The performers I work with often ask which books they should be reading in order to be able to maintain their high performance. There are always two I recommend because their subject matter is so fundamental to being able to perform under pressure; Professor Steve Peter’s Chimp Paradox, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism and Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. If we know why we are putting ourselves through the effort and stresses of performance it is easier to stick with it during the dark days. If we focus on bring that why to life and ignoring the shiny distractions we can be truly effective. If we can recognise our chimp and learn to soothe it we can prevent our emotions self-sabotaging our performance.
Interestingly, when I recommend these books almost everyone says they’ve bought at least one of them. They are sitting there on their book shelf. But they have never got the time to read them.
So, here is why you should read Start with Why.
Between 2002 and 2007 I did a part time PhD at the London School of Economics. 5 years of my life. And yet I have no idea what my final title was. I certainly couldn’t tell you what my research found. But what I learnt and will never forget was always to peel away each layer and each question to continue to ask why until I really came to the crux of whatever I was studying. Every draft came back from my supervisor with a WHY sprawled on it. Infuriating at the time (apologies to my amazing supervisor Terhi) but one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learnt. And this is where Sinek in Start with Why is trying to get us to.
He is writing his book for those in business but I felt it transfers well over to sport or stage performance. One of the first questions I ask performers when we start working together is why. Why are you on stage? Why do you run? Why is cricket your thing? It is a question very few have an immediate answer to. Often we hone down to their enjoyment of it, the fact they are good at it, that they like winning. All great stuff – but these will often fluctuate as your form comes and goes, injury impacts or your competition season develops. We need to go deeper. We need to know our fundamental why. Because when we truly know our why we can hang everything off it. Decisions are simple: Does this match my why? If it does then let’s go. If not we can turn it down without guilt. It makes sticking with the tough stuff much easier. This track session hurts – but I know why I need to do it. It’s freezing, I don’t want to go to nets practice – but I know why I should.
The book is full of examples of businesses and business leaders who do well because they have a why; Steve Jobs wasn’t trying to build computers, his why was to create a more level playing field, computing was just a route to do that. Southwest airlines were not about being an airline, their why was to help people move around the country. These wider ‘whys’ mean that those companies don’t get stuck in a box of ‘we don’t do that’. Instead they can ask: ‘does this opportunity help level the playing field? Does it help people move round the country? Then why not.’
Since reading this I’ve worked on my why and have made big decisions through that lens. Those decisions feel like the right ones for me and when the doubts creep in I feel comfortable they were good ones. They match my why. And when working with performers and we crack their why their decision making feels easier, their motivation becomes stickier and their performance develops a passion that may have been missing before.