Simon postulated that greatness in any industry, with any new product or service, starts with the founder and their team knowing why they do what they do, and making that “why” the central focus of their efforts.
He’s not wrong. His observation of human endeavor has led a great many to begin looking at the world they live and work in with new eyes.
There’s a flip side to Sinek’s theory that is troubling, however.
His focus on the Golden Circle, the graphic depiction of his theory of greatness, is only part of the story.
His is a theory that works on the positive side of the equation. It relates to people who know why they’re pursuing a goal, how they’ll make the world a better place, and what exactly they’re trying to achieve.
There is a flip side to that perspective the deserves consideration.
There is a negative side to human motivation that can also come into play – and all too often does.
Like Sinek’s theory of what makes great leaders great, the “why” of our motivations can also describe the reason so many of us struggle to just attain competence in our lives. Far too many fail to achieve goals that should have been well within their reach.
Sinek brings us the story of individuals who sought to change the world. Not in a figurative sense, in a literal sense — from the Wright brothers’ quest to achieve controlled, powered flight, to Martin Luther King’s quest for equal rights, to Steve Jobs’ burning desire to put an Apple computer in every home and every pocket.
You could put Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in that same class, today. And there will be others. There are always others who have a gift for management, who see a brighter future, and have the drive to bring it to fruition.
Then there are those who can’t get out of their own way. The folks who fail, and fail, and fail, no matter how modest the goal. They just can’t seem to find a pathway to success.
For these folks “why” is equally important, but it is focused on the negative side of the equation.
Some of us see a compelling reason we couldn’t and can’t and won’t succeed at even the most modest ambition. Because they turn “why” on its head. They’re not focused on the fire in their belly and the never-ending quest to clear any obstacles that might stand in their way. Rather, they’re focused on the opposite. They’re stuck with a “why” that describes the mountain, not their determination to climb it.
It’s too expensive, it’s too complicated, I’m too busy, I have to get up too early, it’s too far away, I don’t have enough gas in the car to get there, I’m tired. All these expressions of opposition to progress are common among those who fail to reach the goals they set, or avoid setting, for themselves.
When my kids were small — and frankly this conversation went on well into their teens — they would occasionally grouse about school, or chores, or friends they were squabbling with. Like every other kid in the world, basically. That opened the door to a conversation about effort, focus, and the ability to prioritize tasks.
I told my kids, and continue to believe to this day, “Life can be hard for a little while, or for a long time – it’s your choice.” A good life takes effort.
Going to school is hard – if you’re trying to get something out of it. It’s a cake walk if you don’t care about the outcome.
The same can be said for our employment options, our income, our relationships with others, and our ability to achieve personal and professional goals.
It’s going to be work sometimes. Hard work. It’s going to frustrate us, keep us up at night, and invade our thought patterns throughout the day. But that period of hard work will pass. The road will flatten out. Our burden won’t always be so heavy.
If we persist when the going is tough, if we look for solutions, we gain ground. Our relationships become more fulfilling, our employer sees value in having us on the team, our income rises, and our pride of accomplishment becomes an earned benefit of the life we choose to live.
Then again, we can choose to short-circuit our lives by focusing more on the impediment to success than the success itself.
We can choose not to complete the course and earn our certifications, plugging in the negative “why” that best fits our circumstance of the moment. We can stay in the position we’re in rather than pushing for a promotion and a higher rate of pay — for any one of 100 reasons that explain why it was more trouble than it was worth. We can opt not to launch that business, develop that product, introduce that service to the market — because it’s just too much trouble.
Life can be hard for a little while, or for a long time – it’s your choice.
Simon Sinek had a point. I think my kids got a pretty solid message, too. Pass it on if you will. There’s something to this.