It’s OK not to have a ‘Why’

Do Contribute | Social Entrepreneur

Simon Sinek’s ‘start with Why’ has a lot to answer for. Good and bad.

As Sinek admits in his now famous TED talk, he didn’t invent the idea, he merely codified it, but it’s a powerful truth that has genuinely inspired thousands to get up, to quit their meaningless jobs and to find a living driven by purpose. For the unfamiliar, it simply states that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

His ‘golden circle’ idea has been hugely influential on me, and a generation of marketers who wanted to find meaning, honesty and soul to the often grubby business of selling stuff to people. The neuroscience behind it is solid which explains why we feel drawn to people and companies that have a mission that we can identify with, and empathise with, instinctively and intuitively.

It’s one of the founding pillars of the Do Lectures and most, if not all, of the Do’s talks are some kind of hero’s journey, where the heroine or hero is seeking and finding purpose.

So thanks for the inspiration Simon. Excellent work. And thanks also to The Do Lectures; they exist to narrow the gap between ‘maybe I could’ and ‘I can’, and hopefully to trigger something, somewhere, that goes ‘that’s it!’

Except.

What if you can’t find your why?

What if my why is elusive and amorphous and non-specific? What if it only comes in fleeting daydreams and vague, staring out of the window, mind-wanderings and hopeful wonderings? What if you want to change the world for better but don’t have the first idea of how you really can?

Sinek says, again and again, that everyone has a why (“why do you get up in he morning?”), but for the longest time I found that profoundly annoying and irritating, because I didn’t. It can be deeply dispiriting to get fired up and motivated but to lack a target to aim for. I wanted to do things the right way and use my skills for good, but inspirational quotes like “jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down” were only for strange beings from another financial planet. They were unobtainable and annoyed the shit out of me.

All the talks and inspiring stories seemed to have a whispered, hurriedly passed over, safety-net (‘I was miserable in my role as CTO of Google so I cashed in my share options — all I had — and left to breed organic alpacas in Peru’), and I know I’m not alone in the fear that responsibility for a young family would prohibit me from taking ‘that’ leap.

More importantly, most of the best whys were already taken.

But there’s a secret that Sinek has known all along.

It’s OK to have someone else’s why.

I recently read an article from someone who’d been to see Sinek speak and he wrote,

“ Business leaders like Sinek put pressure on people to find their purpose (or their “why”). During this session he admitted that he often placed unfair pressure on people to have a vision or a purpose, and he said something I’d never heard him say before. Some people should have a vision for themselves (something unique and world changing), but for many people — it is enough to find someone else’s vision and attach yourself to it. That could be a family, a church, a cause or a company. You don’t need to have your own vision, you just need to be attached to one that you believe in.”

There’s a damn good reason that people want to work for companies like Nike and Patagonia and Hiut and Canopy and Stars, rather than start their own businesses — they share their purpose. That, of course, is why we prefer to buy our trainers/wetsuits/jeans/holidays from them too. We believe what they believe.

To quote Sinek back at himself, “ If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if they believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

Shared purpose is the powerful and ancient foundation of armies, political parties and cultural movements. Sinek illustrates it with the story of the 250,000 people who turned up to hear Martin Luther King give his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

“”I believe, I believe, I believe,” (MLK) told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day at the right time to hear him speak. How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves.”

So here’s a big truth. Don’t worry if your why isn’t clear, or if you can’t do your why on your own, or just yet, it’s OK to follow someone else’s why.

It is OK to choose a good job because it’s run by good people doing the right thing, even if it’s not glamourous. There are good software developers and accountants and cleaning companies, all of whom simply have integrity — one of the finest ‘whys’ there is to follow. We desperately need a lot more boring companies to be doing boring things with real integrity.

It’s OK to just weaponise your money for good; buying sustainably, ethically and thoughtfully; supporting politicians who you really trust and who will work to do the right thing for their constituents, no matter the political pressure; supporting charities and organisations who believe what you believe and who can DO something purposeful with your financial support.

These are good and noble whys that you can be proud to be part of.

I’ve been proudly involved with the Do Lectures for years now, but it has taken me years to figure out my why, which is mainly to help other people to find theirs (even while mine is still elusive). So don’t worry if your purpose isn’t clear yet; attach yourself to ideas that matter to you and support them as much as you can. That is more than enough to add meaning and integrity to anyone’s mundane.

‘Our why’ is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than ‘my why’, and Lord knows that what the world needs now is a lot more US and far less ME.


Tim Le Roy

Social Entrepreneur

Tim Le Roy

Fledgling writer. Founder of DirtMeetsTheWater and Communications Director at Dootrix. Read more from Tim on Medium.

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Illustration by Tanya Griffiths