Start with Why - Book Summary & Application
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Original publication date: September 6, 2019
Here are my key takeaways from the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek. I recommend everyone to read this post (and perhaps the book) because the core message of the book is to be purposeful in everything we do, which is applicable to everyone’s life in so many ways. Simon also has a Ted Talk that I recommend everyone check out; It’s the third most popular Ted Talk of all time for a good reason.
A note on the book: It seems to be targeted for leaders of organizations and uses a lot of business examples. That said, the lessons are certainly applicable to individuals, and I’ve applied them to my life, which you can read in part 4 of this post.
In this post, I answer four questions:
Why did the author write this book?
What are the main ideas? (largest section)
What is my opinion on the book?
How have I applied this book in my life?
1. Why did the author write this book?
The author sees a big problem: Most people and organizations do not start with WHY, and that’s a shame. He defines WHY as the reason for doing something, a deep belief or cause that we care about.
His intended audience is mainly for leaders of organizations because they have the power to inspire all their employees and their customers. His secondary audience is individuals.
He states, “Imagine if every organization started with WHY. Decisions would be simpler. Loyalties would be greater. Trust would be a common currency. If our leaders were diligent about starting with WHY, optimism would reign and innovation would thrive.”
2. What are the main ideas?
There are five main ideas that I took away from this book.
People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
Build trust and loyalty
Apply the law of Diffusion of Innovations to spread a WHY
Maintain clarity of WHY as you grow
The Golden Circle applies to individuals too
Main Idea 1: People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it
Every organization knows WHAT they do. Some know HOW they do it (unique selling point, differentiation). But few know WHY they do what they do. The WHY is a purpose, belief, or cause.
When we communicate, we tend to communicate what we are clear about. That’s why most people start with WHAT, maybe talk about HOW, and usually don’t talk about WHY. But the inspiring leaders all start with a crystal clear WHY. Then they act in accordance with that WHY, so that WHAT they do is validation of their WHY.
Let’s look at two quick examples.
Example 1: Apple versus Competitors
If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message would sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed and easy to use. Wanna buy one?”
Here’s how Apple actually communicates: “We believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently. The way we do that is by making our products beautiful and simple-to-use. We just happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?” WHY, then HOW, then WHAT. It’s much more inspiring.
Example 2: Wright Brothers versus Samuel Pierpont Langley
Samuel Pierpont Langley had tremendous amounts of funding, he was well educated, he hired the best people money could buy, and the market conditions were ideal. Everyone was rooting for Langley to create the flying machine. Yet most people have never heard of him? Why didn’t he succeed despite having what seemed to be the recipe for success?
Oliver and Wilbur Wright had none of what Langley had. They had little money; they payed for their flying experiments with proceeds from their bicycle shop. No one on their team had a college education. No one was rooting for their success. Yet they discovered the flying machine first.
The difference is that the Wright brothers had a dream, a clear WHY that they articulated. They believed that if they could figure out the flying machine, it would change the world and tremendously benefit everyone on the planet. The people who believed in the Wright brothers’ WHY worked for them with blood, sweat, and tears.
Langley wanted to get rich and famous, the kind of fame of a Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. But money and fame are not a WHY, they are results, they are WHATs. Langley lacked a WHY, so the people who worked for him just worked for a pay cheque. Furthermore, the day everyone found out the Wright Brothers took flight, Langley quit. He could’ve said, “That’s amazing! Let’s work together to improve the technology!” But he was driven by WHAT, and when that WHAT was gone, he quit.
The Golden Circle framework mirrors the biological structure of the brain.
Both WHAT and the neocortex are on the outside, while WHY and the limbic brain are on the inside. The neocortex responds to logic, facts, and figures (all WHATs). The limbic brain responds to beliefs and purpose (WHY). Guess which one has more decision-making power? The limbic brain. But guess which one is responsible for language? The neocortex. That’s why we tend to trust our “gut” (AKA limbic brain) to make decisions; Otherwise we’ll feel really uncomfortable afterwards. But when we try to explain ourselves, we’ll point to facts and figures rather than articulating a WHY because the neocortex, not limbic brain, is responsible for language.
Since most companies don’t have a clear WHY, they rely on what Simon calls “manipulations” to drive behavior. Examples:
Price cuts: 50% off today only
Promotion: buy 1 get 1 free!
Fear: Don’t wait to get life insurance or it might be too late
Peer pressure: People like you use our product
Aspirational messages: In 6 short weeks, you too can be rich
Manipulations work to drive behavior in the short-term, but it costs more and more in the long-term. But because manipulations work (in the short-term anyway), they have become the norm.
Main Idea 2: Build Trust and Loyalty
Simon urges organizations to create loyalty with their customers and employees. To do that, organizations need to first clearly articulate their WHY, then act in harmony with it so that anyone can point to WHAT they do as proof of their WHY.
For customers, he explains that
“loyalty is when people are willing to turn down a better product or a better price to continue doing business with you.”
The reason some companies can succeed repeatedly is due to their loyal followers who root for their success.
For employees, loyalty is when they would turn down higher salaries and benefits to work for you. He says,
“If you hire people just because they can do your job, they’ll work for money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood, sweat, and tears.”
To gain clarity on WHY, organizations should ask, “Why did we start doing what we’re doing in the first place? What can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and market opportunities available today?” Only by being clear about WHY can you then inspire loyalty from customers and employees.
Main Idea 3: Apply the law of Diffusion of Innovations to spread a WHY
After we are clear on our WHY, we should use it to inspire others. But we shouldn’t aim to do business with everyone, only those who believe in what you believe.
According to the law of Diffusion of Innovations, a product needs to penetrate the left 15–18% of the market for mass market adoption. That’s the tipping point. That means organizations should market to innovators and early adopters. These are the people who believe what you believe. As a result, they will happily pay a premium or suffer inconvenience to be part of your cause. These are the people who stood 6 hours in line to buy the first iPhone. They use your WHAT to demonstrate their WHY.
The early majority will not try something until someone else has tried it first. Once you get the left 16% on board, then the early majority will come along, and then the late majority will follow. The laggards don’t care about your why and will always focus on price; it’s not worth the effort to try to appeal to them.
Or in Simon’s words,
“If you have the discipline to focus on the early adopters, the majority will come along eventually. But it must start with WHY.”
Main Idea 4: Maintain clarity of WHY as you grow
For many people and organizations, as they achieve more and more, they start to forget their WHY. This happens because the WHATs are easy to measure and there’s more and more WHATs to do, whereas the WHY is often hard to measure. At some point, the WHY gets lost, and Simon calls this point “the split”.
When WHAT we do grows, we need a proportionate increase in how loudly we communicate our WHY. Otherwise, we’ll encounter the split.
To grow the volume of our WHY, we should find metrics based on WHY. For example, Dwayne Honore believes in work life balance. When he founded a company, he made employees clock in between 8–8:30AM and clock out by 5–5:30PM. if they clock out later, they lose some of their bonus. The message was loud and clear. As a result, productivity was high because people made use of their time at work, and turnover was low because they had good work-life balance.
Main Idea 5: The Golden Circle applies to Individuals too
We can apply the Golden Circle to dating, friendships, employment, success, and certainty.
The personal version of a business relationship is a dating relationship. In dating, you can use manipulations (fancy diners, aspirational messages, etc.) that secure more dates. That’ll work once, maybe twice. But with time, maintaining that relationship will cost more and more, and trust isn’t built.
How you communicate to a date is also important.
Date 1 says, “I do consulting for big corporations. I’m rich and famous. I have a big house and a fancy car. I’m on TV all the time. I think I’ve done pretty well for myself.”
Date 2 says, “I believe in inspiring others to do what inspires them. I do that by consulting leaders of big corporations, who then inspire all their employees. As a result, I’ve earned lots of wealth and fame, and I’ve bought a big house and fancy car. I’m also on TV often. I think I’ve done pretty well for myself.”
Which date do you like more? Which one starts with WHY?
Given that the goal of business is not to sell to everyone, but rather to sell to people who believe what you believe, then the goal of individuals should be to be in relationships with those who believe what we believe. That will give us positive energy.
Just as companies shouldn’t just hire anyone who needs a job, but rather hire people who believe what they believe, individuals should work for companies that believe what they believe.
The Feeling of Success
Another application of the Golden Circle to individuals is the feeling of success. Yes, success is a feeling, and yes, it’s controlled by the limbic brain, which responds to WHY.
Simon explains that
“Achievement comes when you pursue and attain WHAT you want. Success comes when you are clear in pursuit of WHY you want it… Some people, while in pursuit of success, simply mistake WHAT they achieve as the final destination. This is the reason they never feel satisfied no matter how big their hatch is, no matter how much they achieve.”
He says that a WHY “is born out of the upbringing and life experience of an individual or small group”, so we should discover our WHY by looking to our past. When I did this, I realized almost everything I do is for self-growth and helping others, so those two purposes are my WHYs.
Three Levels of Certainty
When we use only our neocortex to analyze facts to make a decision, we say, “I think it’s right.”
When we use only our limbic brain to make a “gut decision”, we say, “It feels right.” We often make gut decisions that go against all the facts, showing the power of the limbic brain to override the neocortex.
When WHY is put into words to provide the emotional context for decisions, then we can say, “I know the decision is right.” It feels right and we can rationalize it. It’s a fully-balanced decision.
3. What is my opinion on the book?
The book definitely challenged the things I learned in business school. For example, I learned that differentiation in business is all about how and what you do is different, while this book said it should be your WHY.
There are other things that business school agrees on with this book, just put in different words and perhaps more simply. For example, business school taught the importance of the customer analysis and their motivation to buy. This book explains it as focusing on WHY customers buy your product. I agree with the author’s main ideas based on my own experiences, and I think marketing classes should teach this concept as a basic.
I went to a business school that used the case study method, and the marketing class cases were usually written to focus on the WHAT and the HOW of the product instead of the WHY. I would’ve been helpful to have the WHY more focused in the cases, or at least one case that really focused on the WHY.
Would I recommend others to read this book? If you really want to internalize his simple messages, then yes, read the book. Going through all his examples and getting it drilled into you is useful. If you don’t have the time or have other priorities, then just use this summary but focus on implementing it in your life to actually get benefits.
4. How have I applied this book in my life?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about recruiting, and there’s always that first question, “Tell me about yourself.” From business school, I’ve been trained to answer by talking about my key accomplishments and strengths and how that’s a good fit for the role. With the perspective of this book, I realize that’s an approach focused on the WHAT and the HOW. I’m going to instead start with the WHY. It would sound something like,
“Everything I do, every job I accept, I focus on being excellent at my craft and improving others around me. I do this by taking initiative to do extra work and learn from experts in the field, and by documenting my learnings to share with my colleagues. In every job I’ve done, I can point to specific examples that showcase these two values of mine. Which do you want me to talk about?”
I’ve also been on the fence about starting a side project, and while reading this book, I became very clear about the purpose of that side project, and it inspired me to take action and execute. Knowing that I’m only trying to appeal to people who believe what I believe is a lot less daunting than trying to appeal to everyone.
While reading this book, I’ve also clarified that two of my core WHYs in life are self-growth and serving others. Now that I’m aware of these two WHYs, I do something towards them every day, and that helps to keep me inspired and energized. If I am considering new projects, I can now reflect on whether or not it’s a good fit for me by thinking about my WHYs.
December 2020 Update:
Recently, I was asked to make a promotional video for The Global Youth Challenge 2021: World Peace. Basically, it's a worldwide competition that invites secondary school students to submit their ideas on how to increase world peace.
When making the video, I immediately thought about Start with Why. Normally, these promo videos might say something like, "Join the Global Youth Challenge! You can win money! It's good for your resume! Sign up at this website!." It's all focused on the What and the How.
Since I remembered Start with Why, I messaged it like this:
"Why do you go to school? To learn knowledge. Why do you learn knowledge? To apply it in real life. How should you apply it in real life? To repay gratitude to all the people who allow you to go to school. Who are those people? The whole world! What should you do to benefit the world? Join the Global Youth Challenge 2021."
By starting with Why, the message felt less sales-y and leaves a deeper, better impression.