Saturday, July 16, 2011

Start with Why, or What's Up with That?

Start with Why author Simon Sinek kicks off the OpenText
Purpose-Driven Speakers series, New York, June 11th
While Oprah Winfrey has her "a-ha" moments — her trademarked tag for the personal epiphany — as a researcher, I have another important moment that I call the "huh?" moment.  The "huh?"  moment happens when you spot some new connection and say, "whoa, what's up with that?" 

Instead of having the absolute certainty of revelation (always dangerous for a researcher, and frequently rigid and wrongheaded for others), the "huh?" moment is that instant when new patterns or links emerge and you find yourself asking potentially interesting questions. This is not bewildered stupefaction, but the hum of curiosity.

I had one of these moments last week, when I clicked on a link (was it in an email, or on a site, or from a Twitter feed? -- I can't even recall) that mentioned that OpenText was hosting a series of talks on "purpose-driven" leadership.  I know a little bit about the "purpose-driven" concept as it fueled Rick Warren's runaway self-help bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. And I'd just heard about OpenText a few weeks back when their Chief Strategy Officer Tom Jenkins was a keynote speaker at the Digging into Data Conference hosted by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Somehow two disparate areas of my research— the American obsession with self-help and the emerging field of digital humanities scholarship — had managed to intersect together.  Whoa, what's up with that? What does self-help rhetoric have to do with the marketing of content management systems?

My curiosity took me to the meeting room of a boutique hotel in the Flatiron District (what we in New York City used to call "Silicon Alley" before the dot-com crash) on a hot July morning to hear Simon Sinek, the first speaker in OpenText's Purpose-Driven Speaker Series.  The author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Sinek is a terrifically dynamic speaker, as you can see from his much-watched TED Talk, and has come up with a simple visual meme to articulate his message.  His "Golden Circle" is three concentric circles with Why-How-What radiating out from the center.  Purpose is central, while actions and methods, tactics and strategies, are peripheral.  While his name is a homonym for cynic, he seems to be anything but cynical.

In the midst of his talk, Sinek announced that he hates self-help books.  Look at self-help publishing, he said, gesturing broadly to create the angle of an upward graph line, it's a multi-billion dollar industry and what happens to it?  It just keeps going up and up and up.  If it really worked, he said, it'd be going the other way, and he gestured again the trend of a falling line graph.  The trouble with self-help is that's it's all me-me-me, he said.  For anything to work, it has to be about something besides yourself.

In 30 seconds or less, Sinek had summarized the premise of my first book, Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. Well, perhaps not all of it, but much of it. Self-help culture, I argued, not only doesn't work, but becomes another layer of work that we're required to engage in that is almost entirely directed back upon ourselves. Self-improvement culture creates a workaholism on the self that results in a belabored self: a self constantly at work on itself. And while we are all focused on improving ourselves, trying to remain desirable in the marketplaces of love and work, our broader world is going to Hades in the proverbial, well you know.

So Sinek and I seem to have broad areas of agreement. Of course Sinek's critique of self-help could be just the shrewdest of marketing moves: dis the self-help industry and declare yourself a breed apart.  Create the un-self-help self-help movement. With a background in advertising, Sinek could simply be delivering a version of Apple's "Think Different" campaign for the motivational speaking circuit. But somehow I don't think so.  It seems to me that the Sinek and the marketing folks at OpenText have managed to wrench the "purpose-driven" rhetoric from its birth place at Rick Warren's fundamentalist Saddleback Church and render it secular, with a hi-tech TED-talk nouveau motivational panche. And that is very likely to sell OpenText's new content management tools for "purpose driven collaboration."  But it may also sell a certain sort of progressive social activism that I'd be eager to see thrive.

The only trouble I can see around the bend for Sinek's secular version of the purpose-driven life is that it's value-neutral. And there's the rub. What values will guide one's purpose? You could have any purpose at all, just as long as you can find folks to follow along. When you first ask why, your answer might be to restore the glory of the Confederacy and purity of the white race. Or your purpose might be providing potable drinking water to every community in the world. Starting with "why" doesn't guarantee that you'll be considering values such as the welfare of others, it only ensures that you'll appeal to your followers' desire to engage in meaningful action. I guess I'll just have to read Start with Why to see if Sinek takes up the important question of what sort of "why" is worth starting with.