Simon Sinek on How Childhood Influences Cultural Anthropology Research Career

In Chapter 10 of 20 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, author and leadership expert Simon Sinek shares how his childhood and education have shaped his approach to cultural anthropology, ethnography, and research. Sinek believes research should be done away from focus groups and in the field, especially in uncomfortable environments. His curiosity turns discomfort into a motivating factor he uses to better understand his subjects. Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer who applies his curiosity around why people do what they do to teach leaders and companies how to inspire people. He is the author of "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action". Sinek holds a BA degree in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University.


Erik Michielsen: How has your anthropology background proven helpful working in unfamiliar environments, including with the United States military?

Simon Sinek: Being trained as an ethnographer being trained and sort of having this cultural anthropology background, significantly changes the way of how I do my work, or being in strange or different situations. This is why I’m against focus groups. I think the concept of a focus group is laughable. That you bring people in to a sterile research environment, so that the researcher can be comfortable and safe and happy, but the respondents – the people who you want to be open and honest – are the ones who are uncomfortable and on-edge, that’s backwards to me. 

It’s the responsibility of the researcher to go to the respondents. It’s the responsibility of the researcher to go into the environment, into the homes, into the societies, into the buildings, into the offices of the people that they want to study and understand. It’s the responsibility of the researcher to deal with the discomfort, rather than forcing the respondent to be uncomfortable. 

So that’s how I was raised, both academically, and also that’s how I was actually raised. I lived all over the world. As a kid, we traveled around a lot, and so I will always go to somebody if I’m interested in them, and I believe they are the ones who should be comfortable and I’m the one who should be uncomfortable. That’s correct, because that way you get the best answers. And so, because that’s how I’ve always done things, I have no problem going to very unfamiliar environments. For me it’s an object of curiosity, if I’m uncomfortable I want to understand what’s making me uncomfortable and I think that’s kind of cool.