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  • Writer's pictureSaira Valley

Books of Influence - Start with Why (by Simon Sinek)

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

A few weeks ago, my sister and I gave away 8 books at an NCURA conference. We chose them because they each had a profound impact on how we viewed the world, lived our lives and ultimately, how we showed up in our work. I was asked to share some short thoughts about each book, but I don’t do short. So instead, I am going to do one post for each book, and I am confident that these posts will inspire you to add these to your library in a real hurry.

Start with Why.

My first experience with Simon Sinek was watching his TED talk from 2013. I was instantly inspired, so several years later when I had the opportunity to see him speak at a conference, I jumped at the chance. I cannot encourage you enough to go and see him speak in person if the opportunity ever presents itself. He has an incredibly warm and sincere approach to speaking, and you leave feeling not just inspired and motivated, but also deeply moved to choose a more meaningful approach to your life. It was at this talk that I got my hands on Start with Why and continued a profound journey towards professional and personal fulfillment through living true to my why.

Start with Why changed my life in 4 powerful ways.

1. It empowered me to choose a career that aligned with my Why.

2. It changed my perspective from “spending” 12 hours a day working, to “investing” 12 hours a day into my beliefs and core values.

3. It made me immeasurably better at my job.

4. And last, because I LIVE towards my why every day, I am deeply fulfilled and find my work, and my life, meaningful.

I do want to qualify these very big statements, with the reality that practicing this ideology was not instantaneous. I didn’t read the book and suddenly have the magic carpet to ride blissfully into enlightenment. This was a hard-fought battle against preconceived beliefs about work, money, relationships, service, value etc that had to be dismantled and rebuilt. That said, it is a worthwhile undertaking and one that will provide enrichment, peace of mind and purpose.

I learn best with stories, so I will tell you mine.

Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan was hard. It was home, but it was violent, scary and poverty stricken. My mother was American and was sickly, often bedridden for weeks at a time. Looking back now as an adult, I recognize she was struggling with invisible illnesses that had no name in the 80’s and deep depression living in a country where she didn’t speak the language or have access to all the pleasantries of life available in America. I spent a lot of time alone, or in the company of my very caring and equally abandoned sister. When I was 24, I was living in Boston, and my mother came to visit because she was ill, and not recovering. It was a very quick, painful trip from sick, to terminal, to death. She was only 53.

Her death left me devastated. We weren’t super close, but she was my mother and I loved her. In my mind, she was going to move in with me, be there for my eventual wedding, spoil my kids and take trips with us all over the world. In the future I imagined, she would live the next chapter of her life with renewed energy and happiness. Cancer took that opportunity from us, from her. And just like that, as if Thanos had snapped his fingers, she was gone.

A new Beginning

Emotionally and spiritually mangled, I resigned from my job, broke up with my boyfriend and began working as an entry level Research Administrator at a Boston hospital. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just taken my first step into the work of Why. I think this is true for many people, they have epiphanies after emotional earthquakes and make big decisions to live with meaning, but it doesn’t take much for old habits to creep up and for us to get lazy with our own living. Simon Sinek’s book teaches us how to fully commit to our Why and live it everyday.

So, what is it then? What was my Why that I didn’t even know was a thing pushing me into an uncomfortable new direction? What was the Why that has stuck with me now for 18 years and allowed me to be not just successful, but also happy and fulfilled? It all comes back to her. If science then was where it is today, she would have lived. It's doubtful she would have experienced full remission, but she would have had years not weeks. She may have seen 57, 59, 62. She may have seen my then 14-year-old brother grow up and graduate from high school. She may have developed a better relationship with my sister and gone to some very cool places. She may have lived a whole other life because of research. My Why, is my mom. My Why is the belief that through the work I do, I will make it possible for a brilliant medical mind, to make a huge breakthrough in disease treatment, and give another family the time my mother didn’t have. I know that when I wake up and work each and every day, I am helping the families of the future have a better outcome when faced with a devastating diagnosis.

Seeing the difference!

Doesn’t that make you feel different than hearing me say, I am a research administrator? When you hear my story, and understand Why I do what I do, do you think I ever go into work without energy or drive or commitment to excellence? Definitely not. Because my purpose is what guides me, not my tasks. Operating from my Why means that when I have to work on a grant application, or a budget, or financial statements for a researcher, I don’t approach the work as a tedious endless to do list. I see it as a stepping stone to my belief that this is all for a larger purpose. When your core belief is that your work is aligned with a meaningful purpose, tasks suddenly become opportunities to build your arc. It’s a very, deeply different experience than just showing up for a job and a dollar.

I am amazed that there are still many, many organizations and professionals working today who believe work is a paycheck, a necessary evil that funds life but doesn’t bring joy. We hear people groaning about their 8-hour days just counting down the seconds till they can clock out and go home. I would argue that in 2023, we need to do better, for our teams and ourselves. If I am a leader in my organization, and I encourage my team to do this work, and find their own Why, it means the organization will consistently have high performers, because the work fuels a deeply personal belief. The work isn’t about clocking in and out, or a means to an end. The work is part of a purpose.

Make the change

Whether you are a leader, an employee or an entrepreneur, you should read Start with Why. You deserve to make a living loving what you do, and you deserve the opportunity to enrich your personal and professional life with purpose, meaning and joy. Embracing this philosophy has given me the greatest gift I never knew I needed. The chance to make a difference and let someone have just one more conversation with their own mother.

Read the book. Find your why. Change your life.

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