The WHY of Work

Have you ever asked yourself WHY you work so hard?  WHY you get up in the morning to brave the morning commute?  WHY you put in years learning your job?

The answer to this question is a harder than it looks.  It’s easy to find yourself substituting answers for HOW you do your work and WHAT you do it for, rather than WHY you do it.   Yet WHY you do it is the reason for most of the decisions you make in your life.

To understand this paradox fully, let’s turn to some of the best thinking on leadership I’ve ever encountered, the work of Simon Sinek.  Simon started off in the advertising industry (Ogilvy), trying to figure out how to improve marketing.  He then went to Wall Street (NASDAQ) to figure out how people made money.  The result of this exploration was book on Leadership called, “Start with Why — How great leaders inspire everyone to take action” For a synopsis of the book, take a look at his presentation at TEDx.  It’s been viewed over 15 million times at the time I wrote this, and it’s worth taking the time to watch it.

Simon’s basic approach is that all great leadership starts with the answer to WHY, before it explains HOW and WHAT.  Here’s the diagram he uses to illustrate this concept.


He maintains, correctly, that all great leaders, the leaders people actually follow, are great at explaining WHY.

People like Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King.  For example, 250,000 people assembled on the mall in DC to hear Martin’s “I have a dream” (WHY) and not “I have a plan” (HOW) or “A chicken in every pot” (WHAT) speech.

The reason WHY is more powerful than HOW or WHAT, is that WHY connects directly with the limbic brain.  The limbic brain is the ancient, emotional brain where we make the majority of our decisions (from life choices to product purchases).   In contrast, the rational brain (aka the neo-cortex), is newer addition to our biology, and is less likely to truly make a decision.  The rational brain deals is all about HOW and WHAT.

His research found that Leaders (or firms that market their products this way) that connect directly to the limbic brain, by answering the Why, can inspire high levels of loyalty.

However, as good as this system is as a way to explain leadership, it’s even better as a way to describe the reason the American / Chinese / Indian / Brazilian / Russian Dream is so powerful.

The Dream is the original WHY of modern economic and social life.   It’s the answer (for most people) the questions above.  The core program running in our limbic brain.

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Discussion — 4 Responses

  • BenK February 17, 2014 on 8:04 pm

    If you want to locate the Dream in the limbic, it comes with many restrictions and implications. The limbic gives you the powerful integration of unshakable realities – fear/pain and elemental physical appetites. That’s it. Some people identify these with a few core neurotransmitters – but this is a gross oversimplification that fulfills their own needs to make every reality a trivial materialism.

    There are people who believe that the higher brain effectively provides a wrapper to those, so that rejection and domination tap into pain, while altruism and higher fulfillment translate into satisfaction of thirst, hunger, and procreation.

    It would take enormous systematic evidence to convince me that this is accurate, let alone parsimonious. Emergent properties are common and reduction of them is an everyday failing.

    Why can be a powerful motivator for other reasons. It lies more deeply in the narrative, it explains the what and how, it can encompass more whats and hows, and generalizes better to diverse whens and whos.

    This topic probably requires more thought.

    • John Robb BenK February 18, 2014 on 8:25 am

      Ben, as always, thanks for the feedback. The limbic brain is the primary processor for emotion — love/right/wrong/justice/empathy/protection/joy/awe/etc. — which makes it more complex than a driver of basic urges. A complex interplay of emotion is what makes a deep narrative a deep narrative. Those simple, deep narratives are the ideas are the important ones. In contrast, a complex rational structure based on an academic package of assumptions, never shape history. These structures only work in software and machines.