What’s Your Why?

Matthew Petchel


In this interview, Matthew Petchel, sits down with motivational speaker and best-selling author Simon Sinek. Here, Petchel asks Sinek about his optimistic philosophy and how it can help dentists find greater success in their practices.   

Within my world as a marketing professional, Simon Sinek is a popular author and speaker. His TED talks still rank as some of the best out there, and his philosophy of “Why” has caught fire and is used by small-business owners, corporations, and people who are stuck in the status quo. Sinek’s theories are not complex, but they are thought-provoking and are actually based on science (which always makes things more interesting). Here is an interview I conducted with visionary, author, and optimist Simon Sinek.

Q: So, I’ve read your books. I’ve watched a lot of your TED talks. I find you really super interesting. I see you as part philosopher, part psychologist, and part visionary. What’s the title on your business card? 
A: Optimist.

Q: Are you an eternal optimist, or just an optimist? 
A: No, it says “optimist.” I mean, whenever I give a blurb or something, or they quote me, I always ask them to say “optimist and author.” Author is something I’ve done, but optimist is who I am. And so many of us are defined by jobs but not who we are. I prefer to be defined by who I am, not what I do, because I can do different things, right?

Q: Especially if you’re an optimist?
A: Yeah. You see this in a lot of professions where somebody’s whole identity is so wrapped up in his or her profession that when he or she ceases to do that profession, this person actually has an identity crisis. So, if you start before you retire or when something changes, I think it helps.

Q: Have you always been an optimist? 
A: I think so, yeah. It’s an affliction.

Q: It’s a good one. Your original TED talk is 8 years old now, and it’s the third most watched of all time. What’s your favorite TED talk other than your own? 
A: I really like Ken Robinson’s, which is number one most watched. He’s done a few, though. He’s kind of magical, and we all sort of bow down to him. 

Q: How did your vision of Start With Why begin? What was the moment that lead to you wanting to help others with this idea?
A: It was born out of pain. I had a small business. I had a marketing consultancy, and I ran out of passion for what I was doing. Superficially, everything was very good. I had great clients, made a decent living, and we did great work, but I didn’t want to wake up and do it again. And I was embarrassed by that: complaining when everything was superficially good. So, I kept it to myself. And it wasn’t until a close friend came to me out of concern for me that I found the courage to admit that I wasn’t happy. Once I did that, it sort of lifted a weight off my shoulders and gave me the wherewithal to actually find a solution. There was a confluence of events, and I made this discovery that every single one of us and every single organization functions on the same 3 levels—a biological constant. Everybody knows what they do. Some people know how they do it. But few people know why they do what they do, and that was my problem. I knew what I did. I knew how I did it. But I didn’t know why. And, as I said, it’s based on the biology of human decision making. It’s just based on how the brain makes decisions. I became obsessed with this thing called the “why.” It restored my passion to levels I’ve never had before, and it’s continued ever since.

Q: What’s your why?
A: To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that together we best can change our world for the better.

Q: How can a dentist take his or her why and become better? 
A: Well, every human being has a why, including dentists. So, when they know why they do what they do and they have a sense of their callings—a sense of purpose, cause, or belief beyond dentistry—it’s the reason their clients and patients love them. It’s the reason their friends love them. It’s the places they find inspiration. Just because you’re a dentist doesn’t mean that all dentistries are created equal, even if everybody is qualified and good at what they do. And if somebody goes to work for one dentist or another, they may enjoy it here but not there. So, to know one’s why not only makes us better leaders, but it also makes us better able to inspire those around us—it commands loyalty. But it also helps us find love in our work. When work becomes mundane and repetitive, it helps us remain passionate.

Q: What’s the most surprising business industry you’ve spoken to where you connected more than you imagined? 
A: I did a thing for some manufacturers. They were sort of…they’re not even manufacturers. It was at a rock quarry where basically the guys who worked there maybe had high school educations or equivalencies, but that was pretty much it. And they come to work and smash rocks for a living. It’s about as blue collar as it gets. And they were just wonderful people.

Q: And I guess the thread is that we’re all smashing rocks, in a way. 
A: Yeah. I mean, we’re all human, and what drives us and inspires us is all the same and has nothing to do with the work that we do. That’s the important thing. Just because you’re in a glamorous business or a business that requires a lot of education doesn’t mean that you get a free pass to inspiration and passion. And just because you smash rocks for a living doesn’t mean that you can’t find passion and inspiration. They have nothing to do with each other; it comes from other sources. That is sort of what my message is: It’s not the job. It’s why we do the job.

Q: For you, it was a friend who noticed something in you. That doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes friends reach out, or sometimes people are stuck, down, sad, or not optimistic. How does a person take that step? Do they have to realize it first? 
A: It’s not so much the friend, it’s the admission. It’s admitting that I’m not happy as opposed to lying, hiding, and faking every day. You know, in that time years ago, all my energy went into pretending I was happy or more successful and more in control than I felt. A lot of people do that in every profession. So it starts with an admission to oneself. It’s like the first step of the 12-step program: First, you have to admit you have a problem. Rationalizing it away doesn’t help. Accept you’re not doing well or you’re failing. I had to accept failure. And when you do that, it’s actually kind of wonderful.

Q: What’s a down day for Simon Sinek? Im guessing most days are happy because you’re an optimist—it’s on your business card. But what does a down day look like? 
A: I think, at most, I get frustrated sometimes. I’m normal. I’m a human being. I have all the emotions. I get frustrated. I care desperately that the work matters and that people benefit from it. But I’ve also learned to emotionally disconnect myself from work, so I’ve had it where I’m talking to an audience and someone will raise their hand and say you’re naïve; this doesn’t work in business. And I shrug my shoulders and say, “then don’t do it. What do you want from me? I don’t try and convince anybody, but I like to see momentum, and I like to see that things are going. And when things get stuck and don’t move, I want to move around those obstacles.

Q: What’s next for Simon Sinek? 
A: I’m writing another book. That’s occupying most of my time right now, which is fun, and that should come out next year. It will be called The Infinite Game.

About the author
Matthew Petchel is a brand and marketing strategist in the dental industry. His agency, Brand Target, helps some of the biggest brands you use every day communicate their value and deliver satisfaction. His book, Branding in Practice, shows dentists how to treat their practices more like consumer brands. Mr. Petchel is also co-founder of the dental news aggregator app SWYP.