The Reason You Exist Can Determine Your Success or Failure

In this TED video, Simon Sinek talks about his discovery about what separates successful organizations, leaders, or entrepreneurs from those who are not. What made Apple, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Wright Brothers successful, when in each case there were plenty of others out there doing what they were doing? Sinek says it’s because they focus primarily on the WHY instead of on the HOW or the WHAT. He defines the why as your purpose, your belief, your cause, the reason you exist. And by starting with the why and moving to how you do what you do and then to what you actually do, you’ll be more successful than if you’d started with the what and moved inwards towards the why.

Sinek uses the computer giant Apple to illustrate this story – it’s worth a look at the video to feel the difference between starting with the why versus starting with the what. This got me thinking about how we at Global Learning Partners might define our reason for existing, our purpose, our deepest beliefs. We know what we do:  workshops, seminars, coaching, consulting, meetings. We know how we do it:  through dialogue. But why do we do what we do?

Some would say our purpose is peace. Others might say our cause is personal and organizational transformation. Still others might say we want to revolutionize the way adult educators educate. All of these are noble, worthy, and related reasons for existing. But given what Simon Sinek is saying, I wonder if we should more carefully define, in a focused way, our own why? Over and over Sinek repeats this mantra:  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

He goes on to say that “the goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” Both of these statements resonate deeply with me, and maybe that’s because, as Sinek explains, the why touches the limbic area of our brain, the part that deals with feelings, the part that has no capacity for language but still drives all of our human behavior. It’s what we might call our gut, or our heart, or our soul.

I also got to thinking about how Dialogue Education uses those same words – WHY, HOW, WHAT – in our 8-Steps of Design, and about how little time in my own design work I have spent on the why. In our flagship course, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, we define the why as follows:  “the situation that calls for the learning event in terms of what the participants want and need.” I typically complete that step of planning with a small paragraph that says something boring like “the participants want and need to understand how to facilitate.” While that might be true, isn’t that really the what?

I’m reminded to be like a young kid, who repeatedly asks “why” until they get to the heart of the answer they’re seeking. Why does someone need to understand how better to facilitate? Because it’s demanded by their boss and they don’t want to get into trouble? Maybe. Because they feel insecure when in front of a group and their self-esteem is damaged and they want to feel better about themselves? Maybe. Because they’re on a career-path to a leadership position and this is a skill they want to master? Maybe. And even within these statements there is still room to continue to ask why. And of course the answers to those repeated whys – whether they’re directed at organizational purpose or the reason an individual is participating in a learning event – clearly dictate what you decide to do, and how you decide to do it. Simon Sinek’s words are worth repeating here:

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Do you know why you use Dialogue Education?


The author of this post is Joan Dempsey.