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.
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 at 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 weakness. 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.