How many times over the course of a week does someone ask you , “What do you do?” Instead of telling them that you’re a writer, author, entrepreneur, or broke as hell, turn that question around and answer as if they ask you, “Why do you do what you do?” Dave Baldwin pens another fantastic post to make us think and reflect. This post certainly got me thinking about that old Hank Williams, Jr. song, “Family Tradition,” where he says, “They get on me/wanna know/Hank, why do you drink?” In the song, Hank, Jr. declares his musical style is different from his father’s and that’s the way it’s going to be. He also responds that he drinks because it’s “a family tradition.” Hank Jr.’s being definitive and rebellious—read on to find out how figuring out your “Why” makes others take notice.
This month, I read Start With Why by Simon Sinek. Sinek cuts to the heart of what makes the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t. As he eloquently puts it, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”
As a serial entrepreneur with a fragmented career—littered with numerous periods of unemployment—I found Sinek’s work to be enlightening. If I could say only one thing about what I personally took away from my reading of the book, it’s that I finally realized what people are really asking when they utter the words ,“What do you do?” Until I read Start With Why, I used to resent this question. What do I do? Well, let’s see. I write. I tinker with things. I organize and design spreadsheets. I meet with people. I organize groups. I brainstorm. I create schedules. I mine data. I program. In the past, I’ve worked as a field service technician, a barista at Starbucks, a copying machine repair tech, a copywriter, and a handful of other things. Nobody really understands what I do, least of all me. But Sinek made me realize something that should have been obvious: when someone asks what I do, they don’t mean it literally.
At most networking functions—particularly if a large number of people are in attendance—we’re all faced with a challenge. The goal of a networking meeting is to connect with the right people, and deepen those connections over time. In order to do that effectively, we need a way to initiate contact with a stranger, then continue the conversation or disengage as appropriate. We invented a protocol to solve this problem. “What do you do” became the standard question, designed to open a dialog. We have implicit permission to ask this question without offending anyone. Well—almost anyone. I have to confess that this question has historically tended to trigger a fight-or-flight response in me. But now, at least I see light at the end of the tunnel.
In order to make the question of “What do you do” make sense, I need to put this in context. Simon Sinek refers to a device called “The Golden Circle.” It looks like three concentric circles. The inner circle represents “Why,” the middle circle represents “How,” and the outer circle represents “What.” According to Sinek, businesses usually get things backwards when it comes to marketing themselves. They talk at length about what they do, what makes them different from their competitors, and so on. He asserts that wildly successful brands, by contrast, make a greater effort to convey why they do what they do. The Golden Circle works from the inside out—the “why” defines and shapes the direction of the business, giving rise to the “how” (strategy).
Sinek uses Apple as an example of how The Golden Circle works. Apple has consistently prided itself on disrupting the status quo and thumbing its nose at the established rules. This has led to a cult following among Mac and iPhone users. Sinek discusses how Apple disrupted the mobile phone industry. Before the iPhone entered the scene, service providers dictated what features would be added to phones. Apple upended this model by designing a phone independently of any input from any of the carriers, then forcing the rest of the market to come on board. Initially, only AT&T signed on, but the iPhone’s popularity ultimately left the other carriers no choice. The smart phone interface has been duplicated many times over by numerous phone manufacturers, but the iPhone still remains a dominant player in the market. That’s because Apple is clear about what drives their engine. They are disruptors, and they refuse to play by the rules. In fact, that’s why Steve Jobs designed the original Apple Computer in the first place. Apple fans tend to possess at least a little bit of a rebellious streak.
In light of the Golden Circle, I realized that my overly-literal interpretation of the “What do you do” question had cost me a lot of potential opportunity. I believed that people asked this question for one of two reasons: to break awkward silence (which I found irritating), or to determine if I was blue-collar or white-collar for the purposes of ascertaining my social class and thereby my worthiness (which made me angry). When I read Simon Sinek’s accounts of companies that focused on “why” first, I started to think about the networking icebreaker question a different way. What if, I considered, people were really asking, “Why do you do what you do?” If one follows Sinek’s train of thought, the logical conclusion is that when someone asks a “what” question, they are really only interested in a “why” answer. People are looking for a spark. They are looking for passion. They are looking to see if there’s a commitment to something greater. If so, there’s a basis for a connection. If not—well then, it might be time to move on.
If you struggle with how to introduce yourself, or if you have a hard time coming up with ways to talk about what you do for a living, you might find Start With Why to be a useful resource. I believe that each of us possesses the potential to develop a loyal following among the people who resonate with our beliefs. We usually talk about the wrong things—mainly because the world is filled with bad examples. Think about what gets you out of bed in the morning—what gets your motor running? If you look back throughout your life at all of the major decisions you’ve ever made, they’ve all been influenced by one underlying belief or value. If you can identify what that is, you’ll be well on your way to tapping the power of the universal principle that Simon Sinek points to.