Learning Always Starts With The Why

The quest to understand the achievements of people and business is how Simon Sinek became a world famous thought leader when he gave a Ted Talk in 2014.  His question was simple:  

“Why have companies like Apple been able to achieve such extraordinary success, while others with the same resources have failed.”

According to Simon Sinek, the fundamental difference between the “Apples” of the world and everyone else is that they start with “why.”


To explain this concept, Sinek has developed what he calls the “Golden Circle”. The golden circle has three layers:

Why – This is the core belief of the business. It’s why the business exists.

How – This is how the business fulfills that core belief.

What – This is what the company does to fulfill that core belief.

Sounds simple, but what Sinek found is that most companies do their marketing and thinking backwards. They start with their “what” and then move to “how” they do it. Most of these companies neglect to even mention why they do what they do. More alarmingly, many of them don’t even know why they do what they do!

Over the last decade I have pondered this simple question:

How do successful companies and individuals learn, and what is their learning framework?

If many companies neglect the “why” question they probably neglect the virtue of learning as well.

The “why” question should not only inspire passion, action, and innovation it should also inspire an attitude and culture of learning.  Every demand on a business from staying off competition to the need for disruptive innovation comes best through intellectually honest learning. 

This question led me to propose that effective, honest and active learning starts with the “why” question, which frames all actions and intents toward learning.  This “why” question become a north star for a company and for an individual.

To illustrate the power of asking why Simon uses the hallmark story of the Wright brothers and their journey to invent controlled powered flight, which became the catalyst for aviation as we know it today.

“The Wright brothers were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it would change the course of the world.”

In contrast the well-funded Samuel Peirpont Langley, also on the same journey, wanted to crack the question of flight to be famous and be first.

In the end, the Wright brothers, who believed in the dream, worked with blood and sweat and tears discovered how to fly on December 17th of 1903.  Langley went into obscurity and the Wright brothers became famous. 

I think there is more to be learned here. 


I think the story of the Wright brothers shows how tapping into the why question of innovation creates a framework of learning. 

This reframing toward learning, rather than building something first, is a powerful concept.  In modern terms, a learning culture occurs when failure is reframed into learning opportunities.


The magic of aviation innovation for the Wright brothers came through their deep analysis of how to control their flying machine when airborne. We now called these flight controls i.e. flaps and rudders in modern aircraft, however this concept was not known at the time.  This obsession with how to control flight, like birds, was key to their success. 

Learning through the lens of analysis while avoiding learning traps was key to their discovery process.  According to Nail it then Scale it, there are four learning traps that often derail intellectually honest learning:  To avoid these you must become cognizant of them how they affect your decision process.


The traps are:

nisi-for-websiteConfirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. This might explain the failure of all attempted flights up this point in history.  

Motivation bias is a close cousin to confirmation bias but differs as motivations filter all information and blinds you to certain realties.  Tim Harford called this chasing your losses and doubling down when you know your failing.  For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.

Overconfidence is the twin to confidence.  It takes confidence to even play the entrepreneurial game, however overconfidence can also blind you.  Furr and Ahlstrom caution that you don’t confuse determination with overconfidence.  This learning trap might explain the failure of the highly educated Samuel Peirpont Langley.

Compatibility traps explores our myopic viewpoint of the world.  It is often manifests in the business world by asking this convention wisdom question:  “what can we build that people will buy.” Instead you should ask “what do people want to buy?”  Or “what problems do my customer have that I can’t solve?”  Sometimes the solution is outside of our box of compatibility, reason, and comfort.

The heart of this analysis learning frame is to acquire a posture of fact based data driven learning.



“Every time the Wright brothers would go out, they would have to take 5 sets of parts, because that’s how many times they would crash before they came home for supper.”

learn to fly

They didn’t expect success leaping from tall buildings, bridges or mountain slope, which can now be seen as ridiculous attempts but at the time seemed like rational product tests for those who didn’t frame their innovation with learning.

At the early stages of a new product the strategy should be to learn, not produce.  Yes, the market rewards execution not ideas, however too often the strategy of a new venture is build a business plan or business models or even products instead of learning real market problems.

To win you need to reframe your strategy to develop an attitude of learning.

“At the core, entrepreneurs must develop an attitude of learning—brutally honest learning. By this we mean you need to learn how to seek and really receive feedback, because ultimately feedback opens the door to developing a product or solution that customers really need rather than just what the entrepreneur imagines that customers need. Furthermore, down the road, as the founder, you will set the culture of your organization, and creating a learning culture leads to a great organization rather than a one-hit wonder. But how do you develop this attitude of honest learning? The first step, which we have already described, is to recognize the learning traps discussed above. The second step is to develop an attitude of learning that has four basic components: 1) becoming an expert novice, 2) reframing the learning purpose, 3) real-time feedback, and 4) data-driven perspectives.”


The virtue of evaluation should stand on its own but for the purposes of this learning framework feedback works to refine your learning not just the stale commentary on your process, product or features.  Every flailed flight was evaluated by the Wright brothers. They failed in new and glorious ways,  but they didn’t repeat the same failure.    

Failure is often manifest through feedback but in reality that feedback is the roadmap to success if you can only learn from it.

Significant amounts of real-time feedback help correct overconfidence, increase pattern recognition and help us see the truth.  The truth is the product of brutally honest learning.

Learning should always start with the “why” and effective innovation occurs as organizations and individuals work within the constructs of a learning frame.


Learning Frames are simple yet powerful cognitive alignment models that help you develop not only an attitude of learning but a desire for brutal intellectual honest learning.


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