The need to have someone in authority, or who is an authority on the given subject, approving everything I do and say. Raising up people to the status of the authority who don’t deserve it or want it. Basically, seeking to impress others as if they were a parental or even Godlike figure. Knowing that this puts me in a state of subservience, limits me, I then seek to rebel against that “authority” leaving them baffled. Hating anyone who asserts themselves as an authority over me without my consent. Disliking those I’ve consented to be authorities who turn out to not be the subject matter experts or leaders I’d hoped they would be.
The quest for the perfect figure of this ilk, as I’ve chosen to carry it out, has left me a pretty unfocused human being.
I find myself entering this state before I’m even aware of it.
I get that in God’s eyes we are all sinners and imperfect, and no amount of good or smart deeds will ever impress an all-loving, all-knowing deity who made us. The problem with this is that I am then left to seek out some other entity to fixate my need for validation and approval. It also means that I end up always relating to God in a negative sort of way–please forgive me Lord for the number of times I’ve sinned this day. I know that my good deeds don’t matter to you, since I am only saved by your grace, but I’m pretty sure that all the ways I’ve backslid over the past day aren’t helping me retain that grace.
The thing is, if God were not to be that entity I seek out for approval, than whom do I seek?
It’s all fine and good to get motivational speaker-y, and say that I should only seek to hold myself up to my own standards, but that never takes. It quickly becomes muddled, as my standards inevitably end up looking like God’s in the Christian sense of grace: nothing I do really matters, as I will be forgotten in two generations, anyway. At best, I might be remembered as a name attached to one or two someone is a scholar of me, they know that: I = X. Shakespeare = Hamlet, Romeo+Juliet +some other plays, Homer=Iliad,Odyssey, Einstein=relativity, E=MC^2, etc.
Of course, if I leave it to a real, flesh and blood human being, than I am always wondering if what good I’ve done is really that great.
First, perhaps, it would be instructive for me to define what makes someone great, and what doesn’t. In my mind, for example, David Foster Wallace is great, Kanye West is not. Perhaps this is a conventional mentality of a WASP from the midwest, but there are objective standards in mind when I say this. One is famous for devoting an enormous amount of time to the literary craft, and rewarding us by sharing insights and ideas from the time he’s spent thinking long and hard about human problems, and the other became a known entity through working hard at hustle. Kanye West’s craft, when eyed strictly from a musical perspective, is like a sugary mixed drink. It’s sweet and it gets you drunk, but it can leave you with a hangover if you spend too much time with it, and it is generally forgotten or combined with every other sugary mixed drink like it you’ve had. The rest of what makes Kanye West important will be completely forgotten in ten years or less. His wife and her family are simply famous for being famous, and they aren’t even a sweet mixed drink–they’re like a Sno-Ice or Cotton Candy.
But, in the pantheon of greats, I wouldn’t even say that DFW should be held up in the highest regard. His impact on the way our society thinks and acts will probably prove to be minimal. He will become another literary canon member that English majors are required to plow through during a semester. In the sense of making an impact on how we think about our world and human existence, it could easily be argued that Steve Jobs is greater than DFW. I should stress that I don’t see Steve Jobs in the same light a lot of other unquestioning people do–he didn’t invent anything. The comparisons between him and Thomas Edison are a bit naive. Thomas Edison himself was probably more of a popularizer of technology, but he did spend copious amounts of time in a lab tinkering, where Jobs was more of an artist and storyteller who painted and wrote with other people’s inventions. That said, though, I think that without Steve Jobs, we would all likely still be sitting at some type of command line interface or a green, eighties kind of financial institution GUI. He didn’t invent the mouse and window metaphor, but the technology would have probably sat on a shelf at Xerox for decades without anyone seeing the need to bring it to the market. This is because Bill Gates and anyone else selling software and computers were more interested in doing whatever it took to make the most money, rather than attempt to unleash the full potential of what you could do with a computer.
So, Steve Jobs, because he was a forceful personality with his own vision of what a computer could be, and because he happened to have gotten into the business at the right time, he was able to completely change our perceptions of what computers are capable of, at least twice significantly–once with the Mac and the desktop GUI, and once with the smartphone. These technologies existed before him, and would have been rolled out eventually, albeit much more slowly, but he was able to accelerate it by virtue of what personal faculties he commanded.
But, I would hardly state that Steve Jobs was the greatest man to live in the 20th century. Was he greater than Einstein? Jackson Pollack? FDR? Churchill? Bill Clinton? John Lennon?
All of these individuals had singular visions that ran counter to what everyone around them told them they and what they were doing were capable of. But, all of them also were fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. An Einstein today is probably buried under thousands of papers being published each year in physics research. At least one paper out there, which has largely gone unread by but a few, is one day going to be the next game-changer, the next Theory of Relativity. The market is flooded with artists doing extremely creative things that make Pollack’s drip paintings seem pretty quaint. In the noise of such a market, how do you evaluate which one is truly great? The same could be said for a John Lennon–in order for someone to rise to that stature in music, you would have ot invent a completely new musical genre, which thousands of people with cheap digital software are trying to do all the time. You’d have to invent it, and move through a series of pioneers, before you reached the stage where the market was ready for a Beatles to popularize it and own it. Of course, the Beatles understood that rock n’ roll was huge when in America it had kind of died down after its burst of popularity in the fifties. The Beatles could have decided that folk music or jazz music would be a more sensible musical vein to mine, and probably would have never left Liverpool. The same with Steve Jobs. He understood that computers would be huge when most people didn’t. Computers weren’t even widely accepted by the average joe until the Internet became a word known in every household. Steve Jobs introducing NeXT machines in 1990 went unheard by most people. So, Jobs actually spent a good half of his career in a state where he was a known entity in the world of computing, but probably not yet “Great” great.
Which brings me back to DFW and Kanye. One had a singular vision in the books he wrote, but they will never gain wide acceptance outside of the literary world. The other has a certain style you can recognize in his music, and a style in his personality, but this doesn’t completely translate to a singular vision that will ever change the way people think about their world and how they interface with it. DFW will be remembered for decades by English majors, and be anthologized and continually read alongside Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Kanye West will likely claim a very small sentence in a musical history written one hundred years from now, and his music will be to kids fifty years from now what Glenn Miller’s music is to kids of today.
This should be clear enough to articulate the difference between the two.
Perhaps we can also extract some salient features of greatness:
1. A singular vision of how the world can be different
2. A wilingness to hustle and promote
3. A dedication to your craft or cause that doesn’t flinch in the eye of opposition. This isn’t the same as #2. You can be a two-bit hustler at just about anything, and have zero craft or cause that you stand by. Look at all the social media evangelists out there. They have plenty of hustle, but what is their craft? Their social media presence? Their personal brand? There are, of course, so many hours in the day. If you do too much of #3, you end up being a Wozniak. If you do too much of #2, then you end up being the long-forgotten computer salesmen of the 90s. Who started Gateway? Compaq? Jobs was able to find the right balance of both. He was also willing to see the computer within a context that reached into people’s lives beyond simply providing an easy way to create documents, spreadsheets and databases.
4. Moments in time and the market that are receptive to your vision – a man with a singular vision of time travel technology will die unGreat unless the technology is invented and a nascent consumer market is created for it. Steve Jobs starting Apple in 1970 would have probably ended up having at best another Texas Instruments kind of play. Steve Jobs starting a robotics company in 1980 would have seen his company end up selling worthless toys or giant manufacturing robots.
5. Your own unique style, or unique selling proposition
Probably the least important to achieving true greatness, but the most important to the moment your vision hits the eyes and ears of the market. There were plenty of men and a few women in the eighties with singular visions of how the power of personal computing could change people’s lives, but only maybe Bill Gates became as great as Jobs.
So, where do you start? Do you identify the rising technologies that are entering the market, and attempt to build your vision and craft around them, or do you build your vision and craft, and hope that fate meets you out in the market? You will likely need to do the former if you want to be Steve Jobs, and the latter if you want to be Albert Einstein. In all likelihood, you can make some kind of decent living, even if you never become great, if you do #1. And, you will in all likelihood never make a dime or be known by anyone if you do #2. But, #1 is for people who would sell their souls in a heartbeat for worldly validation, as well as the rest of us who gawk on the sidelines of what great people do and admire their Ted talks and blogs and such. #2 is the lesser-taken path for people who would die a million obscure deaths before they sold their souls.
So, you’ve chosen not to let the market dictate your vision and your craft. That’s great. Then, what do you look for to choose your vision and craft? Sit and meditate and pray for years until a light comes on? Set out with a pencil and graph paper until something materializes? Or, you could simply think about a problem that you and you alone face, and try to invent a way to solve it.
So, what problem do I face?
I face the problem of having a mind that often doesn’t seem to be in my control. My memory is terrible, except for being able to recall terrible things I’d rather forget. I can’t keep things neat and organized like in a spreadsheet or database. I continually have thought patterns spin out of control until I’m ready to just shut down completely. Most days, I feel like a complete fraud, faking it as a “tech person” or “data person” as the role I seem to fall into at work, when I really should be doing nothing more than churning out bad copy for equally bad companies’ advertising.
How do I change this?
Well, first, I am re-reading this and I realize I don’t have anything related to Creativity, and “Great Ideas” in here. I’ve sadly watched my ability to churn out whizz-bang ideas that cause friends in bars to go ooh and ahh–I’ve watched this greatly diminish over time. But, I don’t think “Great Ideas” is necessarily a key component to any sort of true greatness we celebrate. Your singular vision almost certainly comes loaded with a seed that was a Great Idea, but it’s the whole 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration kind of thing. It’s expressed above in the notion that the Beatles didn’t invent rock n’ roll and Steve Jobs didn’t invent the mouse-desktop metaphor interface.
Look at Elon Musk. Accepting payments online was not his idea. Nor were electric cars or commercial space travel. These ideas were there as soon as “online” and “electricity+car” and “spaceships that safely carry humans into space” existed. Any ten-year-old who was aware of these things when they arrived into his consciousness could have thought of them. So, Big Ideas and Creativity are probably just elements that should be taken as givens–if you don’t have them and you want to be great, you are pretty regularly going out and reading about people who do have them. But, your singular vision of how to take one or two of them and bring them to the market–that’s the key differentiator.
But, this is the great challenge. I’ve been surfing the web for years, looking for a next big idea. Sometimes I’m amazed at the things the herd discovers that I’d already met and dismissed years before. Other times I’m shocked at how the herd discovers something I’ve completely overlooked, and it’s already a cresting trend by the time I learn about it. Part of the problem, is that I haven’t ever disciplined myself to look for ideas in a focused, dedicated fashion. I don’t take notes about what I saw, and I don’t reflect on it enough to think about how I could use it later.