Start with Why

The Golden Circle and the Human Brain by Simon Sinek

A few years ago, Simon Sinek made an amazing discovery. He named it The Golden Circle. You can watch his talk here where he emphasizes the importance of starting with why.

Usually I would not quote someone in that much detail but there is a reason that I feel compelled to do it, which I discuss after the following note. In Simon’s words,


Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out.

… None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. Our newest brain, our Homo sapien brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language.

This is sown in the figure below.

The Golden Circle and the Human Brain by Simon Sinek

So what is its effect on human behaviour? According to Simon,


In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior. When we can communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from. Sometimes you can give somebody all the facts and figures, and they say, “I know what all the facts and details say, but it just doesn’t feel right.” Why would we use that verb, it doesn’t “feel” right? Because the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language. The best we can muster up is, “I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right.” Or sometimes you say you’re leading with your heart or soul. I hate to break it to you, those aren’t other body parts controlling your behavior. It’s all happening here in your limbic brain, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and not language.

But if you don’t know why you do what you do, and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get people to vote for you, or buy something from you, or, more importantly, be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do. The goal is not just to sell to people who need what you have; the goal is to sell to people who believe what you believe. The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that, you know, 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.

The power in this concept comes with how he links it to the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, proposed by Everett Rogers.

Law of Diffusion of Innovation


In simple terms, this is how a new idea or a new product is received by the market, in terms of percentage of a population.

  • Innovators: First 2.5%
  • Early Adopters: Next 13.5%
  • Early Majority: Next 34%
  • Late Majority: Next 34%
  • Laggards: Last 16%

This is illustrated in the figure below.

Law of Diffusion of Information

Now we come to how the “Why” relates with the law of diffusion of innovation? If you see the graph above, you cannot have a mass acceptance of an idea or a product until you cross the chasm shown in the figure: the tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration, and then the system continues to roll in your favor.

To cross this chasm and get access to the early majority, you need to find the innovators and the early adopters. They will make that decision to side with you either by carrying the idea or buying the product if your “Why” is aligned with them. If that does not happen and you cannot cross the chasm, the idea or product dies naturally with time.

And that is the beautiful way in which these diverse concepts intersect with each other.

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