Simon Sinek has published two best-selling books about leadership and business. Both Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last sold millions of copies, in multiple languages. He also wrote a small hardcover “book of inspiration” called Together is Better, and he has a new paperback, Why the Why, out later this year. When I interviewed him, I asked him about his process.
“It was easier when I was less busy,” he tells me. “There’s a lot of writers who treat writing like a full-time job. They work from 9 to 5. Or they have targets, like they’ll write 2,500 words a day no matter what. I don’t have that kind of discipline.”
He told me that if he doesn’t like what he’s writing, he has to stop.
“My writing style is best described as ‘days of guilt and self-loathing punctuated by moments of sheer brilliance,’” he says. “The problem is I don’t know when those moments will strike. So I walk around with a notebook in my pocket at all times. And when I’m in writing mode, when I have a book to write, I’ll not go out with my friends for fear that something will strike. Then I sit at home and watch TV because nothing strikes. And I’ll be like, ‘I should have gone out.’ Then I’ll go out. I’ll give myself a break. And then something will strike and I’m sitting at the table scribbling on table cloths.”
He told me that he wished he had a system, that his approach is chaotic: “I write like an artist, not a writer. It’s stressful.”
In both his writing and his lectures, Sinek pulls examples from a wide variety of sources. Within a paragraph or two, he might cite Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs and the guy who served him coffee at a hotel in Las Vegas. I asked him if he makes these connections in the moment, or when he’s actually sitting at the keyboard, typing. He paused for a second, and then began explaining how different parts of our brain function.
“The neo-cortex, which is our rational and analytical brain, has access to about 2 feet of information around us,” Sinek explains. “This is information we access when we think through a problem or we make a list of the pros and cons or we have a brainstorm and make use of our expertise, right?”
“Our limbic brain, which is our subconscious brain, has access to the equivalent of about 11 acres of information. Which is every conversation, every book. It’s all filed away somewhere, but you can’t access it consciously. So when a question is asked or a problem is posed, you’ll think it through, but then your limbic brain continues to ruminate—think isn’t the right word. It continues to toy with the idea. It’ll make connections that you’re not aware of until the connections are made. And that’s why you’ll have epiphanies in the shower, in bed, when you go for a run, on your drive to work, all those times when you’re quote-unquote ‘not thinking’ and your mind is wandering.”
But, he says, your subconscious won’t engage if the problem hasn’t been posed or the question hasn’t been asked. So the value of the brainstorming session isn’t solving the problem right then, it’s to ask the question. The answer is more likely to come later.
“I appreciate that,” he says. “I keep a dry-erase marker in my shower. When I have a thought in the shower, I’ll quickly get out and write it on the tile. Because as quickly as you have it, you lose it.”
When he was writing Leaders Eat Last, it got intense.
“It looked like A Beautiful Mind if you walked into my bathroom,” he says. “Every single tile was filled with crazy ideas. Some of them were disconnected. Some of them were just thoughts I thought were really, really interesting. I would never erase any of them. I would just stand there every night, brushing my teeth, and I’d be just staring at one of them. And then I’d make a connection and start writing on one of the tiles. Some of them made it into the book and some of them didn’t. There was madness in my bathroom, but that’s how it works for me.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Michael J. Mooney is a journalist who writes for D Magazine, GQ, ESPN: The Magazine, Outside, SUCCESS and Popular Mechanics. He is co-director of the annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. His stories have appeared in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Crime Reporting. He lives in Dallas with his fiancée, Tara, and their retired racing greyhound.