Success isn't driven by what you do; it's about who you are and why you do what you do. And unless we align our identity with our long term goals, we're setting ourselves up for failure, believes Dan Gregory.

Why do most New Year's resolutions fail to provide lasting results? Why do so many people make great progress with their health and fitness, only to undo their hard work with a return to fast food and life on the sofa? Why do even the best sales teams manage only a 10 per cent cold call conversion rate? And why do some leaders attract a cult-like following while others struggle to hold authority?

'Why?' is an interesting question – but is it the question?

Simon Sinek, in his best-selling book, Start With Why asserts that we are most motivated when moving from 'why' to 'how' to 'what'. That the reason we do what we do drives us far more than the process, or even the end product or result itself. I tend to agree.
Having spent the past twenty odd years working in the largest change management experiment in history – the advertising industry – my observations match those of Sinek: a compelling 'why' is incredibly persuasive.

In fact, in 1978 the Journal for Personal and Social Psychology published a study conducted by Ellen Langer, detailing an experiment in which researchers tried to cut in line to use a photocopier. They found that when they tried to push in without providing a reason 'why', they were challenged, but even the most tenuous 'why', such as 'I need to make some photocopies', somehow got them to the front of the line.

So, 'why' does in fact motivate us. But its effects are often temporary.

Anyone who has ever been on a diet or started a fitness program will know what I mean. When you start with 'why', you can indeed enjoy a lot of success – got a wedding or a school reunion coming up, maybe a summer holiday involving a bit of swimsuit action – you cut the calories, starve yourself and jump on the treadmill for a few weeks and the kilos start to disappear.
As Viktor Frankl contended in Man's Search for Meaning, given a big enough 'why', any 'what' is achievable. However, achievable doesn't necessarily mean sustainable.

What motivates us more than 'why' (y) is identity (i).

That school reunion may get you into the gym and into the jeans you wore in high school, but your identity will get you back into some comfy tracksuit pants and eating chicken out of a bucket a couple of months later (if that's who you really think you are). That is, of course, unless you manage your 'i' as well as your 'y'.

Our identity drives every decision we make. ID compels us beyond the reason of IQ or even the emotional appeal of EQ (emotional intelligence). It determines the products we buy, the organisational cultures we buy into, the leaders and movements we follow willingly and voluntarily, and, ultimately, how we treat our bodies.
The truth is, we don't buy product features or benefits, we don't buy into job descriptions or packages, we don't even buy brands or sales promises – we buy aspects of ourselves. We buy into the 'i' we want to project to the world, but it is tempered by who we actually think we are at our core.

Sales people and marketers get this wrong all the time. They run a promotion (a big, although mostly manipulative, 'why') then they try to shift a product or service that conflicts with or challenges a customer's identity. It may drive some short term sales, but it seldom works in the long term.

In the fitness industry, trainers will often motivate clients with promises of 'fitting into that dress', 'being around to play with your kids' or 'avoiding a second heart attack' – all of which are great motivators; but unless we deal with the 'i' that drives us, we're setting ourselves up for failure.

People will defend their identity with irrational fervour. When you challenge someone's identity – their sporting affiliation, their religion, their values, their family conditioning – they resist, sometimes violently, even when they can accept the logical truth of what you're saying. The same is true when you challenge their physical identity, even when they rationally and emotionally want to change it.

Our physiology is even programmed to do this. It's a kind of survival mechanism. When we change our diets or the way in which we treat our bodies, even in a positive way, it 'perceives threat' and tries to realign itself with who we have been.
Success, therefore, isn't driven by what you do; it's about who you are and why you do what you do. For trainers, that means the ability to realign your client's 'i' and 'y' with an identity and reason that supports fitness, and for business owners, it's about how you align your customers' and your staff's 'i' and 'y' with that of your organisation. I call it Y-Dentity™.

It's a lesson Kodak has had to learn the hard way. In the 1980s the brand was all about preserving memories: 'They may just be snapshots to you Mr Rutherford, but to me, they're irreplaceable memories...' went the advertising of the day.

Then, in the overly pragmatic 1990s and 2000s, they went back to being a company that manufactured film – a decision that cost them when digital formats came of age. People still have a need for preserving memories (hard drives, data storage, photographic back ups, family tree software, government record keeping and the like), but not so much use for a film manufacturer.

Other businesses have flourished on the back of their 'i' and 'y'. Simon Sinek often attributes the success of Steve Jobs and Apple to their 'why' – their need to challenge the status quo, to test the authority of 'Big Blue' IBM, and Apple's desire to make a 'computer for the rest of us'. I think these 'whys' do go a long way to explaining their success.

But I don't think that's why people queued up through the night like concert-ticket-buying groupies, waiting for the opening of a retail store to buy the first iPhone (a phone that, let's remember, couldn't send a picture message).
I'd argue that Apple and Jobs also provided a compelling 'i'. They spoke to people who shared an identity as 'a crazy one, a misfit, a round peg in a square hole, a rebel...' people whose 'i' drove them to 'change things...' While I'm happy that someone challenged the dominance of the PC format, I'm more driven by the idea that I 'think different...' After all, 'I'm a Mac!'


Dan Gregory
Dan is one half of the creative team behind the most successful new product launch in Australian history, as well as one of the most extraordinary brand resurrections achieved anywhere in the world. Working with corporations as diverse as Coca-Cola, Unilever and Aussie Home Loans, he has won awards for creativity and advertising effectiveness worldwide. A regular on ABC TV's The Gruen Transfer, Dan is an evangelist for truth in a world of spin.