The Big Why

In New England, where I happen to live, there’s a regional supermarket chain called Big Y. Years ago, a graphic designer and I wanted to pitch an ad campaign to Big Y featuring a cartoon figure of Socrates. We wanted to call the campaign The Big Why. We never made the pitch.

The Big Why, indeed.

I met the graphic designer, whose name was Jeff, in 1985. We became fast friends — rapt conversationalists, fellow concert-goers, and drinking buddies. He was amazingly talented and brilliantly creative. He was married to a woman equally talented and creative. They were partners in their design business, which did extremely well. They owned a beautiful home with a separate but attached building that served as their studio.

If there was one person I’ve ever known, about whom I’d have said, “He’s got it made,” it was Jeff. I could never tell if it was his talent, his easy laugh, his bright eyes, his unfailing smile, his financial success, or all of those things that gave me that conviction. Maybe it was the fact that he was as close to Peter Pan as might be humanly possible. He was fiercely determined to not grow up or old. He was always looking for the next mountain to climb, the next stream to fish, the next party to attend, the next opportunity to live and to live his life to the fullest and happiest.

In the mid-’90s, Jeff and his wife left the east coast. I lost touch with them. I wasn’t surprised. Jeff wasn’t one for looking back geographically, chronologically, or emotionally. He’d cross my mind on occasion. But I imagined he’d re-surface at some point when it served one of his life’s purposes.

Several years ago, I awoke on a Saturday morning with an odd compulsion to find Jeff or to at least find out what he was up to. I went on the Web and started searching. I learned he’d committed suicide in 2005.

The Big Why, indeed.

Simon Says

I don’t know if you’ve been asked it yet, but it’s become popular in marketing, self-help, holistic-healing, pseudo-psychological, pointless-rhetoric, and talk-at-the-expense-of-action circles to ask people, “What’s your why?” All of that is attributable to a young British chap named Simon Sinek, who’s managed to turn our cataclysmic dearth of self-faith and common sense — and our limitless capacity for pathological gullibility — into a gold mine, beginning with the publication of his first book ten years ago, Start With Why. God bless him for being enterprising. Shame on us for making him a rich celebrity.

Relatedly, I had a conversation the other night with a woman to whom I was recently connected on LinkedIn. She asked if I knew of Simon, then she asked, “Why do you write? What is your why? Can you tell me in five words?” I said, “I avoid Simon Sinek and his ilk in the same way I avoid Oprah, Ebola, live hand grenades, kale, Real Housewives, cement mixers with brake failure, raking leaves, taking a beating, and rotten eggs. I write to restore self-faith.”

If we were to restore our self-faith and common sense, people like Jeff would still be alive.

People like Simon would still be poor and unknown. People like us would be content, productive, and self-sufficient. We’d think for ourselves and trust our own judgement. We’d live our lives in pursuit of things more creative and more rewarding than validation from others. We’d kill our ostensible Buddhas and look to ourselves for the truths we seek. We’d read Emerson and take every word to heart.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius … A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within … Yet he dismisses without notice his thought because it is his. In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility — then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another. … Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”)

One Genius At a Time

I’ll always be amazed by and distressed by our lack of self-faith. I’ll always be saddened by people like Jeff who take their own lives. I’ll always be disdainful of people like Simon who exploit our weaknesses.

I’ll always be curious about why common sense is so inscrutably uncommon. I’ll always marvel at our predilections for doubt, for second-guessing, for questioning ourselves, and for ignoring the singular genius in each of us.

genius: noun — attendant spirit present from one’s birth (Oxford English Dictionary)

We all have that genius. We all have the capacity to manifest and fulfill it. We all have the facilities for wonder, for joy, for soul-reward, for expressing — by whatever our respective means — precisely what we have thought and felt all the time. And by that expression, we all have the potential to change the world, one genius at a time.

Until we accept that truth, I’ll be writing.

The Big Why, indeed.


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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    • Mary, thank you for your comments. They put me in mind of this quote from Albert Camus: “For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

  1. “I’ll always be amazed by and distressed by our lack of self-faith.”

    We live in a time that markets to the opposite of self-faith. We need more things to be better. We need other people in our lives to feel full. We need money, power, and respect.

    All of which are the opposite of self-faith.

    It’s no wonder we are in the state we are in. We’re taught from a young age not to like who we are and how to change it. It’s time for a self-faith revolution. Lead the way. 😉

  2. Mark — I am no fan of Sinek’s aura of self-importance, or his penchant to blow a simple idea into an unnecessarily long book. His last book, THE INFINITE GAME, which I had to read because of my work with a client, is a case in point. And it wasn’t even his original idea, which he admitted! In both cases, an article. Maybe.

    But I personally find the question “What’s Your Why?” an important one. Kirsten and I actually shape it into a filter in our forthcoming book for school administrators to use when they’re contemplating a change. “Will doing ‘X’ get us closer to what we’re trying to accomplish on behalf of the students and parents we serve?” Many schools – and their leaders – rapidly jump into a change initiative simply as a reaction to an outside influence, leaving their teachers exhausted and dispirited because they haven’t finished the current change yet. One teacher spoke for many we interviewed when she said “Change? It’s like the fruit of the month club.” So, we ask the question to get leaders to pause and reflect, and then take purposeful action. Or not take action at all because they’ve decided that whatever “x” is won’t serve them.

    So I appreciate that the “Why?” question prompts reflection much like I love Kimberly Davis’ concept of the “super objective.” Why not work through what you’re trying to be and accomplish in life? Why not be clear about personal intent? We don’t all have that clarity. We also used her concept of the super objective with an organization recently, again with the intent of creating a filter for their decision making.

    So our use of these tools actually prompts thoughtful action as opposed to “talk-at-the-expense-of-action.” At least that’s our intent.

    • I hear you, Jeff. I guess I get queasy when “specialists” change the parts of speech of or add stuff on to perfectly serviceable words. And I wonder at the agendas of those specialists when they do it.

      I was perfectly comfortable when why was an interrogatory — why? — instead of a noun acting as the object of another interrogatory — what’s your why? In contrast to reactive, I was happy, productive, and effective being active, before someone decided I needed to be proactive. And I was doing quite nicely working toward my objective before I had to contemplate the absence of my super objective.

      When we add something to otherwise serviceable terms, we lose something. Most often, it’s clarity and meaning. No wonder self-faith is eroding: Just when we think we can trust our what — active pursuit of our objectives — someone says, “Not so fast, Kemosabe. How far do think you’ll get without your why and your super objective?”

      Maybe that’s too simple. Maybe I’m too simple. I don’t know. But I do know Confucius was right when asked how he’d restore order to the world: “First, I’d straighten out the language.”

      Thank you for your comments … and for indulging my linguistic neuroses. 😉

    • I understand what you’re saying. These words – Why? and super objective – clearly don’t fit you because of who YOU are — YOU are settled in your own skin. Or you have your own set of tools for figuring things out when your internal gyroscope acts up. Great. The question is whether those words can bring clarity to others. I see them just as tools to use or ignore.

    • Points taken, Jeff. And I agree with everything you’ve written. I just hope you don’t think being settled in my own skin or having my own set of tools for figuring things out when my internal gyroscope acts up means I know what I want to be when I grow up. The fact of that matter is I have no intentions of growing up. There’s no future in it. 😊

      Thank you, my friend.