The Greatest Showman: Going 7 Levels Deep with P.T. Barnum’s ‘Why’

Editor’s note: This blog category, Business Lessons We Learn From Movies, is one of my favorites, and the movie I’m reviewing today, is one of my new favorites, too!

As a movie buff it’s not difficult for me to find beauty, inspiration, emotion, ideas, or even motivation watching a great flick. I might be behind the curve on this one, but it was only recently that I finally saw The Greatest Showman featuring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, and a whole cast of highly talented actors.

I had been told I’d love the film, but just hadn’t sat down to see it until I just turned it on one night. It was a great story, but it wasn’t until about two weeks later that it began to really sink in.

After coming home from a business trip, I noticed my husband humming one of the tunes. Surprised, and knowing he isn’t a ‘musical’ kind of movie guy, I asked him how he remembered the song and he admitted that the movie happened to be on TV one night while I was out of town. The actress and scene struck him in such a memorable way that the song got caught in his head.

We watched the movie together again and I was pretty astonished at the fresh eyes I saw it with. This time, I saw a whole new set of vibrant and artistic scenes, listened to the words of the songs with fresh ears, and saw important life lessons in the storyline. This time, the movie hooked me. I downloaded the soundtrack and played it on repeat for weeks, gathering evidence of the messages and story.

So, what’s the deal?

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s an original musical that tells the tale of Barnum and Bailey founder P.T. Barnum, the visionary, “who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation,” as IMDB describes.

The story and soundtrack take you on a journey of Barnum’s early years living in poverty and struggling to survive, to meeting his wife and taking her from her home of privilege, to having children, only to lose his job. It was then that he was forced to get creative.

The passion and drive we watch as he encourages “oddities” to be confident in who they are while he brings them into his circus family is inspiring and heart-warming. The story of losing his job only to start his own venture hits close to home. But it’s only after pursuing bigger and ‘better’ talent in the form of his muse, Jenny Lind, that he comes face-to-face with reality and truly comes to uncover his ‘why’.

How it relates to the ‘why’…

Earlier this month I started reading a book by Dean Graziosi entitled Millionaire Success Habits. In the second chapter Dean shares the story of learning a valuable lesson from consultant Joe Stumpf who taught him the importance of understanding his ‘why’. He illustrates that it is only when you have gone seven layers deep, asking why again and again, that you will find the heart of your ‘why’. His theory is that the first six times, people answer the why questions from their head, but when asked the seventh time, the root appears.

It was so interesting to hear this approach, especially knowing this month’s theme is Remembering Your Why! But it was when ‘knowing your why’ was confirmed two other times by two other random sources within the same day that I knew I had to pay attention. So, I took myself through the exercise and I’d encourage you to as well.

The Example:

Using this film as an example, I could derive that P.T. Barnum’s original ‘why’ (according to the movie, anyway) was to put food in his mouth to survive.

2nd Level: If we were to ask him again, ‘why is it important for you to survive’, he might say that he is in love with Charity, his future wife, and he wants to be there for her, to marry her, care for her, and grow old with her.

3rd Level: Asking him again, ‘why is it important to you to survive for Charity’, he might say that she has always believed in him and makes him feel like he is valuable.

On the fourth Level, ‘why is it important that you feel believed in and valuable’ and he might say that he has always wanted to do something great and I want to make people smile.

After asking for the fifth time, ‘Why is it important to you to do something great?’ >> Because I need to be better than I was before.

The sixth time, “Why is important for you to be better than you were before?” >> Because I came from nothing and never want to go back there. I want to provide for my wife and children and never starve or lack again.

The seventh level, “why is it important for you to provide and never go back to nothing?” >> Because I want to be in control of my future.

And there is his ‘why’. He wants to be in control of his future.

Getting to the heart of the ‘why’…

You can see how every answer got deeper and while most answers may have been noble, it wasn’t until he got to the seventh layer that he found the heart of his ‘why’.

It is only when we get to the heart of our why that we can stay motivated. All other reasons, all other answers will give us margin to let go of our dream, our vision.

Do you think he could have stayed on course because he needed to feel loved, believed in, and valuable? Perhaps, but the heart of the ‘why’ will keep your feet to the fire.

Now, you try…

Try this lesson on for yourself. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. It can be anything: a workout routine, an eating plan, a business, a job, a relationship, a hobby. Once you get to your why, you’ll find solid resolve to stick with it and you’ll understand what is at the root of who you are and why you are driving forward with that thing.

The Greatest Showman has revealed nuances every time I’ve watched it, like this last time I saw it I noticed a quick, two-second glance he makes out the window of his job while sharpening a pencil. We watch him notice the building of executive men across the street and correlate his comparison to the cemetery in the background behind that building, as if life is too short to sitting in a building behind a desk.

What’s your take?

This movie has struck me in many ways, not just the scenes and stories and lessons, but the music, too. Watch it again and share your observations in the comments below. I’d love to hear your take on the business lessons you’ve learned from this film.

And never forget, “A man’s station is limited only by his imagination,” Jenny Lind’s character.

To your wide-eyed wonder, imagination, and getting to the heart of your ‘why’,


About Jamie Teasdale

Jamie Teasdale founded Propel Businessworks, a small business development company, in 2009. Since then, she has been lending insight and creativity to businesses all over the U.S., giving them the tools they need to plan, promote, and prosper.