The most memorable business pitch I ever attended began with a young man crying. His company was raising a modest amount of capital to build drones that could protect American troops in battle. The pitch was unremarkable in the first few minutes, until the founder mentioned his family and friends who had served in Iraq. He then stopped speaking, was quiet for a few seconds, and started to sob uncontrollably.
I was in grad school at the time and had been instructed by a female professor never to offer to make men coffee, because women don’t do that anymore. But when he exited the room to compose himself, the rest of us sat in silence for what must have been 30 seconds, until I spoke—to ask if anyone needed a fresh cup. When the founder returned, he did a forceful presentation of the business, even though he left without funding that day.
None of us ever discussed what happened—even immediately after the meeting—until I bumped into the founder almost a decade later, and he alluded to “the worst pitch he ever did.”
“No, no,” I responded. “It was the best.”
That company now employs several hundred people and is valued at a couple billion dollars. I was an intern on the sidelines that day, but unlike any meeting I’ve ever witnessed, I remember the details of that one. The chair I squirmed in. The time of day: one p.m. The patterned blouse I stared at when looking down as he sobbed. Because even though that day ended with a rejection email, it was clear that this entrepreneur didn’t care what anyone thought. He knew his calling. His purpose.
Purpose is on the decline these days. A recent Wall Street Journal–NORC poll found that faith, family, and the flag—the constants that used to define our national character—have eroded in importance in the last 25 years. Only 38 percent of poll respondents said patriotism was very important to them, down from 70 percent in 1998. Of religion, 39 percent said it was very important, down from 62 percent.
Beyond God and country, a desire to have children and community involvement plummeted by double digits, too. Meanwhile, the once universal value of “tolerance for others” has declined from 80 percent to 58 percent in the last four years alone. We’re replacing “Love thy neighbor” with “Get off my lawn.” The only “value” that has inflated in recent years is the one that can be easily measured: money.
Pollsters described the findings as “surprising” and “dramatic.” Twitter found them dire, an acknowledgement of America’s great sadness. Some researchers responded with disbelief, saying the poll must have been flawed to yield such swift changes.
But do these plunging red lines really come as such a surprise?
It’s not hard to see why Americans are losing a sense of membership in any kind of mutual enterprise, especially since 2020, when the steepest drops in sentiment occurred. Between global lockdowns, a fentanyl epidemic, school shootings, seemingly inevitable great-power wars, and a looming recession, Americans are losing hope. It’s the sort of poll that if America were your best friend or your child, you’d urge her to seek help.
The decline in traditional values isn’t particularly new. The things that make people feel as though their presence matters, such as civic-mindedness and religious observance, have declined in tandem. From Bowling Alone in the late ’90s to Coming Apart in 2012 to a slew of recent “End of America” essays from every major publication, researchers believe these trends are accelerating further. This decline in civic belief and religiosity predated the mobile internet. We can’t blame the phones this time.
For a while, we tried in vain to replace the default traditional values with something equally noble or even more sophisticated. Classical liberalism, which upheld individual rights and liberty until we started hating half of the individuals in this country. New Atheism had a good run until “trust the science” became a meme. There was meditation. Yoga retreats. Eating clean. Worshipping politics and politicians. Chasing influence.
But it turns out none of those things filled the national void either. Perhaps if they had, we wouldn’t see story after story about teenage depression and midlife crisis depression and deaths of despair. We have become a treatment-resistant Prozac Nation.
Increasingly, the void is being filled with. . . you. A relentless focus on the self that tells us you are enough. When I asked ChatGPT for the origin of the phrase “You are enough,” it told me the saying is so ubiquitous it can’t give me an answer.
I’m not an expert in purpose, but I am in the business of finding it, in determined individuals who have a deep sense of why they’re put on this earth. I meet entrepreneurs at the earliest stage, often when they have only a team and a pipe dream. Sometimes, it’s a new type of satellite or a viral app; other times, trust me, it’s the most boring idea you’ve ever heard.
But if you talk to the most storied investors about what they’re searching for in the people who will build the Disneys or the Apples or the Teslas of the future, they’re not interviewing the person. Often they’re not even listening to the idea. They’re testing for how deeply—how obsessively—someone believes in something greater than themselves. This sense is so profound that sometimes it makes you uncomfortable. It makes you squirm in your chair. But it makes you feel something.
With this type of purpose—a calling—comes action. Practice. Silicon Valley’s infectious optimism is not because the ideas are all that mind-blowing. Many solid companies have mundane missions: software that helps salespeople sell stuff! Cybersecurity companies that stop phishing attacks! And yet, that practice of building, of doing and believing in something—anything—gives people the purpose that pulls them out of the malaise that is modern life.
And maybe that’s the secret of purpose. You don’t need to build a billion-dollar company. You don’t need to employ hundreds of people. You just need to act, and with that action comes purpose—a reason to get out of bed in the morning and build.
For too long, we’ve been told we can be anything, do anything, and that all criticisms of that anything are an attack on our identity and very being. That self-love and self-care are all we need to thrive. And yet, we’ve never seemed more miserable, never been more lost, and never less confident in what we stand for.
Maybe one day the all-knowing AI will tell us the truth:
Find a purpose outside yourself. You are not enough.
Read Katherine’s last column about suffering here.
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