Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category
I’ve experienced periods of mania for as long as I can remember. For the longest time they scared me – mostly because they were always followed by periods of depression. I never got really manic or really depressed, but I did experience both in cycles for more than a decade.
I remember in a freshman class in college called “The Good Life” (this was part of a required humanities program), the TA asked my section what we thought the “good life” was. Everyone else in the class listed a bunch of positive attributes of a good life. I responded that you couldn’t have good without bad – good was only good relative to bad and vice versa. The “good life” was only possible if it came along with the “bad life.”
I wasn’t trying to be profound, just speaking from personal experience. For me, the periods in my life where I was most happy were always followed by periods of depression. I didn’t think of the “happy” times as having a manic quality, but in retrospect they did.
This pattern continued for years. I would feel either blah, manic, or depressed. Mania was generally followed by depression. The depression never got that bad, but it could last for months and was sometimes pretty miserable.
It’s now been over a year since I felt depressed for any significant length of time – never more than a day or two at a time. This is due to a number of factors, and I can’t go into all of them here. But the biggest one, I think, is that I managed to break the cycle of mania and depression.
Did I do this by trying to calm down and cut back on the extremes? Not at all. In fact, I did the exact opposite.
You see, for the longest time, I responded to feelings of mania by fleeing from them. They scared me. I felt like I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t do the work I wanted to do, and couldn’t sit still. I felt like I was losing control.
For background, the symptoms of my mania are:
- Increased energy, confidence and drive. Feeling like I can do and be anything.
- Decreased need for sleep. Staying up later and waking up earlier.
- Increased extroversion and desire to be in social situations. Especially parties and other social events.
- Mind racing. Many ideas sprouting and plans forming.
(These are in line with description in the Wikipedia article.)
My response to my manic feelings was to withdraw. I felt like I wanted to (and could, and should) do more, more, more, but I actually did less during these periods. And I think that’s what led to the depression.
I think I got depressed because all the energy had no where to go. My body and mind were giving me a shot of energy – the mania – and I was suppressing it. Rather than acting on the feelings, I was doing less, dwelling on them, and spending more time by myself.
Anything is bad in large amounts, and mania is no exception. See bipolar disorder. But that doesn’t mean mania is a bad thing. I’ve come to see it as a great thing. It’s like a shot of adrenaline that lasts for days or weeks. It makes life more exciting, more fun, and more spontaneous.
In the last year, I’ve felt most passionate during periods of mania. They’ve been the most exciting and rewarding. And they haven’t been followed by periods of depression.
What has changed? I have embraced the mania rather than being scared of it. I’ve started to view it as a gift rather than an impediment. Rather than forcing myself to sit still and concentrate, I’ve been embracing the stuff I want to do when I’m feeling manic. (It helps that I haven’t been in school or had a normal job for 2 years ).
I look at mania as a natural response to circumstances, like a shot of adrenaline. If someone tries to start a fight with me, my body gives me a shot of adrenaline. This gives me an instant burst of energy, allowing me either to fight or to flee (maybe if the other guy’s a UFC fighter).
Mania is the same type of thing. It’s a shot of energy and inspiration. Maybe there’s some subconscious reason or trigger for it. I can resist it or I can ride the wave. If I choose to ride it, I benefit greatly. I feel energized, passionate, excited. I have the energy to move outside my comfort zone. I have the creativity to push the envelope. I have the confidence to do more than I thought I could.
I’ve been experimenting recently with trying to maintain a permanent mild state of mania. In past years I’ve lived for months in a state of mild depression – I see no reason the opposite shouldn’t be possible with mania.
The manic lifestyle? Bring it on!
Have you ever struggled with a problem for years only to discover, in a flash, that the solution is face-slappingly obvious? I’ve been having that happen a lot lately.
The best insights, I think, are the ones that seem so obvious — so trivial and even dumb — that I can’t believe I ever missed them. My past self must have been a real moron … What was he thinking?
Yesterday I finished writing an essay about my feelings of outsiderness – how I’ve always felt like an other, an outsider looking in, separate from any larger community.
I’ve only recently connected this feeling to experiences I had in the third and fourth grade. The short version: When I seven, my parents moved cross-country and I started at a new school. Then a year later, I was forced to transfer again to enter a new program. The new class was quite insular — the kids had been together for years at that point and weren’t very open to newcomers. I spent several formative years of my life feeling like an outsider.
I’m not going to post that essay. It’s only been a day since I finished it, and I already can’t relate to much of it. The facts are still the same, but my attitude has changed.
I realized in the course of writing it that my personal identity has become wrapped up in the idea of outsiderness. It helped form my tastes in music. It made it hard for me to feel a sense of belonging in groups. It made me feel separate, a lone wolf off on his solitary journey.
I also realized this feeling has shaped my personal myth — the story I tell myself, even if only subconsciously, about the arc of my life, my path, and my destiny. My myth has been that of the outsider.
It can be a tragic myth. I don’t think anyone really wants to be an outsider. But that doesn’t mean it’s not easy to come up with a story where you are one and then make the facts of your life fit that story. It’s not fun, but it’s easy.
So what’s the face-slappingly obvious part? It’s that I became so wrapped up in this outsider identity — this myth — that I couldn’t see its contingency. I couldn’t see that it wasn’t handed down from the gods but was instead the result of arbitrary experiences I had as an eight-year-old.
Pretty dumb, right? That’s a good thing.
Blogging can be a frustrating experience.
As a blogger, you want readers. What’s the point, otherwise? A blog without readers might as well be a private journal — no reason to pay the web hosting fee.
Of course, my blog does have some readers. I’m getting about 500 visitors per month right now. (Yes, I know — you’re impressed.) If I put up Google ads, I might have a few additional cents in my pocket by year end.
My readership is composed almost entirely of my friends. (Hey, guys! I like you. We should hang out more. But you’re an awfully quiet bunch.) I talk to people and hear they’ve read my stuff, but I don’t get much direct feedback.
I can’t say I’m that surprised. Most people browse the internet as consumers: They read headlines, skim articles, and click furiously from one site to another. They treat the web like a library and websites like books — well, books they toss aside after a minute or two.
And I’m no different. I’ve also been like this for most of my tenure on the web: Read, read, click, click, check e-mail, read, click.
I actually began as a contributor, though. In high school, I was part of a few game-related communities. I helped run a modestly popular website — which actually still exists, go figure — wrote some tutorials, participated in forums, and so on.
But once I started college, I reverted to consumption mode. I had less free time and felt less of a connection to my communities. I stopped contributing to them.
Now, nine years later, I’m transitioning back to the contributor role. It’s a strange feeling — like walking into a library and realizing you can have conversations with the books. Weird. But that’s the beauty of the internet: It’s great for information dissemination, but it’s best for interaction and community building. And I’m not just talking about e-mail and Facebook.
But now to my main point. As a blogger, I’m starting to notice something:
It takes a lot to grab people’s attention.
There’s so much to sift through on the web, and most of it is pretty pedestrian. Internet attention spans are short. People want a quick fix, something that will entertain or help them in just a few minutes.
As a blogger, I’m competing for your attention. I’m not used to that. I’ve always tried to avoid being the center of attention. It’s just not something I’ve liked.
But I can feel a change welling in me. When you write stuff and put it on the internet, you want people to read it. And if you’re not getting much attention, you start to crave it. It becomes an obsession.
That’s why so many bloggers are fixated on their “stats” — visitor numbers provided by services like Google Analytics. Their hearts flutter with every increase in traffic and shudder with every decrease. They shriek with glee when their posts reach the front page of sites like Digg.
I’m becoming an attention whore just like the rest of them. Or maybe I’m just an attention whore wannabe or an attention whore in training. There are worse things you could be, right?
Okay, maybe not.
But that’s the way it is. I’m not so unhappy: It’s fun to enter this new role — competing for people’s attention — and see what I can make of it. I’ve done so little competing for attention so far in my life that everything is new and exciting.
And there are other benefits to blogging.
For one, it’s making me much less self-conscious. If you’re a private person — which I was much more so a year ago — you tend to think people will react strongly to what you say. You’re worried about making a bad impression. You think that if you don’t watch yourself you’ll screw up and put up something embarrassing for all to see. Everyone who searches for your name will think less of you.
I’ve realized these thoughts are delusions. Sure, you’ll always find the odd story of someone who gets screwed over — the corporate boss who sees drunk images of some kid on Facebook and decides not to hire him — but these are the exception. In general, people don’t care as much as you think they will. Your private life is a bigger deal to you than it is to them. It takes a lot more to grab their attention than you might think.
For me, this knowledge is freeing. It means I don’t need to heavily edit or censor myself. I don’t have to stress out about the far-reaching implications of everything I say. If I say something I think is idiotic ten years from now, fine. I’ll just have to deal with it. The only alternative is to say nothing at all or to water myself down so much that no one cares what I have to say, anyway.
There’s a tendency for bloggers to become provocative just for the sake of being provocative: to oversell in their headlines, reveal so much about their personal lives you wish they’d held back a little, or just say “fuck” a lot. I’m trying to avoid that. But you have it admit it’s pretty fucking tempting!
I suspect that it’ll be mostly other bloggers who can relate to this post. (My friend Kim, in fact, has written a similar post recently.) As with anything, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to be a blogger if you aren’t one.
And that’s fine. Bloggers are more likely to leave comments, anyway
Some people just aren’t ambitious.
Take Michael Skrzypek. The San Francisco resident was covered in the Chronicle last year. For five years, Skrzypek worked 10 weeks per year, earning enough money to finance the remaining 42.
How’d he swing that? Basically, he got lucky. He fell into the arrangement–working with legal trial presentation software–mostly due to happenstance.
So what did Skrzypek do during his 42 free weeks? Not a whole lot. He says:
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I don’t have an answer for what I did on an average day. Most days, I got up and wondered what I would do. … A lot of days I wouldn’t get out of bed. I’d just read. I liked to joke that I was the only person in the United States who read the New Yorker every week, cover to cover.
Skrzypek’s friends observed his inaction and made suggestions. One suggested he take up bluegrass guitar. Another suggested he read the complete works of Dostoevsky. Others wanted him to write short stories or volunteer at a homeless shelter.
Skrzypek wasn’t interested. He held firm: He wasn’t going to do anything; he didn’t need to be productive to be worthwhile. His desire for achievement was nil.
Skrzypek has since taken a full-time job, but only because doing nothing was getting boring. He says, “I don’t have that kind of ambition that makes people anxious or competitive.” He’s just not an ambitious person.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Though Skrzypek was torn apart by SFGate commenters, I have nothing against him. Not everyone needs to work hard or focus on achievement. I’m happy he’s living as he sees fit.
But what about you? Are you ambitious? Most people wouldn’t say they are. Ambition’s a dirty word. It brings to mind greed, competition, and workaholism. It’s seen as something you focus on if you’ve got your priorities wrong. It also means hard work: You can’t claim to be ambitious if you’re resting on your laurels. If you say you’re ambitious but you’re not doing much, you’re basically admitting you’re lazy.
That’s why far more people are ambitious than will admit it to themselves. They think ambition’s bad. They don’t want to see themselves as lazy.
How do I know this is true? Because of envy.
Envy’s a powerful emotion. We feel it when we want something someone else has: respect, experience, accomplishment, whatever. It’s a very strong–and true–form of desire.
Envy is often hard to detect because it masquerades as anger, hatred, and resentment. Rather than acknowledging envy directly, we focus negative energy on its cause. We come up with reasons–rationalizations–to make ourselves feel better. We become righteously indignant.
I’ve seen this happen in my own life. When I was in college and a struggling beginner guitar player, I tended to resent other musicians on campus. I thought their music was lousy, I thought they were pretentious — I just didn’t like them.
I now realize those feelings were caused mostly by envy. I don’t look back now and think, “Wow, those guys were brilliant!” but I do see that my feelings were more a reflection of who I was than who they were. Their music was no threat to me. My resentment was unwarranted. It was caused by my frustration with where I was as a musician.
This is a common pattern. It’s why anger and resentment–and therefore envy–point to ambition. It’s why if you feel anger and resentment you could be ambitious without knowing it. (Incidentally, this is the focus of a recent post of Jennifer McGuiggan’s at The Word Cellar, “Turn Envy into Inspiration.” Check it out — it’s good.)
So what about ambition? Isn’t it bad? I don’t think so: Ambition’s only a motivating force. It’s one that drives us to want to do remarkable things, to stand out in some way. Many amazing things have been done in the name of ambition. And of course, some awful things–and some merely pathetic or pointless ones–have also been done in its name. Ambition by itself is neither good nor bad.
I know I’m ambitious. I want to be interesting and remarkable. I know I’m much better off acknowledging that than hiding in a cloud of resentment.
That’s why I’ve chosen to focus my energy on conscientious ambition. Ambition doesn’t have to be about accumulating vast quantities of money or attaining some narcissistic ideal. Conscientious ambition is focusing your ambitious tendencies on making the world a better place. It’s doing things like working to right wrongs, improve people’s quality of life, and produce things of beauty.
Ambition can be a great thing. Do you have it?
I was watching the late comedian Bill Hicks with a friend recently. Hicks has strong opinions, and his audiences love him for them.
In the video we were watching he has a bit on marketing. He begins:
By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing … kill yourself.
The audience laughs. He continues:
Just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they’ll take root, I don’t know. You try, you do what you can.
[whispers] Kill yourselves. Seriously though, if you are, do.
More laughter. Then the real rant begins:
No really, there’s no rationalization for what you do, and you are Satan’s little helpers, okay. Kill yourselves, seriously. You’re the ruiner of all things good. Seriously. This is not a joke. There’s no fuckin’ joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your fuckin’ soul. Kill yourself.
At this point, the audience responds with what sounds like a standing ovation. They love Hicks, and they hate marketers.
I was struck by this video for two reasons. First, it reminded me of how much people hate marketing. They really do. Marketers may be hated more than even lawyers.
But more importantly, I was reminded of recent shifts in my own attitude toward marketing. I probably would have been laughing along with everyone else only a year or two ago. I’ve never had an interest in marketing, and in fact, I’ve actively disliked it. I’m just as annoyed as anyone by cynical marketing ploys. I’m sick of being inundated with inane and obnoxious advertising. I’m tired of our materialist culture and the pressure to buy junk we don’t need. I hate being manipulated, and I despise being seen as a means to an end.
But at the same time, I’m coming to realize that marketing isn’t all bad. It’s useful–and even good–when used in the right way.
So I wasn’t laughing at Hicks. Instead, I found myself resenting the lynch mob that seemed to be forming in his audience.
Hicks has a point, of course. (And if you watch the video, he explains it a little more.) Marketing can be bad — very bad. People hate it for good reasons:
- It’s often about manipulation, about getting you to part with your money rather than helping you or providing you with something of value.
- Marketers don’t seem to care about you as a person. They see you only as a guardian of money; they’re interested in your psychology only in so far as it helps them get you to relinquish it.
- Marketers often use cynical tactics. They’ll do what it takes to get your money. They’re unprincipled. As Hicks later points out, they’ll even try to exploit anti-marketing sentiment as a marketing tactic.
(Incidentally, blogger Chris Guillebeau covers more on marketing-hate in his recent post, Why People Hate Marketers. He talks about internet marketing attitudes he finds disturbing.)
So yes, marketing’s often bad. But is it always bad? Should we just round up all marketers and call in the firing squad?
I’m actually less interested in marketing is a profession than I am in it as a mentality. After all, I’m never going to be a marketer, per se. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot of marketing I can–and even should–be doing.
Marketing in its most basic form is discovering what people want and giving it to them. It’s not about tricking people into buying what they don’t want, and it’s not about exploiting people’s psychology to get something out of them.
The problem with the anti-marketing mindset is that it’s self-limiting. If you think marketing is bad, you won’t do it. You’ll laugh at Bill Hicks and go back to your no-marketing life.
Here’s why this mindset’s limiting. If you subscribe to it, you probably think:
- Self-promotion is bad.
- Defining a target audience and marketing to them is bad.
- Convincing people to buy something is bad.
These attitudes are okay as long as your only concern is filling a well-defined job role. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like. Your boss is happy as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing — no marketing necessary.
But they stop working when you do something creative or risky. If you’re an entrepreneur, an artist, or otherwise self-employed, you need to shed the anti-marketing mindset. If you don’t, it will severely limit you.
Why is marketing necessary for entrepreneurs, artists, and the self-employed? Because if you are one, you’re not filling an already-defined role — you’re creating one. There isn’t already a clear audience for your work. You need to find one, and you need to appeal to that audience.
You can’t succeed on your own if you live on a desert island. Simply creating things and shipping them off to the rest of the world doesn’t work. You need to think about who’ll be interested in what you’re doing and how they’ll use it, why they’ll want it and how they’ll benefit from it. Marketing’s about taking the perspective of other people: What do they want? What gets them excited? It should be about empathy, not manipulation.
Marketing forces you to avoid masturbatory behavior: doing things that are all about you rather than about other people. Masturbatory behavior isn’t wrong in a moral sense, but it’s wrong if you want other people to care about what you’re doing.
If your primary goal is to impress people–whether it be with how smart, clever, funny, or talented you are–you’re engaging in masturbatory behavior. Sure, you might get lucky and hit on something that people do like. But you probably won’t. Other people care far less about how smart, clever, funny, and talented you are than you do.
If you’re just doing what you like and hoping someone else is interested, you’re engaging in masturbatory behavior. Again, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing what you like; it just means you may have a hard time making a living from it. Part of marketing is finding the intersection between what you like to do and what others want.
I’m not saying that it’s always best to watch the polls and let public interest decide what you do. That would kill art (and most creative endeavor in general). I am saying that you should take what other people want into account, even if only after the fact. There’s an audience for almost any kind of art — you just need to find it. And once you find your audience, you need to reach it effectively.
That’s where marketing comes in – and that’s why I’m realizing its value. Marketing’s about finding an audience for what you do and targeting that audience, giving them what they want. It is (or should be) about empathy and relationships, not trickery and manipulation. It’s a necessary part of any independent endeavor.
Thoughts? (And thanks, Ohad, for inspiring this post!)
I’ve been making my way through Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book’s good. I love its mix between philosophical discussions and narrative, and it’s very well written.
Pirsig himself is an interesting guy. He was a precocious child with a high IQ score (170) at age 9. He started college as a biochemistry student at age 15, but he dropped out three years later. He was losing faith in science as a means to ultimate truth. After a brief stint in the army, he turned to philosophy, which he studied as an undergraduate and graduate student. He then traveled to India to learn about Eastern philosophy at a Hindu university there.
At 33, Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent time in mental hospitals for a few years, eventually getting diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. While hospitalized, doctors subjected him to electroshock treatments, which he says left him a completely different person.
All this happened before Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book chronicles a cross-country motorcycle trip he took with his 11-year-old his son, Chris. It took four years to write and was apparently rejected 121 times by publishers before going on to sell more than 5 million copies.
Classical and Romantic Perspectives
One bit of ZatAoMM that has really struck me so far is Pirsig’s distinction between two modes of thought: “classical” and “romantic.” These modes are more than just ways of thinking. They’re approaches to life — even approaches to truth.
The classical view sees the world primarily in abstractions, explanations, and underlying forms. It proceeds by reason and by laws. It loves to dissect things (and ideas) into their component parts, to explain, and to classify. The fields of science, law, and medicine (for instance) fall into its realm.
The romantic view sees the world primarily in terms of its immediate appearance. It sees the whole rather than the parts, the thing itself rather than abstract categories or classifications. It is, in Pirsig’s words, “primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive.” To a romantic, feelings take precedence over facts. Art is usually a romantic pursuit.
Although no one sees the world purely from a classical or romantic viewpoint, most fall clearly on one side or the other. People tend to cluster with those on the same side and clash with those on the opposite side. (Side note: if you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs types, I think the most-classical people are probably NT’s (iNtuitive Thinkers) and the most-romantic people are probably SF’s (Sensing Feelers). Classifying people into personality types is a very classical thing to do, so you know what side I’m on!)
Disagreements between classics and romantics can be intense. Pirsig says that both sides misunderstand and underestimate what the other side is about. Neither wants to give up its idea of truth. He writes:
To a romantic, this classic mode often appears dull, awkward, and ugly, like mechanical maintenance itself. Everything is in terms of pieces and parts and components and relationships. Nothing is figured out until it’s run through a computer a dozen times. Everything’s got to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endless grey. The death force.
Conversely, to classics, romantics are:
Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, interested primarily in pleasure-seeking. Shallow. Of no substance. Often a parasite who cannot or will not carry his own weight. A real drag on society.
Pirsig’s distinction is highly applicable to my own life. I’ve spent large swaths of my life immersed in the classical side of things. You have to when you’re a computer programmer, and I spent a good 17 years as one. Besides the fact that I tend to focus monomaniacally when I’m interested in something, computer programming is mentally demanding. It’s not something you can start or stop on a whim. It takes all your concentration and tends to occupy your thoughts even when you aren’t doing it.
Computer programming–as with, say, biochemistry or motorcycle repair–is all about abstractions, components, and laws. You don’t succeed as a programmer by relying on your gut, your feelings, or your intuition (though those do come in handy). Instead, you need to adopt an objective, highly rational, logical perspective. As a programmer, biochemist, or motorcycle repairman, you form and test hypotheses. You surrender your feelings to the laws of nature or the machine: the program works or it doesn’t, the motorcycle runs or it doesn’t, the hypothesis is true or false.
When you spend much of your time working in the classical mindset, it tends to filter into other areas of your life. You don’t just stop being a classic at the end of the workday. You usually live your entire life on one side or the other.
I found myself moving further to the classical side as I got older. I think this was mostly due to specialization. As we get older, we tend to spend more and more of our time doing one thing — specialization is the way most people make a living, after all. For me, that one thing was programming.
I also spent five years in college, and colleges tend to emphasize the classical mindset, even in humanities departments. Academic research is all about analysis: dissection, classification, categorization, and deduction. It’s likely that the longer you stay in academia, the more classical you become. You have to if you want to succeed there.
I think I became frustrated at my job (at Google, as a programmer) in large part because I was becoming increasingly imbalanced. The romantic side of me was being suppressed; I craved an outlet but simply wasn’t getting it at my job. It also was hard to do anything significant or focused outside of work — as I said, programming can be very demanding.
In the past year, I’ve regained the balance that I think I lost when I started college. Writing essays (like this one) exercises the classical part of my mind, while writing music exercises the romantic part. I feel whole in a way that I didn’t a year ago.
So I’ve achieved a balance – but does it make sense, in general, to try to balance the classical and romantic modes?
On the surface, it seems the answer is yes — balance is good, right? But there is a danger: In trying to balance between extremes, it’s possible just to become boring. Sometimes it’s better to go with natural inclinations than to fight them. Balance can be bland, boring, and fake; everyone doesn’t need to be the same, anyway.
In the case of classical and romantic viewpoints, though, I do think it’s worth seeking some sort of balance. You’re missing out on an entire realm of experience if you don’t. Both modes are valid (and even true) in their own way. They both contribute to human experience and achievement. If you fall too far into one camp or the other, you’re only seeing half of the picture. You’re only engaging half of humanity.
One major goal of Pirsig’s book is to establish a common ground between the two modes. I think he’s on the right track.
The English rock band Coldplay writes melancholy and often-grandiose songs. They’ve become quite popular, selling millions of records and touring the world and play their music for those who like it.
Coldplay is hated. Here’s just one example: A 1,200 word essay authored by Joe Pareles (entitled “The case against Coldplay”) states that Coldplay is “the most insufferable band of the decade,” claims that the band’s singer is a “passive-aggressive blowhard,” and calls the band’s songs “tremulous, ringing anthems of insecurity.” (Oh, and let’s not forget about the “Anti-Coldplay Society” on MySpace and the “Anti-Coldplay Coalition” on Facebook.)
… Steve Pavlina runs a well-known personal development website. Its stated purpose is to “help you grow as a conscious human being.” Steve has written hundreds of articles over the past several years, and he offers them free of charge through his site.
Steve Pavlina is hated. Just search for his name on Google: An article entitled “Steve Pavlina Sucks” (and featuring his headshot) begins:
Steve Pavlina is a swindling knave who’s made a fortune for himself blowing hot air up the asses of normal working people, over inflating their egos just to inevitably get popped on one of life’s many thorns through his eponymous website/cash cow.
This quote is tame compared to much of the rest of the article. (Search for it if you like; I’m not providing a link.)
… Indian film director Parvez Sharma worked on Jihad for Love, a documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims. The film, which shows gay Muslims kissing and holding hands, has been well-received at festivals and by critics.
You guessed it: Parvez Sharma is hated. Before the film was even released, Sharma reported that “About every two weeks I get an e-mail that berates me, condemns me to hell and, if they are nice, asks me to still seek forgiveness while there is still time.” Now he receives death threats. Several countries have banned the film.
Seems pretty easy to arouse people’s hatred, right? Here’s how these things work.
If you take a public stand, people will hate you. They’ll say you’re an idiot. They’ll claim you’re evil. They’ll attack not only your views but also you as a person. They’ll write diatribes against you. If you get really big, they may even create websites in your honor.
If you’re successful, people will hate you. They’ll deride what you do. They’ll insult you. They’ll claim that you got lucky or were over-privileged. They’ll say you cheated. They’ll say your success doesn’t matter.
As you grow in prominence, you’ll attract more detractors. What you say will be used against you. You’ll be misquoted and misconstrued. Your mistakes will be pounced upon. Rumors and false accusations will spread.
Your detractors’ hatred will reach far beyond mere disagreement. Even those who present no specific point of view–artists, actors, musicians, etc.–receive their share of hate. Though it’s often presented in the form of rational argument, hatred is rarely that simple. Your detractors probably aren’t really that worried about the things they complain about.
What lies at the root of most hatred is resentment. If attention is being focused on you, some people will resent that. Rather than accept that what you’ve done is of value to others, they’ll alter their worldview to discount you. To them, your views are unfounded and your success ill-gotten. You are, at best, overrated, and at worst, trash.
Of course, hatred isn’t all about resentment — real disagreement does exist. If you take a stand, someone will disagree with you. If you create something, someone will have different aesthetic sensibilities. That’s inevitable. When you make your views or works public, you are opening them to the criticism of the rest of the world.
That’s why it’s so hard to take a stand. It’s hard to receive criticism, even when it comes alongside praise from others. Most people prefer to stay under the radar. It’s infinitely easier to think, “Oh, I could do all sorts of amazing things if I just put my mind to it,” than it is to do so and receive criticism.
When you make a bold statement or create something awesome, you’re saying, “This is who I am,” to the world. It’s very hard to do that. Most people don’t have the guts or determination. They prefer to hedge their bets: Better to stay quiet and vague than arouse the ire of others by being something.
If you do make a public statement, people will equate you with your statement. To them, you are your statement. And some of them will hate you for it. They’ll resent that you disagree with them or that your aesthetic sensibilities clash. They’ll resent that you’ve created something they don’t appreciate that others do. Rather than work to bring themselves up, they’ll work to tear you down. It’s easier for them that way.
You can’t do something awesome if you’re worried about arousing the hatred of others. It’s impossible to please everyone. Some people like to be contrarian and will hate you if you try. You can’t please them, so don’t try. The path to awesomeness lies in deciding what you want to live for, doing that, and finding a community of supporters. It doesn’t lie in trying to please everyone. Someone will hate you no matter what you do.
In fact, you’re already hated right now. If you’re American, some people hate you just by virtue of that. If you’re a vegetarian, some meat-eaters hate you; if you eat meat, some vegetarians hate you. Whether you’re religious or irreligious, some people hate you. There’s no escaping the hate. You can hide and pretend it doesn’t exist, or you can decide what you want to be and proudly be it, haters be damned.
You will be hated. You are hated. That’s just the way things are. It’s not easy to stick your neck out, and if you do some people will try to chop your head off. Accept the hate and do something awesome anyway. There’s no better alternative.
I attended Stanford University for five years, first as an undergraduate and then as a Master’s student. I say that only to establish credibility, not because I’m particularly proud of that fact. While my time at Stanford wasn’t miserable, it also wasn’t particularly happy. I was bothered the entire time by the vague feeling that something was wrong.
I ended up there mostly because of my competitive drive. I don’t remember thinking about college much before the age of 17. My parents went to college, and I assumed I would too. Beyond that, I was too busy making video games and hanging out with friends to care.
But at 17, I started caring — I think because that was around the time you started taking the SAT and hearing from the school’s college counselors. Suddenly college was a big deal. Everyone was talking about it, and I got sucked into the hysteria. It was too late to change my lifestyle in any dramatic way, but I do remember spending a lot of time studying for the SAT and strategizing for my college applications. It was a competitive thing.
So I got into Stanford. Hooray for me. I was a minor celebrity at my high school, which doesn’t often place students in top colleges, for a few months.
Have I benefitted from my (so-called) elite education? In some sense, yes. I got a well-paying job out of school that I surely wouldn’t have gotten without the degree. But I left that job a year ago; it wasn’t for me. And I’m not sure any of the jobs an elite education most advantages you for–ones in academia, the professions, and large corporations–are for me.
Sure, I learned a lot in school. But I’ve also learned a lot before and after. And the stuff I’ve learned outside of school has stuck with me the longest. There’s something about learning on your own that, at least for me, is infinitely more satisfying than learning in a class.
Here’s one thing I did learn at Stanford: As a rule, students and graduates of elite universities all agree on one thing: Their elite education is very important. They’re not elitists, per se — they may see themselves as privileged, and they may wish others had the same opportunities they did. They may even feel some guilt. But they do agree: An elite education is important. It’s a big deal.
But how important is an elite education, really? Just who cares if you have one?
Not as many people as you might think. It’s easy to forget that as a student–and often also as a graduate–of an elite university, you live in a bubble:
- While in school, you’re surrounded by other students who also value an elite education — they wouldn’t have applied in the first place otherwise, right?
- From the day you’re accepted till the day you graduate, you’re inundated with praise from administrators. Self-congratulation is always in the air. As an attendee, you are one of “the best and brightest.” You’re part of elite group of future leaders and world-changers. The future of civilization depends on you.
- You form some of your closest, longest-lasting friendships in college. Elite-university-goers tend to stick together long after they have graduated. They network, they meet friends-of-friends. Everyone within their circle believes strongly in the prestige and importance of an elite education.
- Elite universities are feeders for other institutions: the professions (law, medicine, etc.), academia, and large corporations. These institutions are filled with graduates from elite universities (and college graduates, in general). Within these institutions, the importance of an elite education is usually accepted as irrefutable fact.
Is it surprising self-congratulation is inescapable at elite universities? Not really. Administrators are telling students and their bill-paying parents what they want to hear. (These schools aren’t cheap, after all.) And administrators praise themselves by praising students — their own self-worth is also tied up in the prestige of the school.
Students like to hear that they’re special. After all, who doesn’t? But an elite education isn’t universally respected. Outside the bubble, many people will shrug their shoulders (or worse) when they learn you have one. And I don’t just mean “dumb” people — many smart people also have this reaction.
People tend to value things that make them look good. When we’re good at something, we place great importance in it, and when we’re bad, we think, “Who needs that crap, anyway?” This is what allows us all to be above average in our own minds.
It’s natural to value an elite education if you have one. And if you stay within the bubble, you’ll certainly have your belief corroborated. But an elite education isn’t without its drawbacks. Consider the following:
- At an elite university (or any college, for that matter), you spend four important years of your life in school learning rather than out in the world doing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are trade-offs: It’s hard to discover what you want in school, and depending on what you choose to do, you may be disadvantaged compared to people who were busy doing it while you were in school.
- If you’re like most people accepted to an elite university, you’re convinced at a very young age that you have, at least in some sense, made it. As a result, you start to believe you have something to lose. You become less accepting of failure. This can make you more risk-averse and conservative in your career choices.
- As a graduate of an elite university, you feel a strong urge–almost an obligation–to put your degree to use. It cost a lot of money and took a lot of work to get, after all. And since an elite education is a big deal (you think), you’d be throwing away a huge opportunity if you didn’t use it. This limits your career options — namely, to the ones an elite university degree most advantages you for. If you do anything else, you feel like you’re taking a step down.
- You’re trained at prestigious institutions to define yourself in terms of your association to them. And because you learn to take great pride in your institutional associations, you become accepting (and even needing) of their prestige and authority. Your personal identity becomes wrapped up in them. This makes it more difficult to live free of institutions: You may start to see them as the solution to your problems, seeking refuge in them to escape the uncertainties of the outside world.
Clearly these problems don’t apply to every student and graduate of elite universities. There are many exceptions. But the tendency is there — and if you live within the elite education bubble, it’s particularly easy to suffer from them without even noticing their effects.
An elite education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s good for some things and bad for others. Getting one certainly isn’t unequivocally a good idea — and it may be a bad one for many people.
So I’ve been unemployed for a while. I’ve already said that a number of times. It’s been nine months now. It’s ten in the morning on a Thursday, and I’m sitting in a cafe writing this. I’m in a contemplative state of mind.
I’ve been feeling the need to rethink my narrative. A narrative’s an explanation, or perhaps a justification, for how one leads one’s life. It explains what one’s doing, where one’s headed, why what one’s doing will lead to where one’s headed, and why where one’s headed is a good place to go in the first place. (Got it?)
When you’re unemployed, people expect you to justify yourself. After all, you’re not working and making money like everyone else, so what are you doing? People want a narrative. And as an unemployed person, you also expect one of yourself. You want some sense of where you’re headed and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
When you’re unemployed, concrete goals are harder to come by. At school, your goal is to do well and to graduate. At work, your goal is to finish your current project, get a promotion, or just get through the day. These goals are given to you. They’re justified within a well-understood system. At least on a day-to-day basis (or a week-to-week or month-to-month one), there is little uncertainty. You go to your workplace, and you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
But when you’re unemployed, this certainty leaves. It’s harder to function without it, and many people don’t. They feel useless and purposeless. They lack the self-discipline or motivation to kick-start something on their own. They feel the questioning eyes of their friends and acquaintances. They search desperately for a narrative and come up empty-handed.
When I left my job nine months ago, my narrative was simple. It was: I’m leaving my job to pursue some outside interests (music and writing). I’m not sure where this is headed, but I’d like to give myself a chance to devote myself to these interests and see where they lead. That was pretty much it.
This sort of vague narrative only works for so long. It’s a good explanation for a few months, but it stops working so well around the six to nine month mark. (Remember where I am?) At that point, the familiar round of questions reemerge: So when are you going to get a job again? What’s the plan? How are you going to make money? You hear these questions from others, but you also ask them of yourself.
The only way to answer these questions is to come up with a narrative. That’s what I’m here to do. I’ll be discussing music because that’s what I spend most of my time doing. It’s been my focal point.
I’m excited by music. I’ve known I like it for a long time–and not just in an “It’s nice to listen to while I do other things” or “It really gets me going!” sort of way, but in a deeper way–but recently I’ve been discovering that I really like it. I mean “really like it” in the sense that I feel happy spending all my time doing it.
It’s hard to find something you enjoying doing all the time. I encourage you to try sometime. Take a sabbatical from your job (or take a break between jobs) and spend the time doing something you love to do. (Save up some money, live cheaply; you can afford it.) Surf, or play basketball, or write all the time for a few months. Though you may find you love doing what you’ve chosen all the time, chances are you won’t. We like most things in moderation: we’re not going to make a full-time endeavor out of them, and we may get sick of them if we try.
But I do think I’ve found something I enjoy doing all the time in music. That’s exciting. Sure, I’m not certain I’ll always like spending all or most of my time on music–and how could I be?–but I am convinced that it’s not just a passing fancy.
I’ve made a huge amount of progress music-wise in the past nine months. I feel like everything is starting to “click” in a way that it never has before. I still have so much to learn, and the road ahead is a long one, but I’m excited by how far I’ve come.
Music engages me in a way that feels more full and complete than my past pursuits. I’m able to engage my emotional and creative side in a way that (I now realize) has been stifled since I started college. Music is the purest artistic expression of emotion I’ve encountered. I enjoy the mechanical act of playing an instrument: playing guitar requires far more dexterity and finesse than any other physical activity I’ve performed. It’s very satisfying to see improvement.
Music also has theoretical, technical, and strategic sides. I enjoy learning and thinking about music theory and how it relates to the feelings we experience when we listen to music. I like to record and produce. I enjoy the “strategic” thinking required to plan out, orchestrate, and arrange a whole song.
Basically, I like it all! And I haven’t even experienced much of what music has to offer. Though I’ve rehearsed, I’ve never played live with a band, for example. That would be fun, but I’m taking things one step at a time for now.
Where am I going with all this? Here’s what I’m thinking: I now know that I really like music, and I’ve made a huge amount of progress recently. I want to keep doing what I’m doing.
I can’t quit now just because nine months have passed. It would be stupid to stop just as things are starting to get interesting. My living expenses are low, and I’ve saved some money. I don’t need to return to the money-making world immediately, so why should I? This is a risk worth taking!
So that’s my narrative. I don’t know where I’m headed, but I think it’s someplace interesting. And I’m not sure when I’ll get there. Money? I’ll probably start doing something part-time once I feel things have stabilized. Hopefully something not too far from my interests.
There you have it. This is where I am.
Most of us aspire to be authentic. We praise those we see as authentic and criticize those we see as not. We hold up authenticity as an ideal to strive toward.
But what is authenticity, exactly? On a basic level, it’s is a kind of “realness” or “genuineness.” When we interact with authentic people, we feel we’re interacting with a “real” ones, people free from pretension and without false fronts. We like authentic people because we feel we can trust them. Our relationships with them seem more deep.
As a concept, authenticity is far from clear. Much ink has been spilled attempting to define it, and significant disagreement still exists. Since disputes over semantics are rarely interesting, I’m not going to argue for a particular definition here. Instead I want to determine what “authenticity-like” characteristics it actually makes sense to strive for. My goal is practical: If I desire authenticity, what should I do? What ideal should I seek?
From a practical standpoint, authenticity should be both desirable and attainable. Any type of authenticity that isn’t both of these isn’t very interesting and certainly isn’t very practical. As it turns out, some common views of authenticity fall into this category. Let’s thus first look at what authenticity is not.
One view of authenticity states that it’s about finding your unchanging, “true” self and acting according to its dictates. Under this view, each of us has a true self that’s determined at birth. This self is a collection of personality characteristics and dispositions; actions made according to it are considered authentic, and ones not are considered inauthentic.
This view is flawed. Certainly it’s true that we’re born with certain dispositions — some components of personality are genetic. Some people are more introverted than others, for example, and that difference is (at least to a degree) determined at birth. But does that mean we each possess a true, unchanging self? I don’t think so. Though we do each start from a particular baseline, most aspects of our personalities are changeable. Our ability to change isn’t boundless, but it is there. A naturally introverted person can become more extroverted, and a naturally extroverted person can become more introverted. Such changes sometimes even happen naturally — an young introverted person may become extroverted as she grows older (or vice versa). Our “true” selves can change right out from under us.
The concept of a true self is flawed. How can we act in accordance with one if our selves are in constant flux? And, given that we can change our selves, why would we even want to pretend we can’t? Not all aspects of our personalities are changeable, of course — some basic desires are outside our control. But our personalities are, on the whole, malleable. It’s in our power to change them, and we should do so when it makes sense to. A bad-tempered wife-beating husband should do whatever he can to change his disposition (and therefore his behavior). Not doing so would just be irresponsible.
But what about the parts of our personalities that aren’t changeable? Isn’t it inauthentic to act in a way that contradicts them? It can be inauthentic to contradict them, but it isn’t necessarily. Why? Because our most basic desires sometimes contradict each other. A desire to do some subversive activity, for example, may conflict with a desire to “fit in” with the rest of society. Both desires are genuine — neither is more or less authentic than the other. In particular, a desire for the support and approval of others is just as real as any other desire. There’s no magical dividing line between authentic and inauthentic desires.
So authentic desires can conflict. Here’s the problem: The true self view suggests that it’s impossible to act authentically when desires conflict. In such cases any action will contradict some desire. Our “true” selves don’t guide us unambiguously — we need more than they provide to guide authentic action. The true self view is simply not up to the task of describing authenticity.
A second view of authenticity contends that some activities are, by their very nature, inauthentic. The view is that such activities cannot be motivated by authentic desires and motivations. Something about them just is inauthentic.
I agree with this view to a point — some actions are, as a rule, inauthentic. Lying, cheating, and manipulating fall into this category. But this view of authenticity goes further: many seemingly-innocuous activities become inauthentic. Depending on who you talk to, watching TV is inauthentic, playing popular music is inauthentic, wearing certain kinds of clothing is inauthentic, and so on.
This view is wrong — it might be inauthentic to play popular music (or do whatever else), but it also might not be. Not liking someone’s actions is not grounds for calling them inauthentic. Some actions may be more likely to be inauthentic, but that doesn’t make them inauthentic by definition. Authenticity is not just about performing some approved set of activities.
So what, then, is authenticity? Put simply, authenticity is honesty. To be authentic, you must be honest with yourself and with others. A person who is honest with herself and others is authentic, regardless of what she does. We may not approve of her actions, but we should still praise her for being authentic.
Being honest with yourself is being fully self-aware. To be internally authentic, you must understand and acknowledge your feelings, desires, and motivations. Denying their existence is inauthentic (and will probably lead to much internal strife). You can try to change them, of course, but to do that you must first understand and acknowledge them. Actions based on an honest understanding of your feelings and desires are authentic even if they sometimes contradict those feelings and desires. It’s impossible to avoid contradiction. The best you can do is be honest with yourself.
Being honest with others is trickier. We’re not always going to say exactly what we’re thinking. I’m not going to say “This tastes terrible” to someone who just cooked me a meal, even if that’s the first thing that comes to mind. That would just be rude.
External authenticity isn’t being honest at the expense of all other considerations. Rather it’s a sincere attempt to represent one’s feelings, desires, and motivations accurately to others. Practical considerations are relevant, yes — an authentic person doesn’t need to be honest when doing so would just be a bad idea. But authenticity does require a sincere attempt at honesty.
An authentic person reveals her emotions — she reveals when she’s happy, when she’s sad, when she’s feeling insecure or vulnerable. An authentic person doesn’t put up a false front. She doesn’t falsely represent herself for the sake of manipulating others. She conveys her intentions honestly.
We’re authentic when we’re honest — both with ourselves and with others. Honesty is the only path to authenticity. Our “true” selves are nebulous, and our true desires sometimes conflict. Actions aren’t inauthentic in and of themselves — only motivations and external representations are.
There are natural outgrowths of authenticity. When we’re authentic, we tend to live fully-integrated lives that make sense as a unified whole. We tend to have deep relationships with others. We tend to understand ourselves. Authenticity is an ideal worth striving for.