Don't Start with Why....

Start with You

Simon Sinek is a genius. I have long been a fan of his work, and I love his book ‘Start with why,’ and the accompanying TED talk entitled ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action.’ It’s amazing to think that he wrote this work 10 years ago, yet he is still not a household name.

In it Simon shares his ‘golden circle’ model showing ‘Why’ in the centre, ‘How’ in the middle, and ‘What’ on the outside. He argues that all companies explain what they do and how they do it, but only a few identify and communicate their ‘Why.’ These are the ones, he argues, that thrive and survive into the future, because they make a deeper connection with their audience.

He cites Apple’s why as ‘everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in doing things differently.’(I wonder if that still holds true in today’s company, without Steve Jobs at the helm?)

I completely subscribe to Simon’s model, except for one word.

I believe ‘Start with Why’ should be ‘Start with You.’

The problem with ‘Why?’

As I argue in my own book Marketing is Dead, Long Live Purposing, the problem with the statement ‘Start with Why’ is that it suggests people already know their ‘Why.’ And if they don’t, it also suggests they can work it out logically.  

In fact Simon’s ‘WHY Discovery course’ uses a series of rational questions to get to the answer.  Having tried this process myself with my own clients for a number of years, I know how limiting this process can be. You ask the same essential question about values and beliefs in several different ways (a technique called laddering), probing the respondent to open up more. This approach will give you some useful insights, but it won’t give you the deeper knowledge that resides in the subconscious.

That’s because the rational brain doesn’t understand the concept of ‘why.’ It is only designed to answer two questions: ‘What’ and ‘How.’ When you do ask it, you tend to confuse and disorientate people. The computer says ‘no.’

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not discounting the role of the rational brain. It is an amazing machine that can handle millions of thoughts and organise them into coherent ideas. This is how we can make judgments and decisions. However, the rational brain does have one major flaw: cognitive dissonance – which is an ‘error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them.’ It happens when the brain sifts through the enormous amounts of information it is exposed to, then ignoring potentially relevant information because it has already reviewed and rejected it in the past.  In other words it blocks out certain information to your rational brain if it thinks it’s irrelevant. 

Drawing the back of my hand.

Let me illustrate this with a story. A few years ago I attended a fascinating course developed by my amazing friend Mo Fox. It was a drawing class, and the first thing Mo asked us to do was to draw the back of our hands. ‘That sounds straightforward’ I thought to myself, as I started outlining my five fingers. Panic soon set in however, as I realised that my ridiculous scrawl didn’t look anything like a human hand. My then six year-old daughter would have easily done better. Looking around the room, it was clear that most of my fellow Picassos were struggling with the same challenge as me.

Mo explained that the reason we found the exercise hard was because our brains already knew what a hand looked like, as it had seen thousands of them in the past. So, it didn’t need to ‘look’ at the hand again to know what one looked like. As hard as we tried to identify and follow the shape of the individual fingers, the information just wasn’t getting through. The rational brain seemed to be shouting ‘I haven’t got time to sit here staring at your hand you idiot!’ 

Mo then handed out a ‘filter’ consisting of a see-through acetate sheet, overlaid by thin black grid lines. The effect when placed over the hand was to create a series of windows showing different parts of the hand. As a result, the rational brain didn’t see a hand, but something knew. We were forcing the rational to allow us to see the hand anew. The effect was amazing. All of a sudden our mindless daubs started to look like passable art. 

Unlocking the secret.

So, can you place a filter over your brain to get answers to those deeper ‘Why’ questions that the rational mind can’t or won’t divulge?  Can you get answers to those elusive questions like ‘what do I stand for?’, ‘what drives me?,’ and ‘what is the purpose of my business?’

The answer is yes, you can. And the secret is meditation.

Now I’m not talking about sitting in a cave with a Buddhist monk learning transcendental meditation for a year and a day. I’m talking about a 15-minute guided visualisation that gets your rational mind out of the way just long enough for your subconscious to give you some pearls of wisdom. Then you ask these questions immediately afterwards, when the brain is in a relaxed state.

How do I know this process works? Because I’ve shared it with more than 200 people over the past six years, with great results.  It even works with the most rational of blokes – who are understandably skeptical before trying my Purpose methodology, then surprised afterwards by its effectiveness.


“How did you get me to share something that powerful, when I haven’t been able to express it to my life partner of 20 years?” was how one middle-aged male workshop attendee put it.

And the great thing is that it’s quick and easy. Each Visualisation exercise takes around 30 to 45 minutes to complete, and can uncover insights that years of rational questioning simply can’t uncover.

Start with You.

So why do I insist on replacing the word ‘why’ for the word ‘you?’

The answer lies within - literally. By focusing on ‘you,’ we remind ourselves that to help others we must first work out who we are and what we are capable. Like the oxygen mask on a plane, if we run out of air, we are not much use to other passengers around us who might be seeking help in a crisis.

As the leader of a business, the manager of a team, or the champion of a brand, it is your responsibility to navigate it to success. You can only do that if you take full responsibility for its welfare. And that means putting your heart and soul into it. Which means that business must adopt certain aspects of your own beliefs and values. Even in a business partnership, there can only be one ‘leader,’ who has ultimate responsibility for success or failure.

Thirdly, ‘Start with You’ is a reminder that old fashioned marketing is well and truly dead. By this I mean the traditional approach of identifying an unmet need in the market and filling it with a brand, product or service that is unique – but which you and your team have absolutely no affinity with, or credibility to deliver on - simply doesn’t work any more. Consumers and employees in today’s world can see through a fraud like that in an instant. They need you and your team to have ‘skin in the game.’ In other words, you must prove you are completely invested in your brand promise before they’ll trust you enough to buy from you and/or work with you. The power of why comes from their belief in you.

That’s why it’s so important to work out what makes you tick before you go out to the market and promise to solve your customers’ problems. You need to define the problem you (and your company / brand) were born to solve. And to do that, you first need to understand and define your Purpose. 

Or in other words ‘start with you – define why you’re here, then make it your task to help them in your own unique way.’  

It’s so much more authentic and credible than ‘start with them, define what they need that no one else offers, then work out how you could deliver it - no matter what you believe or are really capable of.’

Steak knives anyone? 

Justin Cooper