Jack's Ruminations

Mining for Value in “Start with Why”

Posted on: April 13, 2012

One of my clients (the founder of a revolutionary stealth startup) turned me onto Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why“. I normally don’t much care for business books. But I did like this one.

Indeed, proof that I’ve “drunk the Koolaid” of the book is my recently updated LinkedIn profile that now “starts with why”:

Mining for hidden value is my passion. Whose hidden value? Yours, mine, the nation’s … whoever’s. I just love the mining.

In the words of Simon Sinek, this is my “WHY?” Explains all my esoteric activities over the years — both in my work and in my “spare time” dabblings.

Mining for hidden value includes not merely identifying value where it is not readily seen, but also pruning the schlock and extracting the nuggets of core value from over-hyped phenomena.

To illustrate what I mean by the last paragraph above, I thought I’d follow Sinek’s advice in his book, and apply my own WHY to that same book. In other words, I’d start mining the hidden value in the very book that gave me the idea to surface the notion of “mining for hidden value”. Kind of recursive, I know, but perhaps interesting.

Before we start the mining, however, I’ll note that Sinek’s book currently seems more “over-hyped phenomenon” than “hidden gem”. So what’s needed is a little pruning of the schlock in the book.

What is that schlock? I’ll confess that when I read the book, my first thoughts, in the first 20 pages, went directly to the “holes” in the book. It’s “missing chapters”.

I suppose that’s what my brain tends to do when it processes new information. Call it my brain’s always-on “bullshit sniffer”. It seems to automatically punch holes in stuff.

But before I punch holes in Sinek’s book, let me reiterate that I definitely buy the core of his theory. i.e. Start with WHY we do stuff, and be consistent in HOW we do it, and WHAT comes out of what we do. Do that, and we increase the probability of our success.

But every great idea has its limits. Identifying those limits seems a useful exercise in order to extract the core nugget of value in the idea. So here we go with “Start with Why?” …

My main criticism of the book is that it seems written exclusively from the perspective of an Enneagram “7”. Indeed, the entire book amounts to a “7 manifesto” in the same way that MBTI books tend to be “5 manifestos”. (BTW, IMHO, the automatic “hole puncher” of my own brain arises from its 8-ness.)

If you know what the Enneagram is, than ’nuff said. But if you don’t know, then the previous paragraph made no sense to you. So let’s try another approach.

The main problem with the book is that it paints too rosy a picture. The book paints the theory as flawless, and the leaders who “start with why” as almost gods among men. (This, indeed, summarizes the 7 self-view.)

“Example?”, you ask? They are many examples throughout the book, but I’ll give you just the main one. Early on in the book, Sinek describes the attributes of the paragon organizations that follow the thesis of the book (e.g. Apple, Southwest Airlines, and Harley Davidson).

What Sinek doesn’t mention at all is that cults perfectly fit the same model. Cults like Scientology, Hari Krishna, Jonestown, etc. etc.

Sinek’s omission is interesting because he uses the term “cult” or “cult-like” throughout the book to describe criticisms directed toward Apple. Sinek dismisses these criticisms as, more or less, “sour grapes,” or at least differences in core values.

But by omitting discussion of cults, Sinek’s book amounts to an “over-hyped phenomenon”. That doesn’t mean it has no value. Quite the contrary as I point out above.

But until we prune cults from the theory, we haven’t identified its core value.

Oh, what the hell, I’ll give you another example. Throughout the book, Sinek conflates people and corporations. He does this better even than Mitt Romney.

People are mortal mammals that survive on oxygen and food, whereas corporations are potentially immortal, legal fictions that survive on money. The legal doctrine of “piercing the corporate veil” carves this distinction in stone.

Given this profound difference, it would seem to have been a worthwhile exercise for Sinek to devote a chapter to exploring what, if anything, those differences might mean to the theory.

Now if Sinek was paying me for “mining the hidden value” in his model, my next step would involve looking at what is left of the model once we take into account destructive cults, and the people vs. corporations divide.

The above work is heavy lifting for the brain. It’s just the sort of work that I love to do. Sometimes I do this heavy-lifting work for free. Other times, it’s part of my consulting work.

The difference between the two is the sorts of books that I bring with me on vacation. As I mentioned at the start of this post, business books tend not to find their way into that vacation pile — unless, as in this case, such books are suggested by a friend/client.

5 Responses to "Mining for Value in “Start with Why”"

Interesting. I haven’t read the book and don’t imagine I will. But I got to thinking, that I believe it is likely an Enneagram issue as you suggest in your piece. I look back over my past 50+ years and “Why?” is not the question I start out with. “Who?” and “What?” are the questions that have led me to success (in the way that I define the word). I also think that’s an Enneagram quirk.

(OT: check out my last blog post, “A Singular Woman”. Definitely written by a person who thinks “Who?” well before anything else)

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Thanks Kathy. Yeah, I don’t see you reading the book. It’s the business analogue to Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Where Diamond’s book provides a cogent answer to the geo-political question: “Why did the West ‘win’ (up till now at least)?”, Sinek’s book seems to answer the business question: “Why is Apple the most valuable corporation in the history of the world?”.

Not the sort of questions I’ve ever seen you being interested in. At least, among our myriad discussions, we’ve never broached these topics.

But I have seen you interested in 3-dimensional (i.e. mind, body, spirit), optimal health (i.e. your own “Why” might be somewhere in there). I see that interest as a thread binding most everything you’ve thrown yourself into the last few decades. I suspect your patients and colleagues all sense that in you, drawing them to you.

Just a guess from afar. But I definitely intuited the “ring of truth” in Sinek’s theory. Like I write in the post, the next step after finding the holes in the theory is to define its borders and limits. The result will be a forged tool, unlikely to break on use.

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Great analysis. You do have a penchant for picking apart the 7;-)

By the way, I am now reading 8 Ways to Great by Dr. Doug Hirschhorn. Dr. Doug is a floor trader, turned sport psychologist, turned coach for floor traders. He uses 8 steps as his guideline to turn good performers into great perfomers. Coincidentally, step 1 is “find your why.” It seems Sinek and Hirschhorn got the same memo. Maybe Hirschhorn is also a 7…

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I checked Amazon, and both books seem to have been first published in 4Q 2009. Wonder if either author was aware of the other’s work.

7s are not only the main source of the world’s greatest inventors (yay!), they’re also the main plagiarists (not to mention pleasure addicts (gambling, drugs, food, sex, etc.), cult leaders, etc.).

Doesn’t mean all 7s are such people. Just means if you come across such a person, odds are he/she is a 7.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if either had become aware of the other’s work when writing their own book … and failed to cite the other.

Sinek spends almost 5 pages on Acknowledgements, thanking dozens and maybe hundreds of people and books as helpers to him. Couldn’t find Hirschhorn or his book in there.

Doesn’t mean Hirschhorn doesn’t belong there.

And even if Hirschhorn does belong in there, it doesn’t mean Sinek didn’t make a huge, valuable contribution of his own to these ideas.

But this is the bane of the 7. The garden-variety 7 isn’t satisfied with being just a little better than rest of us in some narrow ways (and worse in others) — like the rest of us.

Instead, the 7 of less than optimal health needs to be the infalible god/godess gracing the rest of us mortals with their presence.

Don’t get me started on Steve Jobs and his approach to his cancer diagnosis.

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