Author Simon Sinek’s insight in his book Start With WHY is that great leaders share information by starting with WHY, then HOW, and then finally WHAT, whereas most people communicate in the reverse order, and fail to inspire. I am struck that this insight about purpose and inspiration relates directly to writing college essays.
Though Sinek’s book is full of stories about great leaders -- Steve Jobs, Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers, etc. – here is an excerpt that all can easily relate to – attempting to make an impression on a blind date.
“Brad sits down for dinner and he starts talking.
‘I am extremely rich.’
‘I have a big house and I drive a beautiful car.’
‘I know lots of famous people.’
'I’m on TV all the time, which is good because I’m good-looking.’
‘I’ve actually done pretty well for myself.’
The question is, does Brad get a second date?"
Let’s try it again, this time following Sinek’s insight to start with WHY…
‘You know what I love about my life? He starts this time. “I get to wake up every day to do something I love. I get to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. In fact, the best part is trying to figure out all the different ways I can do that. It really is amazing. And believe it or not, I’ve actually been able to make a lot of money from it. I bought a big house and a nice car. I get to meet lots of famous people and I get to be on TV all the tie, which is fun, because I’m good looking. I’m very lucky that I’m doing something that I love. I’ve actually been able to do pretty well because of it.’
[…] He said all the same things as on the first date; the only difference is he started with WHY and all of the WHATs, all the tangible benefits, served as proof of that WHY.”
The point is this, great leaders inspire. How to do this? Start with WHY and follow with HOW and then WHAT. According to Sinek, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it” and “WHY is the emotional component of the decision.” As example: “It is that clear correlation between WHAT they do and WHY they do it that makes Apple stand out. [… ] Everything they do works to demonstrate their WHY.” Apple’s WHY is to challenge the status quo; their WHAT is currently computers, iPods, iPhones, watches, etc.
Great application essays inspire. How to do this? Start with WHY and follow with HOW and then WHAT. Details of experiences (the HOWs and WHATs) are crucial to an essay, but only if they follow and support what makes you tick (the WHY). If you start with WHY it is likely that you will inspire the reader of your essay. A connection will be made.
Is it really so important to convey your WHY when your WHAT is hugely impressive? Yes. If you want a second date.
[Link to Simon Simek's Ted Talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action.]