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Start with Why

The Golden Circle

Every organization—and every person’s career—operates on three levels: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We all know what we do: the products we sell, the services we offer or the jobs we do. Some of us know how we do it: the things that we think make us different or stand out from the crowd. But very few of us can clearly articulate why we do what we do.

The WHY is the purpose, cause, or belief that drives every organization and every person’s individual career. Why does your company exist? Why did you get out of bed this morning? And why should anyone care?

Companies that inspire, companies that command trust and loyalty over the long term, are the ones that make us feel we’re accomplishing something bigger than just saving a buck. That feeling of alliance with something bigger is the reason we keep wearing the jersey of our hometown sports team even though they’ve missed the playoffs for ten years and counting. It’s why some of us will always buy Apple products over other brands, even if Apple isn’t always the most affordable choice. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are not entirely rational beings. If we were, no one would ever fall in love and no one would ever start a business. Faced with an overwhelming chance of failure, no rational person would ever take either of those risks. But we do. Every day. Because how we feel about something or someone is more powerful than what we think about it or them.

There’s just one problem with feelings. They can be tremendously difficult to express in words. That’s the reason we so often resort to metaphors and analogies, like “our relationship feels like a train heading at high speed toward a rickety bridge” or “when I get to the office, I feel like a little kid on the playground again.” Even though communicating our feelings is hard, the payoff is big. When we align emotionally with our customers and clients, our connection is much stronger and more meaningful than any affiliation based on features and benefits. That’s what starting with WHY is all about.

And here’s the best part, this whole concept of WHY is grounded in the tenets of the biology of human decision making. How the Golden Circle works maps perfectly with how our brain works.

The outer section of the Golden Circle—the WHAT—corresponds to the outer section of the brain—the neocortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for rational and analytical thought. It helps us understand facts and figures, features and benefits. The neocortex is also responsible for language.

The middle two sections of the Golden Circle—the WHY and HOW—correspond to the middle section of the brain, the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for all our behavior and decision making. It’s also responsible for all our feelings, like trust and loyalty. But unlike the neocortex, the limbic system has no capacity for language. This is where “gut feelings” come from. It’s not our stomach. It’s a feeling we get about a decision we have to make that we struggle to explain.

That separation of powers is the biological reason we sometimes find it difficult to put our feelings into words (“I love you more than words can say”), explain our actions (“The devil made me do it!”) or justify our decisions (“I don’t know … it just felt right”).

We can learn, however, to put words to those feelings. And those who do are the ones who are better able to inspire action in themselves, among their colleagues and with their customers.

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