Recently I’ve been digesting Start With Why, by Simon Sinek (Another nice find, Trev!) For an overview, watch his TED talk.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A person’s “why” can derive from any of these levels, but I think I’ll be happiest if I can map mine to the top of the pyramid.

I don’t buy everything in the book, and I think many of the author’s assertions would be stronger if he offered detailed evidence. For example, he asserts that Apple is special because it has a driving “why” that shapes company decisions in fundamental and pervasive ways, and glosses over how Apple lost its vision during the non-Steve-Jobs years.

Why “why”?

Nonetheless, his central premise is insightful and important: starting with “why” we do things will create greater satisfaction, wisdom, and success. Once we have a why that’s correct in our hearts, many of the whats and hows of life flow naturally. Sacrifice, patience, and creativity blossom. This is true of our software architectures, product requirements, general business activities, personal relationships, and other endeavors. People who hate their jobs often feel that way because they find their days filled with activities that they deem empty or soulless. Human beings can’t be passionate about stuff that doesn’t resonate with their deep values to some degree.

I find interesting resonance between Sinek’s thesis and other important ideas such as Jim Collins’ hedgehog concept, the idea of laddering in marketing theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Covey’s “begin with the end in mind.” I also find it interesting how congruent this is with a central tenet of Bridging the Communication Gap, by Godjko Adzic; he argues that the “why” of a product requirement, rather than the “what”, is the most important thing for product management to articulate. (Thanks, Shawn, for the great book recommendation.)

My Why

Which leads me to this: I need to articulate and then be true to my own “why.” Why, exactly, am I in the software industry? What do I hope to accomplish? Why do I work on enterprise software, as opposed to mobile apps or cool web mashups? Why did I start a blog? Why do I pick certain topics for my posts, and then spend significant time articulating my thoughts?

Here’s my current answer:

I believe in making complex computing simple so the world can innovate and improve.

Testing My Answer

What I like about this answer is that it ties back to my core values. I believe we have opportunities to do lots of good in the world–eradicating poverty and disease, advancing science, learning to understand and value one another better. And I believe an impediment to that is all the complexity we create and discover. Big data is hiding a lot of the insight that would let companies serve customers better. Number crunching supercomputers are needed to predict the weather better, to help predict crop yields in Bangladesh. And so on.

Thus, if I can do my part to make really tough computing problems more tractable, I’m helping make the world a better place.

I also like that this answer tells me when I’m wandering. If I’m building systems that don’t hide/manage/solve complexity, I’m probably off track. If I am building software that’s frivolous (“Angry Birds” comes to mind), I probably won’t be very happy. If I work for a company that aspires to nothing more grandiose than making money, I should either change the company or change my job. If my blog posts don’t help me understand or communicate on topics that reinforce that goal, I’m wasting my time.


What is your “why”? Struggle with it until you come up with a satisfying answer. Then use it to test your current work assignments. Does this exercise give you any insight or point to ways to rebalance your priorities?

10 thoughts on “Why

  1. Rick says:

    Great insight here, Daniel. This is definitely a challenge worthy of taking to heart. I’m glad to have a person with your mix of talents working where you do. For me personally, the “why” for what I do (or what I aspire to do) has not emerged as clearly or as easily as I would have liked, but I definitely appreciate the way you’ve expressed it. I can relate to having a strong desire to contribute to something that I deem truly worthwhile to humanity. I would add that this is a process, and assert that seeking our motivations and then occasionally going back to analyze and reevaluate them is an important exercise as we learn and develop.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Rick. I think you’ve said something important about “start with why” being a process. We learn more about ourselves as life goes by, and if we’re tuned in to that sort of discovery, it can lead us to question and refine our why. Having to wrestle with it is a sign that we’re being thoughtful and honest; I mistrust easy answers. Hopefully I’ll still be thinking carefully about this topic in a few years, and maybe I’ll have a better answer. :-)

  2. Daniel,

    For me, this has been an interesting one. As you mentioned, the book is by no means perfect, but I’ve found the ideas resonating more than many of my other business books. Tossing the ideas around has proved interesting, and I’ve learned a few things.

    — Verbalizing the why can be quite difficult.
    — One really needs to have the why first; retrofitting it doesn’t really work.
    — The interaction between our why, other people’s whys and organizational whys have a lot more effect than I’d previously realized.
    — Attempting to espouse two different whys creates text-book cognitive dissonance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance).

    I think what your article caused me to ponder was the importance of the personal why. Most of my focus lately has been on organization whys and understanding how they relate to my own. Obviously, in retrospect, attempting a comparison where one thing is loosely defined is really pretty hard. Attempting it when both things are loosely defined is plain near impossible. I’ve been experiencing both situations recently.

    Now I have another line of inquiry to pursue.

    Also, thank you for back-to-back mentions.

    • It was hard for me to put my own “why” into words, and I don’t think I’ve got it completely right, yet. What I have here is pretty close, and I felt like it was important to make the attempt to articulate, even if I missed the center of the target a little. It was healthy to struggle.

      You highlight a whole other level of this issue, which is finding a “why” for teams or larger organizations. I conveniently ignored that in this post, but I think it’s a vital question. I am wondering if it’s possible to discover a why after the fact. Do great organizations always begin with their why well understood, or can you socialize a why and build a groundswell of enthusiasm for it after the fact? I think many companies don’t have much of a why at the forefront of their thinking, so if you have to begin already knowing it, the picture is bleak for most enterprises…

      • After a bit of thought on this, I’ve come to the conclusion it is possible to install a new why, but not retrofit. We’ve seen it a couple of times in industry–most impressively with Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, though from all accounts that was done with a great deal effort and pain.

        Here’s the reasoning. I think it is impossible for a person or organization to exist without a why. If one isn’t implicitly stated, a “natural” one forms. For enterprise, this naturally occurring why is “to make as much money as possible” or some variation thereof. The things with whys is they are used to make self-reinforcing decisions. For example, hiring decisions will be made consciously or subconsciously based on the why. The chosen person will exhibit the attributes preferred by the why, and will therefore reinforce the why culturally in the organization.

        Here’s the concerning thing, in our western society there are cautionary tales for those who only seek money (think how the once while name Scrooge has taken on a life of its own). However, those who would object to the accusation that they put money first and foremost in their lives have no problem building a human-based organization to do so. All organizations, even enterprise, are composed of humans with human traits and actions. Hence the reason an appropriate why is necessary.

      • I’ve been reading some of the later chapters in Start With Why, and I’m encouraged by the story of Gordon Bethune turning around Continental Airlines. He seems to have tapped into a latent why that many people at the organization could buy into with all their hearts. It’s worth noting, however, that he fired 39 of the 60 top executives when he began shaking things up–and that he was able to institute sweeping change from the top down. It’s not clear to me how it works to do it the other way, from the ground up.

      • Because of the nature of the self-reinforcing decisions, I don’t think it is possible for the change to work in a permanent, organization-wide manner from the ground up (save the ground-up movement changing the mind the person at the top, who then institutes it from the top down). At this point, I think those in the best those in the bottom and middle of an organization can do is to affect their own sphere of influence. If enough change is made there, then hopefully it will start to gain traction organization-wide, which conveniently takes the conversation full circle: the importance of the personal why.

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