12/16/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

A Visit to the Ministry of Why

By Kipp Friedman

Recently I was asked to watch motivational author/speaker Simon Sinek's popular TED Talk video "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action" so that I could write a "Golden Circle" report, noting not only what I do and how I do it, but, more importantly, why I do it. Coincidentally, about the same time I started re-reading 1984, George Orwell's classic dystopian novel about life in a totalitarian state under the watchful eye of the all-powerful, all-knowing Big Brother, which I had not read since 10th grade.

The night before I was to hand in my Golden Circle report, I finally watched Sinek's 18-minute video on YouTube and was instantly impressed by its simple, straight-forward but powerful message. Major decisions are often made based on non-rational gut feelings. Sinek's conclusion was that if you look first at the "why" as opposed to the "what" or "how" you'll unlock the secret how to motivate others to action. This, he said, explains why we are inspired by certain people, leaders, messages, movements and organizations. People bought Apple Computers and supported the Wright Brothers, he noted, because they believed in their mission and wanted to follow them as well as other inspirational leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. As Sinek put it, Martin Luther King, Jr. "gave the 'I Have a Dream' speech, not the 'I Have a Plan' speech.'"

All of this made perfect sense to me; after all, I, too, have made important life choices based merely on a hunch and for other intangible reasons -- basically the "why" of things --sometimes against conventional wisdom. I have also been inspired by a great many people whom I'd like to think I'd follow to the ends of the earth.

I couldn't quite put my finger on it, though, but there was a part of me that remained a little skeptical.

Having finished my Golden Circle report, I read a little from 1984 before going to bed. I was at the critical juncture when the book's protagonist, Winston Smith, a man who works in the Party's Ministry of Truth ("Minitrue" for short), is arrested for having committed a "thoughtcrime" -- having negative thoughts about Big Brother. He was now being held somewhere deep within the Ministry of Love ("Miniluv"), lying strapped to a table, flat on his back, unable to move. His chief interrogator and torturer was the heavy-lidded, fleshy, bespectacled O'Brien, his former co-conspirator, who hovered above him, God-like, while a man in a white lab coat stood nearby, holding a hypodermic syringe. Throughout much of Smith's interrogation, O'Brien worked a dreaded dial with numbers on it up to 100, indiscriminately releasing ever-increasing jolts of pain.

Pleased with the direction the interrogation is going, O'Brien ordered the man in the white coat to mercifully administer a drug into Smith's arm which grants him instant respite and sleep. Overwrought by Smith's ordeal, I decided this was a good time to set down the book and go to sleep myself.

No sooner had I closed my eyes I felt like I was on board an airplane going through a rough patch of turbulence, as I tossed in bed, when I finally awoke in a sweat feeling somewhat disoriented. I was now in a brightly lit room, with a strong examination light above my forehead. More alarmingly, I lay flat on my back, strapped to a table. When I tried to raise myself I noticed my head, too, was immobile. In fear, I began wondering where I was.
"You know where you are," said a man's voice calmly just out of view in an accent that shifted from American to British. "You're in the Ministry of Why."

Hovering above me appeared none other than motivational speaker Simon Sinek. His cherubic face beneath short wavy dark locks of hair was slightly lined and he was sporting a 5 o'clock shadow. Like O'Brien, there were also bags under his eyes, only they were partially concealed behind stylish rectangular Prada glasses. The thought occurred to me that Sinek was older and a little puffier than he appeared in the TED Talk video. A trace of recognition registered across his friendly face.

"Please excuse my appearance," said Sinek, almost apologetically, "but Jet lag's a bitch. I just got back from Bagram Air Base where I was asked to give a little pep talk to the remaining troops and contractors. A lot of people don't realize there's still an ugly little war going on over there. Winning 'hearts and minds' works both ways, you know." He smiled conspiratorially, as if he were letting me in on a little secret.

My thoughts turned to how I had arrived at the Ministry of Why.

"Ah, yes! That is, indeed, the question," he responded, his face now taking on the more serious, stern look of a doctor, teacher, or priest. "I couldn't help notice that you have been reading 1984. Undoubtedly, it's a great book. But there's a reason why it was banned."

Confused, I suddenly recalled the passage I had just read where O'Brien reminded Smith of what he once secretly wrote in his diary: "I understand how; I do not understand why. It was when you thought about 'why' that you doubted your sanity." For some reason I had linked that passage with Sinek's popular TED Talk video.

"That's always been a particularly problematic passage for me," Sinek admitted with a sigh, again sensing my inner-most thoughts. "Need I remind you of the title of my best-selling book, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Action. Most people are forced to read 1984 while still in junior high school and then, thankfully, move on to other distractions like Grand Theft Auto V, Instagram, Twitter and something called WeChat. But your reading of 1984 has raised a bit of a conundrum for me."

"I only read that passage last night," I protested, and then felt a thunderbolt of pain pass through my body that made my body jerk spastically.

"That was only 35. We can go higher," Sinek warned gravely. "The reason you are here is because you are guilty of having committed a 'thoughtcrime.'"

A bead of cold sweat raced across my brow as I concentrated on something I could say that would both appease Sinek and prevent him from turning up the dreaded dial.
"I haven't even finished the book yet..."

Zap! Another jolt ran through my body like a freight train across my spine.
"That was 65," Sinek said, shaking his head disapprovingly. "Care to go higher, Sherlock? I will not hesitate in the least to bring on the pain if I detect even the slightest attempt on your part to be untruthful or to obfuscate or even to be uninteresting. I shall save you; I shall make you perfect."

Once my breathing settled, a strange calm came over me. I truly believed in the efficacy of Sinek's "Start With Why" TED Talk video and what I wrote the night before in my Golden Circle report, which brought me a modicum of comfort.

"That's better," said Sinek, reassuringly. "Let us continue. What is our slogan in the Miniwhy?"

"People don't buy what you do, but why you do it," I answered robotically in a voice slightly alien to me.

"Exactly," said Sinek. "You're catching on."

Sinek nodded to a man in a white lab coat who stepped forward, inserted a needle into my arm and I sank weightlessly into a blissful sleep.