by Jeffrey L. Mitchell, Head of School Currey Ingram Academy
For a few years now, Simon Sinek’s notion of The Golden Circle has been popular, especially in the corporate world.
In his books and his TED Talks, Sinek points to the powerful simplicity of the idea. By understanding their what, how and why, organizations and people can maximize their potential and their well-being. Sinek uses a simple diagram of three successively smaller overlapping circles to show the relationship among what, how and why.
- What (outer circle) reflects the things that organizations or people do.
- How (middle circle) reflects how organizations or people do what they do.
- Why (inner circle) reflects the essential reason(s) that organizations or people do what they do.
Sinek goes on to say that most organizations and people know what they do and how they do it, but fewer know their why. Sinek points to the example of Apple as a company that not only understands its what (we make excellent computers) and its how (the computers are user-friendly and beautifully designed), but also its why (we think differently and challenge the status quo). The result of knowing your why is a powerful guiding force that can keep an organization or a person perpetually and highly motivated.
This is the fourth and concluding article on this theme.
I was at the Vandy vs. University of Tennessee football game last week. Being relatively new to town and to the state of Tennessee, I had not really formed an allegiance to either team. With the excitement of the game, I felt compelled to pick a side. So, somewhat to the dismay of the friend I was with, I decided to pull for the home team – Vandy.
As we all know by now, it was a very exciting, back-and-forth football game with Vandy eeking out the victory.
The stadium was filled, half in black and gold pulling for Vandy and half in bright orange cheering for UT. As the game progressed, the inevitable proximity of the Vandy and UT fans created friction, at least where I was seated. Catcalls and crude remarks were aplenty. A shoving match between two fans led to their ejection from the game.
As the two individuals were being escorted out, I could not help but think that they probably have much more in common than they have differences. For example, I assume they both like football. They could very well agree on religion, politics and share some casual interests, as well. All things (perhaps?) more important than who they cheer for in college football.
Allegiances and Your Why
With a contentious election that has somewhat divided the country still in the rearview mirror, I’m primed to think about how allegiances impact our Why. In Tribes, Seth Godin wrote that we all belong to many groups, simultaneously. For millions of years, humans have joined tribes, be they religious, ethnic, political, even your favorite college football team. It’s our nature. These connections can hold supreme value for humans.
But how does having multiple allegiances impact your Why? If you have 17 things you are passionate about, and Whys for each of those 17, what allegiances take precedent? If there are so many, does this ultimately water down what’s important? Does it create artificial and superficial barriers among people, as with the Vandy vs. UT game example? Is there a common denominator? A set of principles that most every person might include in their Why?
I would argue that all of our Whys are important because they differentiate us and help us belong. But I also like the idea of checking in with and understanding what I might call our Ultimate Whys. See the big picture, like the astronauts who view Earth from their spaceships, and the “oneness” of humanity becomes abundantly clear.
When we do this, an infinite number of people and their allegiances find common ground. Most if not all of us will fight for autonomy, freedom and self-determination. Most if not all of us recoil at the idea of harming another person. Most help our fellow human beings in some way. Most are wired to want to treat others justly. Most people keep our promises and are honest. When, metaphorically, we view the Earth from the spaceship, common ground is easy to see.
The Role of Education
Education has a profound role to play in shaping the Ultimate Whys of our young people. We can help them connect the dots among the common values, undergirding their allegiances and helping them see the elusive big picture.
So many of the core principles mentioned above are introduced, challenged and dissected in any number of subjects across all grades, certainly history, science and literature, to name a few. For example, I remember how my first reading of Orwell’s 1984, as a high school student, questioned my thinking about freedom like never before. I also remember the wonderful way my fourth-grade teacher conveyed the importance of honesty through storytelling.
Programs that teach through action outside of the classroom also have a profound effect on students’ Whys, perhaps more than classroom material ever could. This is why we emphasize these offerings at Currey Ingram. For example, service learning can have a profound impact on students’ desires to help other human beings and enhance their sense of justice, and the fine arts and athletics can help students develop the concept of being part of something larger than themselves.
Class trips, also a hallmark of our program, can have a lasting impact on students’ Ultimate Whys. I often think back on my first school trip abroad with students and how it made it so much easier for us all to appreciate humanity’s common ground. I know our Upper School trip to explore United States’ civil rights history, for example, has a profound effect on our students, and I suspect our first-ever upcoming Upper School Spanish trip to Barcelona will do the same.
If we do our jobs as educators and parents, my sincere hope is that our young people will grow into adults who have non-negotiable Ultimate Whys — adults who start by seeing their commonality with others vs. responding to in-the-moment anger over a single allegiance.
Have a wonderful holiday season and use some of your down time to explore your own Whys and ask others (especially your elders) about theirs.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey. Currey Ingram Academy is a coed, independent K-12 school in Brentwood for students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. For more information, click here.