The Politics of Starting With Why

To write is to share, and to share is to be vulnerable. It’s a risky move. I recognise that, and as I have just unfavourably reviewed Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, I think it only fair to share, and to make myself open to criticism, in return.

As I read the book, I found myself with many questions; Sinek addressed some of these concerns briefly, but as I said, I found them sadly buried under stories that were largely about Apple. Reading the book was illuminating, if only because Sinek’s omissions led me to think more about the mechanics and ethics of defining why I do what I do. Below are some ideas that Sinek hinted at, and some things I concluded on my own, and I wish that the book had made these points more explicit. Or perhaps this is merely the book I would have written.

You may not need to start with why if your work does not affect your sense of self.

Not everyone wakes up in the morning needing to feel like their work must have some higher purpose, and that is completely fine. I know many people who look upon their work as a means to an end: “This job enables me to be a reliable provider for my family, so I’m going to continue to work hard because I value my social role as provider.” I’m not one of those people, and I imagine Sinek isn’t either. For me, the work itself must feel meaningful, or else I find it terribly hard to motivate myself to engage in it.

It’s important to establish that the book is for people like me, in a way that does not induce feelings of guilt or superiority. I don’t appreciate Sinek’s advice “against trying to learn your WHY or keeping your Golden Circle in balance [if you’re not comfortable being held to a higher standard” (p. 147). What constitutes a ‘higher standard’ is vague, and we are not given tools to gauge what kind of people we may be.

Also, Sinek focuses narrowly on the latter half of the 20th century, but perhaps his references and end notes could include a nod to sources like Weber (on Beruf/Berufung, i.e. vocation vs. inner calling), or Ruskin (on craftsmanship), to situate the long-standing discourse on work and meaning.

Knowing and operating on your why does not correlate to financial success…

The book claims that knowing your why is the “only way to maintain a lasting success” (p. 50), but Sinek admits that money is a poor metric to determine success (p. 191) and that the word “better” is subjective and deeply personal: “What if an Apple was right for some people and a PC was right for others?” (p. 49) Sinek describes how the crew of the Endurance responded to a frank ad calling for people unafraid to die (p.90-92). You could know your why and still end up broke, or dead. Maybe not motivational, but honest.

…instead, knowing your why might keep you emotionally healthy.

Knowing your why can perhaps keep you fixed on internal motivators instead of making yourself miserable at the sight of your competitors and your missteps (useful if you exhibit Type A behaviour patterns). It can foster resilience in the face of setbacks, and cut down on decision fatigue. At best, an individual and a company with a clear sense of purpose is emotionally healthy, but this is a best case scenario. I have absolutely no recommendations for reliable sources here, and I expected the book to be stuffed with them. But all I have is this platitude: “Companies and organizations with a clear sense of WHY…don’t think of themselves as being like anyone else and they don’t have to “convince” anyone of their value…They are different, and everyone knows it.” (p. 47) But different is not the same as good.

A company that starts with ‘why’ might look (unpleasantly) like a cult…

Sinek hints at this possibility in the text. He explicitly writes that “the culture at Apple is often described as a cult,” (p. 64) and that “the CEO’s job is to personify the WHY…to preach it.” (p. 157). He also describes the difference between charisma and energy (p. 134) and that companies that start with why needs charismatic leaders (an adjective used to also describe leaders of cults). But then he doesn’t go any further than this, and it is perhaps this omission that angers me most.

…and even if it doesn’t, creating a tribe is an intensely political act.

Sinek was an anthropology major, but I can’t see any research in the list of references that discusses how we create belonging and inclusion. He notes that people feel protected in great organisations (p. 104) and includes a brief anecdote about his uncle who makes tennis rackets that are of the same quality of name-brand rackets, noting that people continue to go for the branded items (p.192). Sinek attributes it positively to the ‘why’ of brands, which I find terribly irresponsible. He does acknowledge that feelings of belonging are irrational and powerful and his use of Dr. Seuss’ story about the Sneetches (p. 53) is spot on. Creating a sense of belonging for people who align with you must necessarily exclude those who don’t, but at no point does the book exhort us to take great care in creating our ‘tribe’, and to take responsibility for our actions. Creating a tribe can be a diabolical move —what happens when you gather together a group who believes their purpose is eliminating certain other groups of people?

I would love to see some end note (or in text) discussion on how ‘tribes’ we consider eternal and nonthreatening are constructed, contested, conflicted, and complex. Perhaps this is pulling out some usual suspects of my own, but I always like to see people acknowledging the work of Benedict Anderson. His articulation of the relationship between the printing press and nationalism is very much one on technology and tribe-making. Not so different from Apple, and infinitely more powerful in its ability to gesture towards potential horrors.

Your sense of why is not necessarily a moral compass.

The book never provides concrete steps for finding your why, and this is puzzling because Sinek could quite easily have gotten away with a fairly simple recipe. (I’m more puzzled by how to determine if I’m a how-type or why-type, but let’s leave that aside for now.) It is clear that any old why won’t do for Sinek. Samuel Pierpont Langley’s craving for fame and recognition (pp. 96-97) was not an adequate why.

But Sinek doesn’t really address the moral murkiness of ‘why’. For example, hate groups are awful, but it’s unarguable that they have a clear sense of why they do what they do. Their dedication to oppression is often unwavering. While this is an extreme example, knowing what is right can sometimes be tricky. How do I tell if your ‘why’ helps, and not harms? This is a difficult question, but my flip answer would be as follows:

To immerse myself in continuous education. To reach out to people who I don’t consider part of my tribe, engage with belief systems that contradict my own, and gauge if the discomfort diminishes or heightens over time.

To constantly ask myself if my ‘why’ is one that serves others (not myself) and to never stop evaluating what I consider good and just. To be hyper-aware that I will make some terrible assumptions about what people want and deserve despite my best efforts and intentions, and that I’m going to have to apologise for egregious mistakes and pledge to do better.

To surround myself with people who I can trust to tell me off when I need it. To collaborate on creating a network that isn’t “cone-shaped” (p. 156) but is instead flat, where I am not the visionary but one of many. It’s not a perfect system, by any means, but I don’t have a better answer than that.

And of course, as a Doctor Who fan, I’d direct everyone to go watch ‘The Waters of Mars’ to illustrate this point.

Following your why is a particular form of selfishness, so take time to step away from it.

Being able to focus my energies so keenly on my self-defined purpose is a privilege, and it’s important to recognise that there are cultural and social structures in place that enable this oddly paradoxical luxury of ‘doing good’. This is not a balanced way to live. When I work, I am in a state of trance-like obsession, and I have to force myself to take a step back and focus on more quotidian concerns (like filing my taxes before April 15).

I also often come up against the question of which good to pursue today: the ‘greater’ good of my why, or the more quotidian good of being there for the people dearest to me. If I listened to my ‘why’ all the time, I’d never stop working. And then I’d never take the time to just sit at the dining table making jokes with my family, or go to Daiso with Jon to browse cheap Japanese houseware we have no intention of buying, or spontaneously go out for drinks with friends. I’d always be counting the seconds, measuring my whats and hows and whys.

So I’d say it’s equally vital that I abandon it on occasion, so that I remember that my why, while very important to me, is not the only one that matters all of the time.

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