Starting with (my) WHY? 3

Have you heard of the Golden Circle?

Simon Sinek described what he called “The Golden Circle” in a TED Talk on marketing and his subsequent book with the title: “Start with Why”.  It’s a simple insight, and certainly not new (as Sinek himself admits). See at the end of this post for a video of Sinek’s TED talk. Yes, I know it’s blue in the graphic below. Next time I’ll make it golden. 🙂



The Golden Circle (Sinek)


Most people, Sinek says, start with the WHAT of a project or task or life vocation. What are we making or doing? The WHAT is the ‘seen thing’—whether activity or object.

The WHAT of our Pedagogy is usually the content that we’re teaching. Not always, but usually. We tend to teach “stuff,” not people. We often build our curricula out of the WHAT. So, for example, a seminary curriculum often navigates the student through Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Christian Theology, Preaching, Pastoral Care, and etc. We seminary professors can spend years “revising” a curriculum by simply moving the pieces of content around on a game board. We think of our teaching in terms of WHAT we teach and what we think our students should learn.

In terms of Biblical Interpretation (or Hermeneutics), folks often think of the WHAT as the interpreted text: What does the text mean? What’s the message? Students often enter a seminary course, say a course on Revelation, assuming the instructor will tell them what the text means … not just what it’s about; what it means. Then they can write that down in their notebooks and leave knowing the What of the book of Revelation. Oh, this is what the text means. Nail it down. Get it right. It’s what the bible means. It’s what folks take notes on in sermons.


A few people, Sinek says, think about the HOW of the project. How will we make or do the thing we do? What will distinguish the way we do it from the ways other people do it. The HOW is what marketers refer to as “the Unique Selling Proposition.” (Remember, Sinek’s work is essentially on marketing. I’m adapting it for my own purposes.) Maybe we could call it “style” or perhaps it’s what we scholars call “methodology.”

In terms of Pedagogy, the HOW is often thought of in terms of methodology. Are we going to teach through lecture or discussion? Will the class be live and in person or will it be online? Will we plan cool teaching-learning activities? Will we “flip” the classroom? Use PowerPoint? YouTube? Film? Having determined the WHAT (i.e., the content), HOW will we teach that content? We start with the WHAT and let that (and our personal style) determine the HOW.

In terms of Hermeneutics, the HOW of interpretation (in our day and age) often means some form of historical criticism. It also entails various ideological criticisms, reader-response criticism, literary criticisms, and on and on and on. Or, the HOW might be connected to the denominational or theological tradition: This is HOW Baptists interpret it. This is HOW Lutherans interpret it. This is HOW Pentecostals interpret it. In this case, the HOW pretty much determines the WHAT, rather than vice versa.


But, according to Sinek, the wisdom of the Golden Circle lies in the WHY.” Why do we make or do what we do? Why do we do it in the way we do? The energy, the emotion, the calling, the “must-ness” of our work: that’s the WHY.

But not only does he emphasize the *importance* of the WHY, Sinek argues that the WHY comes first. If we start with the WHAT, we’ve already missed the boat. Moving from the WHAT to the HOW lacks the wisdom of the Golden Circle. No, we Start with the WHY. It’s the WHY that informs the HOW. The HOW determines the WHAT. Think of an arrow moving from the outer circle *into* the inner circle.

NOT like this:  What ➞ How ➞ Why

Sinek argues for exactly the reverse: The arrow moves from the center out. From Why out to What.

The Golden Circle:
Why ➞ How ➞  What

This changes Biblical Interpretation (and preaching & teaching). This changes Pedagogy (and curriculum revision). Yes, I know, we have so-called Mission Statements. But you and I both know about institutions and mission statements. We still start with the WHAT. Accrediting agencies measure the WHAT. WHATs have rubrics.

I think Sinek is right—even if it is difficult sometimes to identify the strategy for “starting with WHY.” It’s not easy to determine how the WHY can inform shape and energize our HOW. It’s tempting to think of the HOW as being strictly about efficiency or perhaps about being creative for the sake of creativity.  If we let our WHY and our HOW define the WHAT, it’s almost a certainty that the WHAT will wind up looking different than we first thought. How, then will we measure that?!? (Answer: by starting with the WHY)

“Starting with WHY” can lend coherence and power to our actions and provide energy for the journey. It can help us assess ourselves with more vigor and clarity. It’s simple. It’s difficult. Like most good things.

My Golden Circle

During the next few months I’m going to be blogging about my Golden Circle, about my WHY, my HOW, and my WHAT.

I’ve taught New Testament professionally for 35 years now. It’s been a journey. As I look back over my work I can see that I’ve pretty much circled my thinking and praxis around two key concerns:

a. Biblical Hermeneutics — The “science” of interpretation

b. Pedagogy — Thinking about teaching & learning

I’ll use these two issues as the “containers” for talking about my implementation of the Golden Circle. I have, quite by accident, discovered that I can’t quite separate these two issues. That’s in part, of course, due to the fact that I teach New Testament. My teaching/learning responsibilities relate directly to biblical interpretation.

My own journey has not been built on Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. But like many “simple ideas” that make a big impact (like Sinek’s work has), the simple idea often helps me to perceive my own journey.

So I’ll “Start with (my) WHY” —

The passion of it all, all this work and thinking that I do, can be summed up in a desperate passion for Freedom and for Transformation, both of which flow out of a bone-deep conviction of connectedness.

In a recent narrative for the seminary where I teach I summarized it like this:

I seek freedom — in Teaching & Learning and in Biblical Interpretation

  • freedom of voice
  • freedom of mind — to think for oneself
  • freedom from shame, freedom to explore
  • freedom to counter oppression, both internal and external
  • freedom for self-discipline
  • freedom for productive group engagement

I seek transformation — in Teaching & Learning and in Biblical Interpretation

  • from mimicry to responsible thought, speech, and action
  • from “cookie cutter” ministry to creative and genuine engagement with the world
  • from a fearful clinging to tradition to an every-changing enlivening of tradition
  • from the search for accolades and affirmation and “success” to the full stature of personal presence, integrity, and creativity
  • from the anxious self-striving to a self-forgetfulness in ministry to the world

Both Freedom and Transformation are, for me, deeply rooted in the connectedness of all that exists. So, I always experience and anticipate Freedom and Transformation arriving through Surprising Connections. Sounds like a HOW, perhaps. But it’s not quite. Surprising Connections–connections that disrupt, interrupt, delight and devastate at the same time: a mode of being that flows out of and makes possible Freedom and Transformation in an ongoing fashion.

What’s your WHY?



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3 thoughts on “Starting with (my) WHY?

  • Lorna

    I totally agree that the WHY is the most important, not only in the teaching profession, but I think in general, this methodology could apply. I know that during my engineering career the WHY question was also. If we could tell someone WHY then we would wound up “spinning our wheels” for nothing. The WHY question is like identifying the “bulls eye”. It will help to justify if something should be done and help to shape the “HOW” and the “WHAT”. Without a WHY, there might potentially be a danger to go through the entire cycle of developing the “WHAT” and the “HOW” only to find out that at the end of the process or project there is a big “SO WHAT?” That “SO WHAT” is paired to the WHY in a sense. I never enjoyed seeing an exegetical analysis of a passage that was not going anywhere. Our interpretive instincts should lead us to fruitful observation and discoveries but if what comes out on the “back end” is not significant or relevant then our labor is in vain. After we do the WHY we should ask ourselves, “If we don’t do this, “then WHAT” and if the “then WHAT” turns into a “SO WHAT” then go back to the drawing board and rethink the process until you get a good reason for the WHY. Remember, “WHY” is the answer to the problem. It validates the rest of the process. I totally agree with this article. I used the same process when I was working in network engineering.

    • virginiawiles Post author

      Love your “Then what?” To “So what?” sequence! I’m going to use that in my teaching! Thank you, Lorna!