The writer and motivational speaker Simon Sinek is the author of the highly-regarded 2009 book, Start with Why. His 2009 TED talk, "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," is the third most viewed video on that organization's website. Last year he published, Leaders Eat Last. His writing on leadership and business culture has appeared in the country's top publications.
Recently, Mabbly founder Adam Fridman talked with Sinek about his life and work. The following is a transcription of their conversation.
Adam Fridman: I just wanted to say your video has had a profound impact on every aspect of my life, which is what triggered this inspiration to reach out to you.
Simon Sinek: Thank you. That's great. For me, it's a tool. The application of the tool is multifaceted. The reason I call it "The Golden Circle" is that I took clues from "The Golden Formula," which is this one formula that seems to explain so many different things and work in so many different ways, from architecture to snowflakes. When I discovered this pattern, I thought, "My goodness. This is an as universal as the Golden Formula and I'm going to call it the Golden Circle.
Adam Fridman: When you came up with this, whether it's anecdotal, but I'm looking for how did you come up with this idea? Where were you at the time? Were you in a car driving at the time and all of a sudden it hit you?
Simon Sinek: It's a little more evolutionary. It wasn't a bolt of lightning. I was always curious why certain marketing worked and some marketing did not. I wrote down this pattern by looking at all of this great marketing. I came from the agency world and I knew if I put the same creative team on two different clients, I could have great work on one and terrible work on another.
There's something else there. I noticed there was a pattern. I wrote it down. It sat on a shelf and it was good for the occasional power point. I was going through some events in my life in the same time where I had I lost my passion for what I was doing. It was a very dark period. All of my energy went into pretending that I was happier and more successful than I was or at least more in control of my life than I was. I was at an event, and I met a woman there whose father was a neuroscientist and she started talking to me about the limbic brain and I became fascinated by it. I started doing a ton of reading about it and I realized that the pattern the way brain worked was exactly the pattern as this little thing I had on a shelf.
That was the sort of eureka. You go, "Hang on a second." I went through my files and pulled out this thing and I'm comparing it to the brain and I said to myself, "Oh my God, it's exactly the same thing." That's when the eureka moment happened. The reason I was in my malaise was because I knew what I did and I knew how I did it, but I didn't know why. It was not a communications tool; it was a tool that explained me. It was how I worked. It was not how marketing worked. The reason it works in marketing is that it speaks to human beings, and that's what I learned. Good marketing speaks to human beings--the way human beings understand and take in information. It was this confluence of events combined with the pain and struggles I was going through.
Adam Fridman: What's your personal why?
Simon Sinek: There's only one why. You only have one why, and your why is fully formed by the time you're 17, 18 or 19years old, maybe even earlier. The rest of your life are simply opportunities to either live in or out of balance and the career choices we make and the decisions we make in our lives either put us in balance with our why, which makes us happy, fulfilled and inspired. Or it puts us out of our why, which makes us frustrated, stressed out and sometimes we fail.
I only have one why, and my challenge is to make sure the things I say and the things I do remain consistent for as often and as long as possible. My why is to inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that together we can change our world.That's why I wake up every single day. I'm agnostic to the form it takes: I teach, I write, I speak, I advise, and there are million of things I probably will do that I haven't even thought about right now. As long as I'm always working toward that cause, I will be happy.
Adam Fridman: Have you ever tried finding a return on investment (ROI) for a company to embark on the pivot on what should be the course of its destiny?
Simon Sinek: What I understand about this concept of why is that it functions exactly the same way as parenting or exercise or any of these things we claim to invest in. We invest in things like the future. We invest in things like our children. We invest in things like education. In other words, we invest in things that we understand we will not see an immediate ROI but everybody knows it will have a positive impact and you can easily measure it over the course of time. Your why is exactly the same thing.
Like exercise, if you go to the gym and you come home and look into the mirror, you'll see nothing. If you go the next day and you come home, you will see nothing. In fact sometimes you're in pain. We pursue exercise even though empirically we see no benefit from the energy we're spending and we're hurting. So empirically we should quit. The why is exactly the same thing. You persist even though there are some short-term stresses and even though there is some uncertainty. We persist because it's the right thing to do and I'm investing in myself, I'm investing in others and I'm investing in my cause. I know if I persist it will pay back in dividends and it always does. What starts to happen is like exercise, the pain goes away. It starts to get easier and the weight starts to get lighter and people start to notice a difference in you and you start to notice a difference in yourself. You find your ability to make decisions is easier; you find you are inspired more often. You find your success increases. You find that your random moments when you're in the flow are no longer random and you can control them. Other people notice the difference. People want to be around you because you're a joy to be around. Just like exercise, other people say saying, "What are you doing?" "What's changed?"
I cannot tell you how long it takes for your exercise to work. If you haven't seen any results in a year or six months you're doing something wrong. The why is the same. I cannot tell you on a day to day basis that there's a return on investment. I can tell you if you stick with it, absolutely in a few months things will start to change. It starts to change slowly. Things start to get a little easier. As the momentum builds it becomes bigger and bigger. My own career is a case study for what I believe in.
I've been dogmatic to use myself as a case study. For instance, I don't hire any companies or ask any of my friends to write reviews for me on Amazon when I have a book come out so they can drive up my ratings on Amazon. I don't have a publicist. What's important to me is that I put messages out, whether it's a TED talk, whether it's a book. I put messages out there that start with why and they talk about what I believe. They go on to demonstrate and give examples. If it resonates with others, those with whom it resonates will share it with their friends and say, "This inspired me. You should watch it. You should read this." Any of the momentum that the books or the TED talk or any of those things have had were not driven by PR, or stunts or tricking and gaming the algorithm.
There's an authenticity to it, and the reason I do that is to prove that the concepts work. Just like the concepts they didn't happen immediately. When my books came out, they started selling but they started selling at a relatively consistent but low pace. And they started to pick up the pace. Start with Why sells better now than it ever did before. It's been out since 2009. It's because you have to have a patience for exercise. You have to have a patience for college. You have to have a patience for relationships. You have to have a patience for why. Once the momentum gets going it takes on a life all of its own.
Adam Fridman: Why is really ingrained into our culture. We call it "our story." How did the transition go from you discovering what you thought was important in your own life and now your main focus is writing about leadership?
Simon Sinek: This is part of my education. I don't consider myself an expert in the why. I don't consider myself an expert in leadership. I consider myself a student of leadership and I consider myself a student of the why. I'm constantly learning and I'm constantly looking for opportunities where it it will fail. That's how it began. I'm pretty confident the why works now. When it first began, somebody said to me: "Will this work in big business?" I said, "I don't know. Let's try." Somebody said will this work in entrepreneurs, relationships or government and military. I said, "I don't know. Let's try." I kept applying the scientific method. I had a theory. I kept applying that theory, looking for opportunities to fail and it kept working.
I never set out to do the things I'm doing now. I never wanted to be a public speaker. I never imagined I'd write a book. I was never a writer. I never imagined I'd be working with government, or military or politicians or big companies. None of this stuff I'm doing was on any business plan anywhere ever. What I thought I developed all of those years ago was a pattern to understand communication. When I was writing Start with Why, I thought I was writing about communication. It just so happened that the people who communicate were the leaders. The publisher put the subtitle in, and all of a sudden I'm a leadership guy.
I'm simply following the journey. I was a nobody when I met with the publisher. Nobody knew who I was. I was doing some speaking for entrepreneurs. I did little groups. I had no following. I remember sharing this idea with a publisher. I said, "If you're looking for a New York Times best-seller, I may or may not give you that." I said, "If you're looking for a book that will spike in sales and then go away and then spike again when it comes out in paperback, your normal model, I definitely won't give you that." But then I said, "If you're interested in a book that will steadily grow and sell for a very long time, I promise you I will give you that."
That's before I ever wrote the book. I said that before I even had a book deal. That's because I understood the process. I understood the concepts. I understood how it worked. It was about momentum. It wasn't about intensity. It was about consistency. That's exactly what happened. It started out slowly and it gained momentum and it gained a following. People started talking about it. Like I said, it sells better now than it ever sold. It's unbelievably consistent. Week after week, it sells a consistent number. It's not driven by PR. It's driven by world of mouth. That was all predictable.
Adam Fridman: Is there any advice you'd give to us in that process of how you become not just a student, but a tremendous student in understanding these concepts.
Simon Sinek: A why has to be for others. It's something you give to the world. It's the reason your friends love you because this is the thing that you give them and it fulfills them. This is the reason your clients love you or your fans love you because you give them something. It's something to offer, that's what the why is.
If you're going to undertake any project, like a book, you have to show up to give. Too many people write books as a calling card. Too many people write books because they want to be a New York Times best-seller. They want the glory and the fame. Nobody writes a book to get rich. It's like speaking. When you show up to speak publically, you have to show up to give. You always know the ones who do and the ones who don't. The ones who show up to take, they show up and say, "Hi. My name is Steve. I'm an expert in this and I've studied this and I've worked with these clients." On every single power point presentation, it has their email, their Twitter handle and their Facebook account, so you can follow them. At the end, they tell you, "Please follow me." When you ask them a question, they say, "Well, I could tell you the answer, but you should really just read my book."
They're takers. Everybody knows it. It turns people off. Sure, they'll sell a few books, but they won't build a following. They'll make sales, transactions, but they won't build a following. Following takes why. Transactions take what.It has to be real. It has to be the same for writing a book. You have to write a book because you believe it has helped you, because you believe it has helped others personally and you are dying to share with it others because you know it will add value to their lives. You write it for them like a gift. You don't want anything from them. You don't want them to do anything for you. You don't even care if they all share the book with their friends, they don't all have to buy them. You're just dying to share this idea with people. Your challenge is to write it in a way that is compelling, enjoyable to read so that they will get the idea. You have to write a book that way.
Adam Fridman: Do you think at some point there's a whole new consultant who will emerge in the way you do what you do?
Simon Sinek: They're already out there. This is what I find so amazing about the concept. The concept of why is already in the vernacular. It is now a noun. "That company doesn't know their why." "They need to learn their why." "That politician needs to understand his why." We talk about it as a noun. That never existed prior to 2009. That never existed prior to 2006 when I first started articulating it. This is the most amazing thing to me. It has now become a concept. It's part of the way we think about businesses and transactions and decisions. Of course there are people out there who are helping others find their why. Some are doing a really great job and some are doing a not so great job. I love the fact there are people out there, and consultants out there doing that.
Adam Fridman: Is there an example you could share where you walked in somewhere and there was a skeptic at the table and you changed their thinking?
Simon Sinek: I'm very prescriptive about who I work with. I'm very clear about what I believe. If they believe what I believe I will work with them. If they say things like, "Convince me we should do this." I walk away. That doesn't mean I only work with good companies. People have accused me of only working with good companies. No I don't. I work with some very dysfunctional companies or unbelievably dysfunctional organizations. The people that bring me in know what they're doing won't work for the future. They know they want to change and they want to change for the right reasons. They believe what I believe and that's why they called me. People who believe I'm an idiot don't hire me and they don't call. What I'm doing is obeying the law of diffusion of innovations. I'm interested in the left side of the Bell Curve. I'm interested in the innovator and the early adopter. The people who say,"What guarantee do I have?" I walk away. I'll get you later.I'm building on purpose. I'm building that tipping point. I'm building that law of diffusion of innovation.
Having said that, to answer your question I would never find myself or unlikely to find myself in a room where I have a skeptic who brought me in. But I very often am in a situation somebody who's there who didn't invite me was a skeptic. That happens all the time. Usually what happens is somebody grabs me and they always pull me off to the side. Nobody ever does it publically. They say, "I didn't want to be here." Or, "I don't usually like people like you." Or, "I didn't believe the things you actually talked about would work. I'm here to tell you that you converted me." That happens a lot. I go into every meeting, into every room and for every speech understanding the standard deviation, the Bell Curve. I know there are about 10-15 percent of people in the room, who say, "I've been trying to say this for years. Finally. I agree. Yes, yes, yes." I know there are about 15 percent of the people in the room who think I'm an idiot, who think I don't know what I'm talking about, who think I'm naive or I have oversimplified everything. The majority who are open to the ideal.
I don't care about preaching to the converted. I'm glad they're there and I need them. I don't care about convincing the people who think I'm naive or an idiot. I'm interested in how do I inspire the people in the middle who are open-minded that there's a different way of seeing the world.If they're people who leave a meeting or hear a speech or read a book and say, "He's an idiot." I don't care. I expected that you'd be there. I don't have to convince everybody in the room. I just need a critical mass of the people in the room.
I can't stand those people, speakers in a room, they say this all the time, "If I can just help one person in this room, I've done my job." You have an audience of 500 people and your standard of success is one person? That's terrible. If you help one person in the room, you're an abject failure. You have to change something. If I walk into a room of 500 people, my standard is, if I can't give 400 or 450 of you something, a language or a new way of seeing something, then I have failed. If I get 100 of you, I am a failure. I have to get a majority. I have to have an impact. That's what drives me to practice to make sure my words are clear and my stories are compelling. Right. Because it matters. My standard is higher than one.
Adam Fridman: Because your work has been so influential for us and our work, is there anything we can do to say thank you in return?
Simon Sinek: Absolutely. The answer is join me and help me spread this message. This is a movement. I'm a messenger. I'm one piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle. My job is to preach and preach and preach. I need an army. I need people out there who are either preaching with me to different audiences that I can't get to or who are implementing the work and helping people actually learn their why or practice their why or implement their why because I don't do that. There's only one of me. With you using the why in the center of your work helps me. If somebody wants to learn their why, either you help them or send them over to their course. All of this stuff helps. What I say is join me and be part of the army and find ways that maybe even I haven't thought of I haven't even thought of to help spread this message and inspire people to do what inspires them. That's what I need you to do.
Adam Fridman: How do work through the ranks and show our entrepreneurial mindset in order to move into that direction?
Simon Sinek: You can predict the answer. Start with why. And work really hard to make sure you're consistent. Here's an example that helps you understand what I'm talking about. Walt Disney had a very clear sense of why. He was about happiness. Remember when Disney was founded, it was during war. People said that life sucked. And he said, "No." He was an eternal optimist who said: "Life is beautiful. It's about giving. It's about family." Look what happened. His cause grew and people committed themselves to helping him grow the Disney why and it was hugely successful.
Then Michael Eisner took over. For many years, Mike Eisner did a wonderful job at helping spread the Disney why. Then something happened. His chief operating officer [Frank Wells] died and he lost his partner. And Mike Eisner went off the rails. The why went fuzzy and he forgot the why and he started to get obsessed with the what. He became obsessed with growth. He became obsessed with world domination. Every decision he pushed through Disney, every investment he made was about growth and world domination. It made money in the short term but it did serious damage to the organization. Disney became hated. It became one of the evil corporations. It used to be loved. They couldn't hold onto talent; they couldn't attract talent. Some of their products did badly. The Californialand project was a $5 billion waste of money. They couldn't make it work. The magic had gone, no pun intended.
Bob Iger takes over from Michael Eisner. The first thing he does is say: "We have to go back to basics. We have to go back to the founding cause that Walt Disney gave us. We have to start with why." They laid out their entire portfolio and said, "What are we doing that we should be doing and what are we doing that we shouldn't be doing." They started selling off assets regardless of whether they were profitable or not if they didn't help advance the cause. For example, Buena Vista Pictures, a profitable company, they sold it off, because what is a company that believes in good, clean family entertainment doing making R-rated pictures. Sold, got rid of it. Once they cleaned house it was a continued discipline that Disney now has.
Now that they have gone back to why, Disney is beloved again. They can now attract the talent again and they can hold onto the talent again. People trust them again. It's all return since they went back to the why. It's their discipline I find so astounding. Disney is one of the best hotel companies in the world. Yet they have never and will never open a casino on the Vegas strip. Think about that: they own all the Disney properties, all the IP, they own Marvel Comics, they own Star Wars. It would be the best hotel ever and they will never do it. It is literally billions of dollars of free money direct to the bottom line. Free money. That's what that would be.
They will never do it because gaming doesn't fit their cause. It's the discipline to understand that the things that might make you rich or things might make you famous are sometimes worth pursuing and sometimes are not. When you start with why, which decision you make becomes very easy. It is so hard to do when you may suffer a short term loss or you may lose out on some short term gain. But in the long run it's way more powerful and way more stable.