Inspiration, Ambition, and the Inverted U

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What inspires you? A child refusing to live ordinarily and choosing to showcase a remarkable ability to sing or dance or express themselves, an elderly person refusing to accept ageing and displaying an undying desire to maintain their youth through physically strenuous activities, a disabled person refusing to accept their handicap as a hindrance to their dreams, an underdog who worked tirelessly and sacrificed everything to become successful, an athlete who outperforms millions, a romantic story that defies all odds, a famous performer, politician, artist, author, leader, someone who overcomes discrimination and racism, a brave soldier, a loving parent who lifts a car to save her child, a genius?

We are all inspired by someone, or have the capacity to at least. We are often inspired by those who excel at a field that we take a passion in, those who have surpassed what we thought was possible, those who break all the records and touch our hearts in some way, those who are famous. I also believe that there is a lot of inspiration to be found in other, less explored, less popularized, less flashy areas in life.

There is a lot to be learned , for example, from immigrants who move to a new country where they don’t understand the language, the traditions, or the culture. They have a basic level of education, little to no savings, and yet are adamant at working tirelessly and quietly to make sure they can support their family. Because of remittances, they have no money to spend on themselves, to buy that marginally more expensive meal, or outfit. A lot of great people today have only been able to achieve their success because their parents were one of those people.

Many can also take admiration of people with a very demanding job who maintain the ability to have external interests, who find the ability to lead a well balanced life. There is a common theme between everything we find inspiring, it is the action of overcoming a large obstacle. Be it lack of financial power, lack of physical ability, fear, environment, circumstances, laziness, we all feel inspiration by someone having to overcome something.

No one feels inspired by someone who inherited money, or was sent to an excellent school. There is nothing inspiring about these people because they didn’t need to overcome anything; there’s very little romanticism and heroism in the idea of being born privileged in some way. Respect goes towards only those who had to work hard, and it is perhaps in this concept that the trade-off exists in being privileged.

When someone is privileged, they lose most of their ability to inspire others, and even, to inspire themselves. Their success can easily be attributed to favorable circumstances and thus lose the tenacity, hunger, and will to become successful. This loss of hunger will almost certainly cause them to fail. If you give a prehistoric hunter  a lifetime supply of any food he wants, would he still hunt? Would he still hone his skills and tirelessly try to improve? Of course not.

If there is no urgency, then it is extremely difficult to create motivation, albeit not impossible. This concept, explained by Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath, is coined “The inverted U”. It’s a representation of a two-dimensional graph where personal success is measured vertically, while inherited wealth is measured horizontally. In summary, poverty and excessive wealth are equally and fatal for an individual’s personal financial success. A person in poverty is handicapped for the obvious reasons of living in an unfavorable environment for proper education, lack of opportunities, lack of connections. A rich person on the other hand is well equipped with each of those things, however, suffers from severe lack of ambition and hunger.

The theory is something I personally find very intriguing and should seem counter-intuitive to most; I certainly think it is.  If the hypothesis is true, and that these extreme levels of wealth and poverty are both equally detrimental to an individual’s success, then shouldn’t that imply that we should feel inspired by someone who inherited a very large sum of money and was still able to become successful?

In other words, while it is clear that much admiration will be shown towards someone who overcame poverty to become successful, should it also be true that similar admiration should be shown towards someone who overcame extreme wealth to succeed?

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The Two Tragedies in Life

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“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Oscar Wilde

The reason I love this quote is because of how gently, poignantly, and cynically it depicts life as an inevitable tragedy. However,  a few things came to my attention when looking more closely at it. Wilde obviously did not mean this quote as an irrefutable philosophy, it was meant to be a provocative poetic expression that is both witty and informative. It does, however, raise an interesting philosophical point about the meanings we place on our goals, and that is what I’ll discuss.


The obvious deduction one would have from the quote is that Wilde is implying that achieving goals is a tragedy, because one loses his purpose, ambition, and desire. And of course, that is the ultimate tragedy. The other obvious implication is that not achieving your goal is another tragedy for you have failed at what you’ve set out to accomplish. The final deduction is that life is by definition a tragedy. No matter what you do, you will always be unhappy.

Achieving your goal and not achieving it are both equally tragic and painful. One way to get around this is not have ambition. Since ambition inhibits goal seeking, it also prevents failure. To not have a goal, however, ought to have been considered the third tragedy in life, and most people would agree that this isn’t a viable solution; albeit a much practiced one.

As Ted Danson once said as Dr. John Becker“You see… no expectations, no disappointments.”

There was an interesting observation made by a comedian. I cannot remember who it was. The idea was that in sports, sprinting for example, the third and fourth placed finishers often finish the race fractions of a second away from first, and these are people who have spent months training intensely for this race. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis on achievement, on being the very best, when what separates the very best from his competitors in many fields in life are often fractions of a unit.

In many people’s lives, a single moment of good or bad fortune could decide whether or not they are remembered as successful, whether they consider themselves as being successful. There are professionals who work their entire lives to become recognized and valued, some do eventually, some do very early, but the vast majority don’t at all. Not because they didn’t have the talent, or they didn’t work hard enough, but because the line between failure and success was that thin.

To relate this to the Oscar Wilde quote, I would add that it’s infinitely more tragic to have ambitions that are aimed at finishing first in a race. Most people who do, necessarily fail. The first part of the quote that related achievement to failure I think is very interesting. There are many people who, after having achieved what they had worked so hard for, they find themselves without a purpose, desire, or reason to live. Many professions inherently breed this kind of mentality. The most obvious is sports. Once a professional athlete is forced to retire, they often report feelings of depression.  Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” 

Of course, many professionals feel relief after retirement. Some retired workers choose to finally go on that vacation they always wanted but never had time for, to spend more time on their hobbies, but there are many others who feel there simply is no value outside of their work, outside of what they’re so good at doing. I think to avoid the first of the tragedies Wilde expresses is to do one of two things.

Either work in a profession that has no expiry date, something that you will always be able to do for the rest of your life. Or find a hobby that will always be with you, something you can always improve in, something that is not trendy, but permanent, not social but personal, and not physical but mental.

By doing so, you cannot be doomed because you don’t have to value your life according to achievement or non-achievement in one particular field that has an expiry date, only those who have trapped themselves in this philosophy are doomed to fail no matter what. If what you do is all you have, and all you ever will have, but will inevitably end one day, then so with it will your ambition, life meaning, and self-affirmation. References: http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/life-after-sport-depression-in-retired-athletes/

Achievement

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“For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” Van Goethe

There are a very small number of people throughout history who have truly achieved great things from a global and historical perspective. What I mean by that is that there are very small number of people who have gone down in history as reformers and difference makers,  A testament to that fact is that by the end of this post, you will have probably recognized the authors of the quotes that you will see. This means that the same names have reappeared and will continue to reappear throughout your life.

This kind of timeless achievement, in my opinion, is very context based. The people who’s names are inscribed in history books, and who’s teachings and legacies are religiously celebrated and tirelessly echoed by school teachers, professors, parents, and students are remarkable and exceptional people. But the significance of the things they have done depends heavily on the historical and cultural context that they found themselves in.

What they all seem to have in common, however, was self belief. You don’t become a president of a great nation without really believing in your capacity to undertake immense responsibilities with a minimal amount of fear and doubt. In a sense, it seems rather conceited or even delusional to believe in yourself unflinchingly, and genuinely feel that you are entitled and fit to reach posts of such high rankings. It’s a little insane. I say this because it is really impossible to reasonably reach a conclusion that you are qualified to rule a country of hundreds of millions of people, and be able to make decisions that would, for better or worse, have lasting effects on their lives and on the state of the country that you are in.

This, of course, only applies to politicians, but surely, a certain level of conceit must have existed within the greatest entrepreneurs of our time like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. They must have believed that they were capable of reaching heights that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even dream of reaching. I think on some level, if you do want to achieve this level of fame and status, you need to allow your ego to inflate infinitely.

On the other hand, there are figures who are rarely talked about in mainstream media, but who have truly accomplished remarkable things in their lifetimes and have dramatically changed the lives of people around them. Social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, nurses, and doctors. It’s unfortunate that history does not remember those people with the same reverence that they do world leaders, generals, dictators, and psychopaths. But perhaps those who work towards the benefit of mankind without caring about gaining fame, money, and post mortem statues would have wanted nothing more than silent acknowledgement, and perhaps a selfless philosophy that can opposes and contradicts the wicked nature of man, and one that that can be emulated and repeated.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry Truman

Philanthropy, while the worthiest of all causes, will never be able to capture the ambitions of the majority of people. Self interested fame, wealth, and power will always be the prime motivators for human action. They always have been.

However, maybe achievement can be characterized more internally and personally. Maybe we can all become achievers, and even overachievers in our own small domains, by being dedicated, perseverant, and diligent. Or maybe, we can learn to become more delusional, and achieve greatness. Whatever we choose to do, we better do it the best way we can.

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Napoleon Hill