. I was in the latter, not the former.

“What do you care about” is a different way of helping you find your here-and-now purpose as opposed to your life’s purpose.  

Starting with what you care about is the equivalent of your North Star.  It’s the guiding purpose that influences the decisions you make in life and your career, at that one particular moment. 

It’s a question that’s meant to elicit a flexible answer.   An answer that won’t forever chain you to achieving that one purpose. 

It allows you to explore, be curious and care about different things at different stages of your life.  After that you can think about what changes you need, or need not make. After that you can think about what you do as a business, as a career and how far what you care about needs to be connected to what you do.

It was a question that made me think about what’s my business versus what’s me.

Thinking about what I care about allowed me to explore, refine, experiment with different things that ultimately led to settle on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and the ‘why’.  

So, drumroll please.

If I were to ask you, what do you care about, what would your answer be?

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