#45 WHY at WORK: People Buy Into WHY You Do What You Do

We most often describe a business by the end product or service it provides.

"We make cardboard boxes."

That’s a fine description. It’s accurate and concise. If I need a box I’ll contact you and a few other providers. Then I’ll buy from whomever offers the best price, quality, delivery. Pretty straightforward, but maybe not the best way to market your boxes.

Think back to post #20 - WHY and the Human Brain, where I introduced you to the work of Simon Sinek. He’s considered a guru of modern marketing. And he’s a big believer that your marketing should be led by your WHY. Here’s his most famous quote..

“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

I think that’s solid marketing advice. A great tip for how to tweak your message to gain some attention and close a sale. But I see more potential in that quote than just marketing wordplay. I think we can put it on steroids by adding just two words. Here’s a modified version…

“People don’t buy INTO what you do, they buy INTO why you do it.”


You can probably guess that I like the modified quote better than Sinek’s original. True statement, but I think it’s easier to introduce the concept of WHY at work via marketing. So I’m going to start with the original…

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

In Sinek’s book he reinforces this thought with an example of how your WHY should drive your marketing. He uses Apple as his test case. And he posits how they would market if they chose to ignore their WHY. 

"We make great computers.
They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
Wanna buy one?”

In this "how not to do it" example, Sinek follows this all too common path.

Lead with WHAT - great computers. 
Follow with HOW - beautifully designed, simple to use... 
Ignore WHY.

He then compares this to Apple's actual marketing style. Which he portrays this way.

"Everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed,  simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers.
Wanna buy one.”

Lead with WHY - challenge the status quo and thinking differently. 
Follow with HOW - based on our why we are into beauty, simplicity, friendliness. 
End with WHAT - yes, it happens to be a computer.

This is a textbook example of successfully leading with WHY, and Sinek offers plenty more. Especially if you’re into the Wright Brothers or other superheroes or super-businesses. 

But what if you’re a mere mortal and you aren’t selling a sexy consumer gadget? What if your product is a cardboard box? And what if your customers actually want the status quo? In fact, they’re so into status quo that they provide you a document called a spec. And you have to deliver within that tight specification or your ass is grass. Then what do you do with your fancy WHY?

Not much. Unless you combine it with some other important aspects like ME IF and CAN. Which represent your traits, beliefs, characteristics, values, theories, goals, mission, vision, blah, blah, blah…

WHY alone, especially if you’re in a less sexy business, might not be enough to carry your marketing message. So I’m going to put marketing on the back burner for a while until we’ve fully filled out our WORK map. Then we’ll come back and talk about using WHY and it’s partners to crank up your marketing. 



Think back to the post I did on TESLA and Elon Musk (#42 My Man Crush). Their WHY was to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”. And recall how their devotion to this WHY led to some eye-catching decisions.

  • Going all electric rather than compromising with a gas/electric hybrid.
  • Creating a worldwide network of superchargers.
  • Building a battery factory that doubles the market size.
  • Giving away their valuable patents.

Where did the rank and file find the confidence or the conviction to sign up for these massive challenges?

“People don’t BUY INTO what you do, they BUY INTO why you do it.”

They signed up because they were convinced that Elon Musk authentically believed in his plan to go electric/solar. This wasn’t just some high tech get rich scheme. This was a “let’s save the planet AND maybe well get rich in the process” plan. There’s a huge difference. 

So whether Tesla’s direction turns out to be correct in the long term isn’t the point. The point is all about what it takes to get people to run into fires with you. And the answer is that you, the business owner, have to be out front with an authentic fire in your belly.

Pretty exciting stuff, isn’t it? I can hear Rocky playing in the background. 

Unfortunately, you’re not Elon Musk and you’re not building super fast electric cars. You’re the poor son of a bitch running the cardboard box business. And it’s way less obvious how your product is saving the world. So it’s not going to be nearly as easy for you to get people to buy into your WHY. 

Tough shit. That’s the way the world operates. Let’s get to work.


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

I developed my personal WHY in posts #21(Finding My WHY), #22(More WHY), and #23(Horizontal WHY). And it lives at the center of my SELF map. It reads like this…

“To Learn and Share”

And as you would expect, my WORK WHY is perfectly aligned. 

“To Learn and Share Stuff About Business and Personal Growth”

It’s that simple. And, like cardboard boxes, my business WHY isn’t sexy or new. Most of the topics I cover have been debated for 1,000 years or more. Even worse, this stuff meanders in and out of self help, which has some real sleaze attached to it. Hucksters promising eternal success or happiness if you buy into their whizbang system.

I hate that stuff. And I hate that I flooded myself with so much information on these topics that I couldn’t process it all. How could I make sense of decades of notes from blog posts and books as well as my own experiences and observations?

I’m a visual person so the obvious answer was to build a living map. Put a stake in the ground around some initial research that I feel strongly about. And then just keep throwing shit at the map and see what sticks. 

It started out as primarily an organizational project. Making piles. Identifying contradictions. Forcing myself to discard cool-sounding ideas that didn’t work for me, until I could see the top of my desk. 

Eventually I was forced to dive into some topics that I’d kept throwing to the side. “Soft stuff” that I’d always considered a nuisance but for some reason couldn’t seem to throw away. And pretty quickly I saw that the soft stuff was actually the hard stuff. And it was also the stuff that added the most value. 

That’s when the process became addicting. 

No miracles. No bright lights. Just trudging through piles and piles of this crap and slowly beginning to understand things and myself just a tiny bit better. How’s that for a sales pitch? 

Join me in endlessly trudging through shit for teeny tiny gains?

My pitch isn’t actually quite that painful. Yes, it took me ten plus years to find a way to organize and learn from this material, but I was wandering in the woods. Wasting enormous amounts of time on false starts and lack of discipline. The whole idea behind this site and this business is that I believe you can make a similar journey in a lot less time - months not decades.

So if you buy into the idea of drawing a map to accelerate your business and personal growth, I guess I'll see you next time…

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.