“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it” ~Simon Sinek, Start With Why
I first heard of Simon Sinek from my son Zachary. He came home from work one day excited to share a TED Talk he’d listened to during his break. I had not seen my youngest son so animated in months. Zach had big dreams, but he made some poor choices that led to him having to wait a while after high school to start making those dreams a reality. This young man needed some inspiration. Simon Sinek gave it to him.
At Zach’s request, I watched Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” and talked with my son about Sinek’s message:
“There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead inspire us. Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.”
Zach watched that TED Talk multiple times, and my husband pulled Sinek’s book from a shelf in our hallway. “You ought to read it,” he said.
“I want to be that kind of leader, the one who inspires,” Zach told me, and he began to make choices based on his drive to help people instead of what he thought he would get out of helping people. As I write this, Zach is in Taiwan. He gave up his cell phone and his friends and jumped into learning Mandarin Chinese. His 6’4” frame dons white shirts and ties everyday as he rides a bike through Taipei, serving a full-time two year Mormon mission.
My son found the WHY that Sinek inspires, and it changed the direction of his life.
Sinek’s book is about identifying why some leaders are able, not just to sell a product, but to create a movement. He explains his purpose: “to inspire others to do the things that inspire them so that together we may build the companies, the economy, and a world in which trust and loyalty are the norm and not the exception” (7).
That reads like a nice idea for educators, too, doesn’t it? I do not know a teacher who does not want “to inspire [students] to do the things that inspire them.” However, according to Sinek many in business go about it backwards. By extension, I argue that many in education do, too. We focus on the WHAT and the HOW– like making learning relevant, engaging our students, teaching them grit, focusing on achievement, calculating grades, teaching a specific book, giving them a quiz — instead of WHY we teach our students in the first place.
Sinek says, “All the inspiring leaders and companies, regardless of size or industry, think, act and communicate exactly alike. And it’s the complete opposite of everyone else.” They start with WHY. Instead of a focus on the WHAT they produce or sell, or HOW they produce or sell it, they focus on WHY they produce and sell it in the first place. Apple, for example, obviously sells computers. That is their WHAT, but their WHY is to challenge the status quo. It always has been. Stay with me here with Sinek’s explanation:
“A marketing message from Apple, if they were like everyone else, might sound like this:
We make great computers.
They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
Wanna buy one?
When we rewrite the Apple example again, and rewrite the example in the order Apple actually communicates, this time the example starts with WHY:
Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?
Apple doesn’t simply reverse the order of information, their message starts with WHY, a purpose, cause, or belief that has nothing to do with WHAT they do” (40-41).
Now, let’s think about this as educators: Most of the time, we think and talk about WHAT we do. “I teach English,” or “I teach high school,” or even “I teach kids.” Sometimes we talk about HOW we do it. “I teach readers and writers in workshop,” or “I advocate for choice independent reading,” or even “I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, ” or “I teach Hamlet.” These are different from WHY we teach and have nothing to do with what motivates us to greet our students each morning, armed with carefully crafted lesson plans, and a smile.
According to Sinek, when we focus on WHAT we do instead of WHY we do it, we are like most of the businesses and companies in the world that drive their work with manipulations and punitive rewards, which might work in the short-term, but do not breed loyalty and long term change. We see this in education all the time: threats of in-school suspension and failing grades, mandatory tutorials, new test-prep programs, increased numbers of safety nets designed to keep students from failing, changes in grading policies, and more. “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it,” writes Sinek. Most decisions we make to motivate students are based on manipulation, and we fail to inspire long-term change. No wonder we see the same students in the same trouble year after year. When we define ourselves, or our schools, by WHAT we do, that’s all we will ever be able to do (45), and that is not enough “to inspire [students] to do the things that inspire them,” or to build a world where trust and loyalty are the norm. We need what Sinek calls “inside out thinking.” To inspire lasting change, we must start with WHY.
Let’s take that example of Apple from before and apply it to our schools. If we are like everyone else, we might talk about our school like this:
We teach high school.
Our school culture is spirited and sound. Our curriculum is rich. Our test scores are high.
Wanna come here?
When we rewrite the example again, and rewrite the example in the order an inspiring school leader actually communicates, this time the example starts with WHY:
Everything we do, we believe in challenging our students’ thinking. We believe in genuine and individual inquiry.
The way we challenge our students is by making our school safe and innovative, with passionate and knowledgeable teachers who are caring and compassionate, who cater to the needs of all students.
And we happen to graduate honorable and educated citizens. Wanna come here?
Does that example make you feel a little different?
As I read Sinek’s book, I kept imagining what his argument looked like when applied to education, but more specifically, I kept imagining what it would look like applied to me as a literacy leader in my classroom. The way I talked about teaching was like everyone else I knew; I focused on what I did as an educator instead of WHY I did it.
I taught AP English Language and Composition. I taught skills to pass a test. I taught students to love books and to like reading. I taught students to write. Although I had changed my instruction from when I first began teaching, from whole class novel studies with little writing instruction, to readers and writers workshop with choice, modeling, and mentoring, I still struggled. I struggled until I turned my thinking inside out. I took that example Sinek uses to explain what makes Apple such an innovative force in the market and applied it to my belief about myself as an educator and how I make that belief happen in my classroom.
See how I start with WHY:
WHY: Everything I do as a teacher, I believe in helping my students identify as citizens, scholars, and individuals whose voices matter. I believe our world is better when individuals understand their value, believe in their capacity to cause change, and take action to better the world around them.
HOW: The way I challenge my students is by making my classroom safe and inquisitive for my individual learners, with instruction that centers on trust, esteem, equity, and autonomy. Through the rituals and routines in my workshop classroom, students gain a sense of belonging, identify themselves as readers and writers, develop their voices, advance in literacy skills, and take risks that have the potential to change their worlds and the world around them.
WHAT: And I happen to teach English by modeling my reading life and writing life.
My readers and writers advance because they know we are in the business of learning about ourselves and our world — together.
Simon Sinek is right: “[Students] don’t buy what we [teach], they buy why we [teach] it.”
My challenge for you:
Follow Sinek’s model like I have above, and write your WHY. Please share it in the comments.