December 22, 2021

Start with WHY?

Anya Parikh



This book is about an occurring pattern, a way of thinking, acting, and communicating.


Regardless of the process or the goals, we all want to make educated decisions. Our behaviour is affected by our assumptions or perceived truths. We make decisions based on what we think we know.

Logic dictates that more information and data are essential to ensure that all our decisions will yield the best results. We’ve all been in situations where we have all the data and get lots of good advice, but things still don’t go quite right. We tend to believe it’s because we missed one small but vital detail. More data, however, doesn’t always help, especially if a flawed assumption sets the whole process in motion in the first place. This is where we realise that other factors must be considered, factors that exist outside of our rational, analytical, information-hungry brains.


  • There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate or inspire it. Manipulation is not necessarily pejorative, and it’s a widespread and fairly benign tactic.
  • If you drop your prices low enough and people will buy from you. The short-term gain is fantastic, but the more you do it, the harder it becomes to kick the habit.
  • Incentives, advertising, cash-back are often profitable. In the business-to-business world, promotions are called “value-added.”
  • Fear is arguably the most powerful manipulation of the lot. Businesses use fear to agitate the insecurity we all have to sell products.
  • Aspirational messages tempt us toward something desirable. Marketers often talk about the importance of offering someone something they desire to achieve and the ability to get there with a particular product or service.
  • When marketers report that most of the population, celebrities or a group of experts, prefer their product, they attempt to sway you to believe that what they are selling is the best.
  • Real innovation changes the course of industries or even society. And that’s the reason features are more a novelty than an innovation. They are added in an attempt to differentiate but not reinvent.
  • Manipulations work, but there are trade-offs. The gains are only short-term.
  • For transactions that occur an average of once, manipulations are the best way to elicit the desired behaviour.
  • The danger of manipulations is that they work. With every price drop, promotion, fear-based or aspirational message, and novelty we use to achieve our goals, we find our companies, organisations, and systems getting weaker.


Whether individuals or organisations, every one of these inspiring leaders thinks, acts and communicates precisely the same way -  following a naturally occurring pattern that the author calls The Golden Circle.

  • WHAT: Every company and organisation knows WHAT they do. Everyone can easily describe the products or services a company sells or the job function within that system.
  • HOW: Some companies know HOW they do WHAT they do. Whether you call them a “differentiating value proposition,” or “unique selling proposition.”
  • WHY: Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. WHY cannot be answered with “want to make money” because that is a result. WHY means what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist?

Apple, the world-renowned company, communicates. Their WHY can be understood as:

It’s worth repeating: people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. That clear correlation between WHAT they do and WHY they do it makes Apple stand out.


Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant. When a company communicates their WHY, and we believe what they believe, we often go to extraordinary lengths to include those products or brands in our lives. Those products and brands make us feel like we belong. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, you see that the levels of the Golden Circle correspond precisely with the three major levels of the brain. The newest area of the brain is the neocortex, which corresponds with the WHAT level. The neocortex is responsible for rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections comprise the limbic brain. The limbic brain is responsible for all of our feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It is also responsible for all human behaviour and all our decision-making. When a decision feels right, we have a hard time explaining why we did what we did. Again, the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language, so we rationalise. This is where “gut decisions” come from. No part of the stomach controls decision-making; it all happens in the limbic brain. They feel right because the part of the brain that controls them also controls our feelings. Products with a clear sense of WHY give people a way to tell the outside world who they are and what they believe.


The Golden Circle obeys the need for balance. When the WHY is absent, an imbalance is produced, and manipulations thrive.

  • Clarity of WHY: For the Golden Circle to work, you must know WHY you do WHAT you do.
  • Discipline of HOW: Understanding HOW you do things and having the discipline to hold the organisation and its employees accountable to those guiding principles enhances an organisation’s ability to work to its natural strengths.
  • Consistency of WHAT: It is at the WHAT level that authenticity happens. With consistency, people will see and hear what you believe. It is this authenticity that produces the relationships upon which all the best sales organisations are based.
  • The Right Order: After you have clarity of WHY, are disciplined and accountable to your own values and guiding principles, and are consistent in all you say and do, the final step is to keep it all in the right order.
  • If You Don’t Know WHY, You Can’t Know HOW: Differentiation happens in WHY and HOW you do it. WHY you do, it needs to be crystal clear.
  • When we are inspired, our decisions have more to do with who we are and less to do with the companies or the products we’re buying.
  • WHY to a business situation, you needn’t look much farther than how we act on a date. WHATs should be used as proof of WHY. Let’s look at this from a business perspective.
  • The ability to put a WHY into words provides the emotional context for decisions. It offers greater confidence than “I think it’s right.” It’s more scalable than “I feel it’s right.” When you know your WHY, the highest level of confidence you can offer is, “I know it’s right.”


  • Trust is a feeling, not a rational experience. And with this trust comes a sense of value. You have to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating that you share the same values and beliefs.
  • The goal is not to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have, but to do business with people who believe what you believe, so is it beneficial to live and work in a place where you will naturally thrive because your values and beliefs align with the values and beliefs of that culture. When a WHY is clearly understood, it attracts people who believe the same thing.
  • The goal is to hire those passionate about your WHY, your purpose, cause or belief, and who have the attitude that fits your culture. Companies with a strong sense of WHY can inspire their employees.
  • When you have a dream, it is important to work towards it. Success follows when you believe you can figure out the WHY and how it can change the world.
  • Pulling together a team of like-minded people and giving them a cause to pursue ensures a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie.
  • Great organisations become great because the people inside the organisation feel protected. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organisation as a whole will look out for them. This results in reciprocal behaviour.  



  • Energy motivates, but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see,  measure and copy. Charisma is hard to define, nearly impossible to measure and too elusive to copy. Charisma comes from a clarity of WHY. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine.
  • Regardless of WHAT we do in our lives, our WHY—our driving purpose, cause or belief—never changes. If our Golden Circle is in balance, WHAT we do is simply the tangible way we find to breathe life into that cause.
  • The Golden Circle needs to be three-dimensional. The good news is, it is. It is, in fact, a top-down view of a cone. Turn it on its side, and you can see its full value.

A cone represents a company or an organisation:

  • Sitting at the top of the system, representing the WHY, is a leader; in the case of a company, that’s usually the CEO.
  • The HOW level, the next level down, includes the senior executives inspired by the leader’s vision and know HOW to bring it to life. The HOW level represents a person or a small group responsible for building the infrastructure to make a WHY tangible.
  • Beneath that, at the WHAT level, is where the rubber meets the road. It is at this level that the majority of the employees sit and where all the tangible stuff happens.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream, and he inspired people to make his dream their own. There were others around Dr King who knew better HOW to do that. For every great leader, for every WHY-type, there is an inspired HOW-type or group of HOW-types who take the intangible cause and build the infrastructure that can give it life. The leader imagines the destination, and the HOW-types find the route to get there. For Dr King, Ralph Abernathy was one of those he inspired and knew HOW to make the cause actionable and tangible. With each success, with every tangible demonstration that the vision can become a reality, the more practical-minded majority starts to take interest. And when that happens, a tipping point can be reached, and then things get moving.

  • Most people in the world are HOW-types, functional in the real world and can do their jobs and do very well, but they will never build billion-dollar businesses or change the world. To alter the course of an industry requires an extraordinary and rare partnership between one who knows WHY and those who know HOW.
  • Great organisations function exactly like any social movement. They inspire people to talk about a product or idea, include that product in the context of their lifestyle, share the idea, or even find ways to advance the organisation’s prosperity. They excite the human spirit and inspire people to take part in helping to advance the cause without needing to pay them or incentivise them in any particular way.
  • It’s no coincidence that the three-dimensional Golden Circle is a cone. It is, in practice, a megaphone. An organisation effectively becomes the vessel through which a person with a clear purpose, cause or belief can speak to the outside world.
  • Higher standards are hard to maintain. It requires the discipline to constantly talk about and remind everyone WHY the organisation exists in the first place. It requires that everyone in the organisation is held accountable for HOW you do things—to your values and guiding principles. And it takes time and effort to ensure that everything you say and do is consistent with your WHY.
  • WHY your company does things should never change. When the superiors open routes to the WHY, it allows for others to repeat their success and change the course of multiple industries multiple times.
  • Sitting at the top of the megaphone, at the point of WHY, a superior’s role is to inspire, to start the movement. But it is those who believe who will affect the real change and keep the movement going.


Apple’s advertising and communications, products, partnerships, packaging, and store design are all WHATs to Apple’s WHY, proving that they actively challenge status-quo thinking to empower the individual. Their advertising never shows groups enjoying their products, and it’s always individuals. The WHY came before the creative solution in the advertising.

Speak Clearly, and Ye Shall Be Clearly Understood

The cone represents an organisation in the three-dimensional view of The Golden Circle. This organised system sits atop another system:

  • The marketplace comprises of all the customers and potential customers, all the press, the shareholders, all the competition, suppliers and all the money. The only contact the organised system has with the disorganised system is at the base— at the WHAT level.
  • As the organisation grows, the leader becomes physically removed, farther and farther away from WHAT the company does and even farther away from the outside market. The HOW- types are responsible for understanding WHY and must come to work every day to develop the systems and hire the people who are ultimately responsible for bringing the WHY to life.
  • The leader sitting at the organisation’s top is the inspiration. They represent the emotional limbic brain. WHAT the company says and does represent the rational thought and language of the neocortex.
  • If done correctly, that’s what marketing, branding and products and services become; a way for organisations to communicate to the outside world.


Most companies have logos, but few have been able to convert those logos into meaningful symbols. A symbol cannot have any deep meaning until we know WHY it exists in terms bigger than simply identifying the company.

The Celery Test

  • It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY.

How the Celery Test works is:

Imagine you go to a dinner party, and somebody comes up to you and says, “You know what you need in your organisation? M&M’s. If you’re not using M&M’s in your business, you’re leaving money on the table.”

Somebody else says, “You know what you need? Rice milk. The data shows that all the people are buying rice milk these days. You should be selling rice milk in this economy.”

Still, somebody else comes up to you and says, “Celery. You’ve got to get into celery.”

Now, what do you do? You go to the supermarket, and you buy celery, rice milk, and M&M’s. But should you be picking up all of them? Which do you choose? If your WHY is to do only healthy things, you’ll buy only rice milk and celery. Those are the only products that make sense. It’s not that the other advice isn’t good advice. It’s just not good for you.

The More Celery You Use, the More Trust You Earn

The reason we trust companies is simple; we know what they believe. They pass the Celery Test. They have been so consistent over time in everything they say and do that you begin to trust.

In Violation of Celery

Companies that are usually in violation of the Celery Test have no idea what their WHYs are.



  • All companies are in business to make money, but success is not why things change so drastically. It is not destiny or some mystical business cycle that transforms successful companies into impersonal goliaths. It’s people.
  • Most of the incredible entrepreneurs have been at a point in their lives where they realised that their businesses were about much more than selling stuff or making money. They recognised the deep personal connection that existed between WHAT they do and WHY they were doing it. As their tangible success grew, something more elusive started to dissipate. Every single one of these successful business owners knew WHAT they did. But for many, they no longer knew WHY.
  • Achievement is something you reach or attain, like a goal. Success, in contrast, is a feeling or a state of being. Achievement comes when you pursue and achieve WHAT you want. Success comes when you are clear in pursuit of WHY you want it. They are in pursuit of WHY. They hold themselves accountable for HOW they do it and WHAT they do serves as tangible proof of what they believe.


For passion to survive, it needs structure. A WHY without the HOWs, passion without structure, has a very high probability of failure.

  • The top line represents the growth of WHAT the organisation does. For a company, that measurement is usually money—profits, revenues, EBITA, share price or growth in market share.
  • The second line represents the WHY, the clarity of the purpose, cause or belief. The goal is to ensure that as the measurement of WHAT grows, the clarity of the WHY stays closely aligned.
  • The volume of the megaphone comes solely from the growth of WHAT. As this metric grows, any company can become a “leading” company. But it is the ability to inspire, to maintain clarity of WHY, that gives only a few people and organisations the ability to lead.
  • When organisations are small, WHAT they do and WHY they do it are in close parallel. Clarity of WHY is understood because the source of passion is near—in fact, it physically comes to work every day.
  • Once an organisation grows and the founders take a step back, they must pass the School Bus Test to succeed.
  • The School Bus Test is a simple metaphor. If a founder or leader of an organisation were to be hit by a school bus, would the organisation continue to thrive at the same pace without them at the helm? It’s just a question of when and how prepared the organisation is for the inevitable departure. The challenge isn’t to cling to the leader; it’s to pass on the passion behind the WHY and ensure consistency.


  • The Law of Diffusion says that only 2.5 per cent of the population has an innovator mentality— they are willing to trust their intuition and take more significant risks than others. These are the people who know their WHYs and begin to build around them.
  • Before it can gain any power or achieve any impact, an arrow must be pulled backwards, 180 degrees away from the target. And that’s also where a WHY derives its power. The WHY does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It comes from looking in the opposite direction from where you are now.
  • The biology of human behaviour and The Golden Circle overlap perfectly. Once you discover why people do what they do, you will realise the real cause of your stress or “failures.” The problem will never be that you don’t know what to do or how to do it. The problem lies in forgetting WHY. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or which type of industry you’re working in. You need to inspire people to do the things that inspired you so that, together, you can change the world. This begins with knowing your WHY.


If You Follow Your WHY, Then Others Will Follow You

  • When you compete against everyone else, no one wants to help you. But when you compete against yourself, everyone wants to help you.
  • All organisations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year.
  • Imagine if every organisation started with WHY. Decisions would be simpler. Loyalties would be greater. Trust would be a common currency. If our leaders were diligent about starting with WHY, optimism would reign, and innovation would thrive.