A Calling to Purpose

I was involved in a discussion recently, prompted by this question: What’s the difference between a calling and a purpose? I think the question was supposed to have been perceived as loaded. But the distinction seemed clear and elementary to me. (More on that shortly.) I was much more curious about why so many people seem so curious about callings and purposes these days.

As you might imagine, there are more books on the topics than you could shake the proverbial stick at. They’re written of course, by people who could find neither their callings nor their purposes. But they discovered, thanks to our pathological gullibility and our incorrigible lack of self-faith, that they could make very handsome livings telling us how to find ours.

The shortlist, chosen entirely at random, includes Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (authentic is another one of those words for which the best we can hope is that it has a really short shelf life), Calling: Understanding Your Purpose, Place & Position (this may or may not have been a book on sexual therapy — I was too shy to look, plus I’m above that), Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding a Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose, and Gene Keys: Unlocking the Higher Purpose Hidden in Your DNA.

The last one seems especially suspect to me because I once had to have my DNA taken by the police. My car had been stolen from my driveway. When it was recovered four days later and two towns away from where I live, the police wanted a DNA swab from me to eliminate my profile from the profiles of the ne’er-do-wells who’d stolen the car. Since they took my DNA, they had to have tested it to create the comparative profile. But they never said a thing about finding a higher purpose hidden in there. Shoot, what a gyp.

There are two words for this avalanche of how-to books hawking the notion that we’re allegedly unable to live happy, fulfilling lives of constructive direction and purposeful meaning if there weren’t a bunch of folks out there whose sole commercial ambition is to tell us how to live happy, fulfilling lives of constructive direction and purposeful meaning. One of those words is marketing. The other one is bullshit. But I’d never put that one in writing.

The State of the Onion

To peel the layers of this phenomenon of calling and purpose, it might be helpful to turn to the age-old philosophical debate between morality and ethics. This distinction, too, seems quite clear to me: Morality is a cultural consensus. Ethics is the study of behavior absent the context of morality.

Case in point: I’m pretty comfortable imagining we’d be justifiably accused of having some rather serious issues, as we say in the biz, if we didn’t inherently possess ethical qualms about the behavior of kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. On balance, the price of killing yourself to get rid of someone with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye would likely strike most of us as a tad over the top. But we can be quite sure, kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers are the poster boys for morality in the cultures whence they derive.

Part of the problem with which we’ve saddled ourselves in attempting to distinguish calling from purpose — and one of the reasons for which the dichotomous analogy of morality and ethics may no longer cut any ice — is that we don’t have a cultural consensus on anything anymore. We’ve indulged every special interest you can imagine (and some that defy imagination and beggar belief) to the point at which we don’t even use morality anymore. The problem with that is this: When everything’s special, nothing’s special.

Because we have no cultural consensus, we have no shared morality. So, instead of morality, we use moral compass. (“Hey! That dude did [or said] something I don’t like [or with which I don’t agree]! He has no moral compass!”) But all of our moral compasses point in different directions. And that’s perfectly okay because we’ve obtained intellectual enlightenment, you see.

The Heart of the Matter

The clear and elementary distinction between calling and purpose is this:

Your calling is … well … what you’re called to do — what imagination, intellect, faith, and opportunity compel you to do. Kenny Carpenter was called to be a NASA scientist. I was called to be a writer. Some people are called to be kamikaze pilots. Others are called to be suicide bombers. We’re all given callings. But we’re all given different degrees of perception of and receptivity to those callings.


Your purpose is what you decide to do with your calling. If you’re Kenny Carpenter, you work on space flight. If you’re me, you write and hope others derive some sense or meaning from it. If you’re a kamikaze pilot or a suicide bomber, you look to end your life in the act of taking the lives of others.

Among those of us who are able to perceive and be receptive to our callings — and in contrast to kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers — most are drawn to relatively innocuous callings and choose to fulfill relatively benign purposes (thank God!). Some of us even manage to do some good now and then. But for those who haven’t yet perceived your callings, I humbly suggest you won’t find them in books written and sold by people who haven’t found their own.

You Need to Hear from Yourself

It’s a tough world out there. Unless we’re to the manor born, all of us have to make livings. We have to care for families. We have to pay bills and hold up our ends. We have to carefully tread the razor-thin line between realism and idealism. But we don’t have to settle.

No one who ever writes any book about your calling or your purpose can have any idea what either of those things might be. You can. People who dispense self-help advice and ersatz motivational platitudes have never walked a mile in your shoes. You have. (If you let them wear your shoes at all, I hope you make them put on clean socks.) And people who want you to spend your money on their books — rather than to take care of yourself, care for your family, pay your bills, or hold up your end — don’t have your best interests at heart. They have their own interests (not to mention their wallets) at heart.

If you have to read anything, and if you’ve already read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance”, try Life Without Principle by Henry David Thoreau. You’ll find this in there:

In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

I know we don’t go to post offices so much anymore. We sit in front of our computers. We clutch our mobile devices. We text instead of talk and seek distraction instead of introspection. Stop it.

Ignore the people who’ll look at you like you’re nuts. They’d do it, too, if they had the guts. Have a long conversation with yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.

You may find your calling. You might even find your purpose.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Personally, I convinced myself that each of us has a task, a unique way of contributing to the world, finding the meaning of life that belongs to it. And it doesn’t have to be something big, but rather authentic that comes from our true self. Knowing our “personal mission” gives a perspective to our objectives, because it leads us to make a quality test on what we want. It leads us to focus on the reason that makes those goals so important to us and helps us to verify if the means and strategies that we use to achieve it are aligned with who we are and who we want to be.
    But all this depends a lot on where we come from, what education we had, the influence of others on us (we are social beings and our behavior, our work, our choices necessarily force others and those of others influence us ) and, therefore, it can be said that it is a journey, a path that we take along our life, which can also lead us to modify that initial purpose.

    Congratulations on the article!

    • Aldo, forgive me if I’ve shared this with you before:

      I share it now because I’ve altered my path and modified my purposes a number of times in my life, and I’m sure I will again. I finally matured enough to know it’s not my job to know exactly where the path is leading. It’s my job to read the signs that are always there and to make responsible decisions once I’ve seen them.

      Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to this conversation.

  2. Mark, as a person who is questioning her purpose and her calling, this article couldn’t be more timely or resonant. I suppose much of it has to do with the career limbo I find myself in, and somehow feeling like it needs to equate to my purpose. Logically, I know my mission extends far beyond the annals of my 9-5, and that it doesn’t define me. But I feel like the universe is testing me, and the pull to figure it out becomes stronger and more predominant with each day.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that Facebook can read my mind. So, I keep seeing ads for books or masterclasses on finding your purpose – “click here and discover the secret to finding your path.” I did click the link for one. I even registered for the free masterclass. Only to receive an email that finding a purpose is in high demand and that more people registered than they had seats available, and I registered too late. I chuckled at this, and then thought “oh well.” Maybe it’s a sign that the masterclass won’t reveal the secret ingredient. Most likely because it is already within me.

    You summed up in your final statements. It does boil down to having a conversation with myself and perhaps throwing conventionality to the wind. Deep down, I believe I know my purpose. It knocks at my heart’s door repeatedly, and even when I try to shush it, it’s there. The struggle comes with figuring out the balance. And that’s where I need to do some work.

    Thank you, Mark, for this one. It is inspiring and definitely up there with my favorite articles. Reading this piece was a great way to spend a few minutes of my lunch break.

    • Laura, as a 10-year-old girl once said to me on a different topic, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

      I offer that here because it’s supposed to be hard. Anything worth doing is supposed to be hard. In the early ‘90s, I still had a corporate gig. I went to pick up some plaques at a local sign shop. I told they guy who ran the shop I wanted to pick up some freelance writing work to transition out of my corporate gig. He said, “You’ll never do it.”

      I said, “Why would you say that? You don’t even know me.”

      His reply? “You won’t be able to walk away from the security of the paycheck and the benefits. I know that because I never would have started this business if I hadn’t lost my corporate job.”

      He was right. I never got serious until I lost my gig. And that writing business I started crashed and burned. That put me at two agencies in succession and led to this:

      As for books and masterclasses, here’s the only book you need:

      Everything it takes is already inside you. You just need to be patient. The time will find you. As soon as I launched O’Brien Communications Group at 50, people asked me, “Don’t you wish you’d done it sooner?”

      I said the same thing to every one of them: “No. If I could have, I would have. The time wasn’t right.”

      I’m not so sure it’s about balance so much as relinquishing your balance. Sometimes, you just have to be willing to fall off the wire. Like the little kid who gets thrown into the deep end and finds a way to swim out, falling off the wire might be the only way to find your wings.

      This much I can promise you. If you need a CEO (chief encouragement officer), I’m right here.

  3. Mark well you touched on my two favorite writers and I enjoyed your article. Thank you for sharing. I wasn’t taught or really felt a calling. Growing up on a farm Daddy always said the way of being is ever growing, ever changing, and our way of being is not one way but an accumulation of many ways. We often ask why we are the way we are. The simple answer is we are where we came from, who influenced us, and what we learned from our journey. It was a way of being.

    • Larry, I didn’t know your Dad, obviously. But I do know he was a philosopher. You don’t encounter the wisdom he shared with you every day. I admire him for dispensing it, and I admire you for living your life by it.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your Dad here.

    • “Daddy always said the way of being is ever growing, ever changing, and our way of being is not one way but an accumulation of many ways.”

      Your daddy was a smart man!

  4. Fabulous Mark O’Brien! Being in the personal development field, it amazes me that so many people try to give the elixir to find purpose and meaning without any background in the area. They have the right to do that, of course, but people should be prudent to such magical potions. To me, it is a personal journey, and I only suggest that people continue to explore through the chapters of their life what will provide them with meaning to ward off despair and futility! Thank you for this!💖

  5. I think Mark at some point in life, all have a calling and a purpose and your article seems to generate responses, so that is obviously hitting on something, hitting a cord so to speak. I do believe, (strickly my own opinion) that even those who are mentally disabled have a call and a purpose. Their calling was to silently speak to those around them who may not understand the disablility and their pupose is to perhaps change a heart. Love the article.

    • Lynn, I, too, believe we all have a calling and a purpose. For the ones who may not have the fortitude, the wherewithal, or the opportunity accept and embrace those callings and purposes, it’s up to the rest of us to help them, to inspire their self-faith, to give them a hand toward their self-determinations.

      As for the disabled, I’ll share this with you as an example of how exactly correct you are:

      Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. Most important, thank you for your intuition and your sensitivity.

  6. Mark — The other day, Kirsten and I had the pleasure of interviewing someone on the topic of coaching, and we spent a great deal of time talking about “curiosity” and the need for leaders to remain curious just a little bit longer before dispensing advice – this so that they help energize the thinking of their staff.

    I mentioned my recent experience in Patagonia where I couldn’t shake a leaf from my fellow flyfishers’ curiosity trees, and so I asked, “What do you do with someone – a “leader” – who truly seems to be incurious? How can you help them to become a bit more curious?” (* See below.)

    Our guest pointed out that there’s going to be a difference between casual conversation – mine with the flyfishers – and the social contract you have with someone at work. At work, you’re in a relationship, and all relationships need to be worked at. As I thought about this later, maybe the incurious leader might become curious or at least mimic curiosity because they’ve seen someone else demonstrate it. Or you might have to be direct, as my wife was once with an incurious relative, “OK, now it’s your turn to ask us a question.” And the relative asked a question.

    The parallel I’m hoping to establish here is that some people are naturally curious and naturally reflective – they don’t need to read books about purpose or calling. They can look inside themselves, as you point out, and see what’s written on their personal wall. Others, though, need help, and I was one of them. I had so much historical brush and tangles in the way of personal understanding, that I couldn’t see what was written on my wall. As a result, I looked for external inspiration for years and found two wonderful books: The Crossroads of Should and Must, and Finding Your Element. That said, Mark, I agree with you that there is a lot of marketing / bullshit out there.

    My point is a simplistic one: we’re all different, and we may need to walk a different pathway for a while before we see some light at the end of the very long tunnel.

    *I personally think that becoming curious is an admirable goal for leaders. I was a manager who believed I needed to have all the answers, but I eventually realized that I was in an addictive relationship: I was dispensing “wisdom” and getting a buzz from doing so, and my staff was getting a “buzz” because they could quickly get on with their work once they had my wisdom. But I really wasn’t helping them to become curious enough to investigate possible answers on their own.

    • Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s, said his two primary responsibilities as a leader were to wonder (to contemplate and be curious) and to wander (to get out of the office and out of the way).

      As for callings and purpose, I was as late finding mine as you were. I always knew I could write. It took me a long time to recognize writing was my calling. It took even longer to accept or adopt it (I’m still not sure which) as my purpose.

      When I use them, I look at terms like bullshit the same way I look at visiting schools (or libraries, as I’m doing this morning) to share my books with children: If I can get just one person’s attention, to get that person to look in, to think or say, “Yeah. I got this,” it’s a win.

      Wendy Weiner Runge (thank you for that connection) once asked me if I could state my “why” in five words. I said (with a hyphenated cheat), “I write to restore self-faith.” Can you imagine a world without self-inflicted neuroses? (Aren’t they all?) We won’t get there, of course. But trying is worth the effort. I take every child and every adult I reach as potential proof.

      You can tell me that’s not what you’re doing in your work and your beautifully peaceful and gentle writing … but I won’t believe you. 😉

      Thank you for your comments and for this reflective Saturday morning.

    • Ah yes, that prickly business of accepting who we are. “Me, a writer?” you’ve undoubtedly said to yourself. “Nah…” But you are, Mark, and a brilliant one at that, so keep clicking away at the keys.

      If WWR were to ask me, I’d respond with something like “I want to unleash the genius in others.” How can I hyphenate those 8 words to get to 5?

      Here, I’m reminded of a story that Sarah told once about a women who told her in all seriousness that she had no stories to tell. “Of course you do,” Sarah replied. If my writing does anything, I hope it jogs the memory of those who read it and muse, “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell, too.”

    • Thank you, Jeff. As my wife knows (and accepts, thank God) I can’t NOT write. Please don’t take this as feeling sorry for myself, but I’ve always known I was a writer, even as my father was spending years trying to beat it out of me. It just took me some years to accept and embrace it as my calling. (It’s a little tough to accept the fact that what someone has been brutally telling you is wrong and wrong-headed might be one’s actual calling.)

      Just so you’re completely prepared for WWR, here you go: “Unleash the genius in others.” Five words. No hyphens. No charge. 😉

      Thank you, as always, for your friendship and your support.

    • “…we’re all different, and we may need to walk a different pathway for a while before we see some light at the end of the very long tunnel.” Amen, brother Jeff! A greater challenge these days seems to be walking that pathway together with people who walk it differently.

  7. Wow, wow, just WOW, Mark! I love this for so many reasons!
    I’ll start with one push back though: Morality is a cultural consensus. Ethics is the study of behavior absent the context of morality. Agreed. But I don’t believe either is gone. I believe that both ethics and morality shift and evolve and it’s up to us to individually decide where our values and principles align. That, my friend, is a whole other show.

    That said, the “razor-thin line between realism and idealism” is elusive for many, if not most, at some point. And we can all relate to the frustration of settling at times, too. This struck so many neurons for me, but the nugget I’m taking away is the power that I have to pursue my own passion, cultivate my calling, and be inspired by my purpose. And, you’re so right when you say it takes guts to be introspective. You’ve given me good cause to look inside myself today.
    Thank you!

    • Melissa, we’re in absolute agreement on the shifting nature of morality and ethics. I also agree it’s up to each of us to align our values and principles. I don’t know if I succeeded, but in my correspondence with Sarah Elkins in this thread I tried to clarify my intent. It’s this: As a nation, we also have to share the values and principles that constitute our morality, that inform our consensus. We’re losing or abandoning those shared values and principles, those elements of our former unity.

      “When everything’s special, nothing’s special.”

      Granting everything the same level of importance — relieving people of their responsibilities to communicate and compromise — is not a path to unity. It’s the path to the fractious divisiveness we’re living right now. It’s reducing everything to two choices — this or that, right or wrong — with no middle ground for agreement or mutual acceptance. That’s not working because it’s not workable.

      Every stereotype breaks down at the level of the individual. But identity politics and groupthink work against our individuality. (“It’s up to us to individually decide where our values and principles align.”) You and I will never have (the opportunity to arrive at) a meeting of the minds if we’re each members of an opposing “us”. Rather, we’ll just end up in opposing stereotypes.

      If I’m in Group A and can have everything I want, chances are you, in Group B, won’t get everything you want. That’s not even fair, let alone workable. But if you and I step out of our groups, if we set aside our stereotypical identities, chances are quite good we can come to a reasonable arrangement. Neither of us gets everything. But both us get enough to be satisfied, plus we earn the satisfaction of having worked things out AND the rewards of a relationship.

      After we look inward to pursue our own passions, to cultivate our own callings, and to be inspired by our own purposes, we have to look out for each other. As Jordan Peterson put it: “People who don’t have their own houses in order should be very careful before they go about reorganizing the world … People have things that are more within their personal purview that are more difficult to deal with and that they’re avoiding .. the way they avoid them is by adopting pseudo-moralistic stances on large-scale social issues so that they look good to their friends and their neighbors.”

      I’m so grateful to be engaged in this discussion. And I’m so grateful for our connection.

      Thank you, Melissa.

    • “Every stereotype breaks down at the level of the individual. But identity politics and groupthink work against our individuality. (“It’s up to us to individually decide where our values and principles align.”) You and I will never have (the opportunity to arrive at) a meeting of the minds if we’re each members of an opposing “us”. Rather, we’ll just end up in opposing stereotypes.” 100 times YES!

      I wrote a bit a while back about intellectual humility. At the time, I caught myself thinking, “I’m pretty good at that,” or “at least I try.” Since then, I’ve caught myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. I share this for a few reasons that I know you’ve probably already recognized:
      First, knowledge is power. Understanding what happens when we agree (groupthink?) or disagree (us vs. them?) is the first step in growing beyond those invisible forces that keep us stuck in old patterns of thinking. Second, when we do have a more enlightened viewpoint, the times that we fall short will become glaringly apparent. The more we know, the more we know we have to learn, get better, do better.

      Conversations like this one that spring out of thoughtful posts like yours is a really good place to start. Now, if we could only get the opposition to join us!! 😉

      Thank you, Mark!

    • Melissa, I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to be having this conversation with you. And I’d like to add one more notion to your most recent comments, particularly these: “Understanding what happens when we agree (groupthink?) or disagree (us vs. them?) is the first step in growing beyond those invisible forces that keep us stuck in old patterns of thinking. Second, when we do have a more enlightened viewpoint, the times that we fall short will become glaringly apparent.”

      If we’re willing to recognize our individuality and if we’re able to exercise it, every time we fall short in glaring apparentness will be a learning opportunity. Those kinds of opportunities aren’t possible identity groups that adhere to groupthink. The collective identity of the group — indeed, one of the purposes of the group — is to hide, to deny the reality of individually falling short. “Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” (George Orwell)

      And to another of your points, when’s the last time you saw an intellectually humble identity group?

      I tell the people who work for O’Brien Communications Group, “You are NOT here to say yes to me. If I were capable of thinking of everything, of knowing everything, of being right about everything, you wouldn’t be here.”

      We’re now at least two against the opposition (which won’t be opposition with a shift in perspective). One of the two of us is a Thick Mick. (Hint: It’s not you. 😉) And if we have to be opposed about something (this is humanity and human nature, after all), could we find a cause more worthy than intellectual humility? I’ve looking for a while. So far, I’ve whiffed.

      Thank you for this discussion and for prompting these thoughts. Sincerely. Thank you.

    • “If we’re willing to recognize our individuality and if we’re able to exercise it, every time we fall short in glaring apparentness will be a learning opportunity. Those kinds of opportunities aren’t possible identity groups that adhere to groupthink.”

      “I tell the people who work for O’Brien Communications Group, “You are NOT here to say yes to me. If I were capable of thinking of everything, of knowing everything, of being right about everything, you wouldn’t be here.”

      I think people everywhere are screaming for the kind of leadership you describe here! I would add to all of this… beyond groupthink, there must be an organizational mindset that gives people the freedom to make mistakes. I’ve talked to leaders who say they are open to new ideas, but only new ideas that work. “Embrace failures as the path to learning,” they say. But “don’t screw up” is the unspoken edict.

      This is such a simple construct but quite difficult for people (who are admitted responsible for the bottom line – and mistakes can be costly) to demonstrate.
      I wrote a white paper a while back on organizational mindset. Individual mindset – either growth or fixed – is widely understood and accepted. But organizations have a mindset, too. It can be a genius mindset or a growth mindset.

      “Be the smartest guy in the room.” “Don’t screw up.” “Mistakes cost the company money.” Those are all demonstrative of a genius mindset. And they will limit a company more than anything.

      Thank you for poking my brain on this topic, Mark. It’s such an important discussion!

    • Thank you, Melissa. I’m so happy this discussion continues.

      At a conference one time, I had lunch with a client of mine (Don) and one of his customers (Bill). Bill said to Don, “I hear one of your people made a mistake that cost you $50,000.”

      Don said, “Yep.”

      Bill said, “Did you fire him?”

      Don said, “Nope.”

      Bill said, “Why not?”

      Don said, “Because I just gave him a $50,000 education. And the only way you can get fired in our company is by pissing off a customer.”

      I’ve never lost the mental notes I took that day.

      Thank you for sharing thoughts with me.

  8. Mark, thank you for writing and sharing your article. I am only qualified to speak for me. As far as having a calling is concerned I do not have one. As to what my purpose is in this life only G-d knows the answer to that. As far as cell phones, texting and computers are concerned I think people should use them as liberally or conservatively as suits the. With all due respect to yourself, all this talk about not talking to each other anymore and all this other foolishness is just that foolishness. If you look at cell phone plans you know they cost you x amount of dollars per month. Internet service costs you x amount of dollars per month. The phone, the computer, and accessories cost x amount of dollars. Ergo unless you have money to throw away it is pure stupidity not to make full use. My mother (of blessed memory) died at close to 90 years old from a stroke. The stroke did not kill her. She probably could have come back from it. What killed her was loneliness and a broken heart. How I wish she had a computer with internet so there could have been people for her to connect with since she hated where she lived and ceased going out. How I wish she had a cell phone to send text messages and get text messages. I think of all this technology as a great gift. Why people bash it or try to discourage others from using it is beyond me. I am sorry Mark but this is a very touchy subject for me.

    • There’s no need for an apology, Joel. You’ve thoughtfully and respectfully presented another side of the coin. In all honesty, it’s one I hadn’t considered.

      Thank you for sharing the story about your mother. It was a poignant and powerful way to illustrate your point. The isolation she must have experienced is painful and frightening to consider. I’m sorry she suffered so.

      And thank you for being such a considerate correspondent. The nature of your communication proves your point about its value.

    • Thank you, Mark, for your graciousness! My mother had to bury my sister after she was brutally murdered. A few years later my father died at work. My sister and I had long since moved out on our own leaving mom on her own. She eventually cut herself off from the world except for a small portable radio in her bedroom. I would call her regularly but she had little interest in talking. Seeing her grandchildren did not do much. So you can imagine how valuable social media could have been to her.

  9. While I’m not sure I agree that morality is dead, Mark, I definitely agree that people searching for calling & purpose are more likely to find them when they become more self-reflective, as opposed to reading books and trying to follow strategies from others.

    It has taken me a while to realize that people need and crave really different things from others. Just over 10 years ago, I was required to attend a 3 hour customer service training as part of my job as a circulation clerk at the local library. It was horrible. The guy leading the training was smug, arrogant, and rude, and about half of us walked out furious and/or disappointed to have wasted those hours of our lives.

    But the other half LOVED the guy. My evaluation suggested the training’s title change from Customer Service to Leave Your Emotional Garbage at the Door. The entire training was about being able to separate your hard days/emotional life from work. It was about making the choice to leave your crap at the door in order to provide great service. I agreed to a certain extent with the concept, but not with his presentation of it.

    Half of the people in the room loved the message because they needed to hear it. They needed the reminder that they have a choice. They needed the reminder that they can control only their response to things that happen.

    I guess what I’m suggesting is that those books must serve some purpose for their audience, or they wouldn’t exist in such quantity (and lack of quality in most cases). And perhaps some of our friends find comfort in reading the books. If just a handful of readers find comfort and maybe satisfaction as a result of reading them, that’s a good thing, right?

    • Sarah, first, thank you for being here and for sharing your comments.

      Second, I think morality is dead to the extent or degree that the former unity of these here United States is dead. Group identities and group politics are the antithesis of unity. And if we don’t unite, we can’t achieve the cultural consensus that is morality.

      Third, one of the peculiarities of my business is that we get clients who need help, know it, ask for it, pay for it — then don’t take it! People want to be told what to do, but they don’t want to do it. They profess to want to change … as long as they don’t have to change. If the majority of self-books helped a majority of the people who seek that help, there wouldn’t be so many self-help books. Their popularity comes from the absence or realizing that if we don’t or can’t help, love, forgive, accept, and heal ourselves first, help might be on the way. But we’re not likely to (be able to) take it when it arrives. Here’s an entire book just on that subject:

      Finally, thank you for being here and for sharing your comments. One of my favorite literary devices is the foil. It’s used in literature the same way it’s used in jewelry; that is, it’s an element (a character) that reflects light back through another element (character) that enables us to see that element more fully and more clearly in all of its facets. You are a generous foil. For that, and for you, I’m sincerely grateful.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful response, Mark.

      “And if we don’t unite, we can’t achieve the cultural consensus that is morality.” Absolutely, really well said. The critical factor to “cultural consensus” in terms of morality is for it to have some basis in equality. When a united group decides what morality looks like, and takes action in the judgment and cruelty toward others, cultural consensus doesn’t mean “good” or “right”. In Germany in the 30s, the cultural consensus of morality included turning in your Jewish, gay, and Gypsy neighbors to be abused and murdered.

      To continue your foil reference, Mark, I’d love for you to consider that what you may see as unity of our country’s past also wasn’t necessarily a good thing for most of our history. Our country was unified against Native Americans, unified against civil rights for non-white people and women, and I would never consider that “cultural morality” to be ethical.

      By your definition, I can agree that morality is lacking in our current times, and that I’d love to see a comeback – our country united in its goal for equality for all people.

      The rest of your comment is absolutely spot-on, and it’s something that I get pretty discouraged about. As Laura Staley so beautifully put it, we keep on sharing our experiences and helping when asked (even if it’s ignored), in the hope that each message creates a positive ripple in the water.

    • Sarah, thank you for engaging in this conversation. We don’t have conversations like this much anymore. It’s a shame. And it’s why, in a picture much bigger than this one, the collective “we” is so contentious and makes so little progress.

      To your points: The unity I refer to us unity of purpose. We can’t possibly be equal. We are not equal. Neither nature nor God made us equal. (If you have even passable math skills, for example, I am nowhere near your equal.) But we can be unified in the commitment to striving for equal opportunity. THAT was the constituted goal for our country. (I should have the same opportunity to get that mathematician’s job as you do. I won’t get it. But that’s because I’m not your equal in mathematical facility. Reality. Fact of life.) Nazi Germany is a perfect example of “morality gone wrong” — a cultural consensus without ethical underpinnings, in thrall to (and in fear of) a maniacal, homicidal ideologue. I used kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers as examples of the same phenomena.

      I don’t and won’t condone discrimination, persecution, genocide, or abuses of any sort. None. Never. It’s neither morally defensible nor ethical. But the sad truth — the hard fact and the bitter pill — is that bells can’t be un-rung. (I won’t engage in grievance-ranking, another pernicious source of disunity. But have you ever investigated the ethnic derivation of the term, “Paddy Wagon”?) There isn’t a thing we can do about what happened THEN. And if we were capable of breeding capacities for discrimination, persecution, genocide, or abuses of any sort out of the species, we’d have done it by now. But there is much we can do about what happens NOW, beginning with unifying in the commitment to striving for equal opportunity.

      Speaking of what happens now, if more of us continue to have conversations like this, in communities like this, the hope that we’ll find the best way possible will always be alive. We’ll never achieve perfection. We can’t. We’re not perfect. (There’s a reason Public Policy is taught in Philosophy Departments, rather than in Political Science Departments.) But one of the shining aspects of human nature is that the impossibility of achieving perfection won’t stop us from reaching for it.

      Thank you for this conversation.

  10. Mark, I was nodding along the whole ride. Every time I read you, I am blown away by your flawless execution and ability to engage with your readers. Also, I love the fact that you’re not afraid to call “bullshit” where it’s warranted. Great job, my friend.

    • Thank you, Sherry. I think my Bullshit Meter is part of my Irish heritage. 😆 I also believe the world would be a better place if more people had greater appetites for the truth.

      As always, I’m grateful to have you, a writer of your caliber, compliment my writing. Anne asked me just this morning what I would do if there nothing at all on my calendar. She said it would scare her. I said, “Write.”

      Thank you for always being here.

  11. I really appreciate your reflections and perspective, Mark. I believe I’ve been called to courageously walk away from every single toxic relationship I’ve ever had, soul-sucking activity I engaged, and shred the script I was handed by people who had no clue what lived in my heart or mind. My purpose continues to be to live from my soul, make peace with all the pieces and parts of myself and lived experiences (which are many and quite varied) and then to write/speak/dance about this incredible journey of introspection, self-discoveries, and transformations that have expanded my heart, mind, spirit, and being–to observe and celebrate those individuals who are taking a similar journey. Compassion in my gut-courage in my heart-and love in my throat chakra-my core value alignment. Maybe these writings will inspire others to do their own process, in their time, in their way or not. Other people’s awakening process is their business.

    I love that you bring Ralph Waldo Emerson into this topic “On Self-Reliance.” Brilliant.

    I really believe that the answers to our most pressing questions live inside of our own hearts, if we take time to breathe deeply and listen closely. “The heart knows the way. Run in that direction.”-Rumi

    • If I may be so bold, Laura, I think your calling AND your purpose are to heal. You understand better than most that one has to heal before one can help heal. By your courageous determination to heal your own wounds, you’re learning — and demonstrating to others — what it takes to be healed.

      Two things come to mind here. The first is from Marcel Proust”

      “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

      The second is Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Parable of the Shepherd Boy”, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s graphic and extreme, but it speaks to the need, at times, to do the most horrible thing we can imagine to be able to breathe, to live, to set ourselves free:
      A young shepherd did I see, writhing, choking, quivering, with distorted countenance, and with a heavy black serpent hanging out of his mouth.

      Had I ever seen so much loathing and pale horror on one countenance? He had perhaps gone to sleep, then had the serpent crawled into his throat — there had it bitten itself fast.

      My hand pulled at the serpent, and pulled — in vain! I failed to pull the serpent out of his throat. Then there cried out of me: “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!” So cried it out of me; my horror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and my bad cried with one voice out of me …

      The shepherd however bit as my cry had admonished him; he bit with a strong bite! Far away did he spit the head of the serpent — and sprang up.

      No longer shepherd, no longer man — a transfigured being, a light-surrounded being, that laughed! Never on earth laughed a man as he laughed …

      Thus spoke Zarathustra.

      Joseph Campbell would have had a field day with the monomythical perfection of that parable. But that’s a longer story for another time and place.

      For now, let it suffice to say I hope you recognize your gift — the courage and determination to recognize and overcome your wounds and weaknesses — is your gift to us — inspiring us to heal our own wounds and to recognize the strength to be derived from confronting our own weaknesses. You found your calling and your purpose by finding yourself.

      God bless you for that and for sharing yourself with us.

    • Thank you for that honest reflection of my calling/purpose, Mark. I offer Brene Brown’s words that resonate in every cell of my being:


      There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers Than those of us who are willing to fall Because we have learned how to rise.

      With skinned knees and bruised hearts; We choose owning our stories of struggle, Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.

      When we deny our stories, they define us.

      When we run from struggle, we are never free. So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.

      We will not be characters in our stories. Not villains, not victims, not even heroes.

      We are the authors of our lives. We write our own daring endings.

      We craft love from heartbreak, Compassion from shame, Grace from disappointment, Courage from failure.

      Showing up is our power.
      Story is our way home. Truth is our song. We are the brave and brokenhearted.

      We are rising strong.
      ~Brene Brown