A few days ago, I wrote an open letter to a good friend of mine - "I Think Greatness is Something You Are, Not Something You Do" - I said to him, I'm not a great man, just a normal man working on great things. Greatness is something you do, not something you are.
To give you some background, my friend Brendon is just one of the most amazingly good people in the world. He takes care of everyone around him, his mind, body, and spirit are sharp. He's a black belt, an excellent programmer, a philosopher, a Shodan in Go (actually, even stronger than that - he's a Shodan under the Asian rankings, so probably even higher in America), a hard worker, extremely loyal, a clear and free thinker, widely read and knowledgeable, and again - an amazingly good guy. I've learned a lot from him (notably, he taught me how to play Go, sysadmin Linux, understand basketball at a very high level, improve at martial arts, improve my fitness, and other good stuff - we'd usually go drink green tea and play Go at Samurai Restaurant in Boston, go fight in the park, talk philosophy out at nightclubs, do stuff like that).
He wrote back to me about greatness and humility. I think this is a really beautiful piece, so I asked him if I could gently edit it and put it up. He graciously agreed. It's long, but go ahead and just start it and give it whatever time you have - there's a lot of amazing insight in here.
A Quick Favor Request - if you learn from this or it helps you, please send Brendon a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org - he was actually a little gun-shy about having such a personal piece put up with such raw power in it. He only agreed when I told him how many people it could help - so please, drop him a short line to say thanks if this teaches you as much as it did me.
Without further ado...
Greatness and Great Humility
Don't forget great humility.
Not the sniveling fish for comments type.
Not the aloof, ungrateful for appreciation and support type.
Not the proud, unable to accept a compliment as a gift type.
But the type that transcends words, because it cannot be said. Because there's no reason to say it. Because there is only one reason to hold true humility; only "nobody" is free to do "anything."
I defend my humility violently, rejecting immediately most praise I receive. That entire beautiful post you wrote, I can't stop the voice that counters, he is not describing you. He is describing the archetype of you in his mind, that only exists in the faintest inkling of your potential. What a blessing that you are able to hold such a high position in the life of such an awesome person. That is an excellent accomplishment to be proud of. What a gift to be able to give, to have the ability to call that figure to the mind of another person. I will strive to continue to make you feel that way, because I know it will strengthen you, deepen our trust, and bring about a better world.
But I don't believe it.
"I" have never done anything for me, the consciousness alive in this moment. You say I'm smart? Yes, the evidence I see implies that I am better able to perceive and categorize reality than 99.99% of humans. I do agree with that. But what does that belief buy me? To say "I am smart" implies that I identify with having mostly correct and good ideas. I have ideas that I believe. Maybe they are correct. If not, that will become apparent and I will change them. I will share my beliefs, and the reasons I believe them, and act on them, strongly or weakly to the best of my ability. I will strive to identify and discard false beliefs, and to continue to test and strengthen true ones. That is enough.
You say people like me? To be a compliment, that implies one of my goals is to be liked. It is very much not, and I have had to fight to make it so. Any feeling you may have that "noone dislikes me" is a scar of a long insecurity, of caution in insulting, offending, or otherwise upsetting people. It is a value I have chosen to move away from.
To accept myself as wise, talented, or able in any way can ONLY serve to make me defend that, which can ONLY hide the ways that I am not. I share this philosophically, in normal conversation I never would, and think the expression in anything but plain honesty is ugly... but truly I feel it, and would rather it stayed that way, with only me feeling it. I share it philosophically because you seem to appreciate my thoughts, and because writing helps me clarify my thoughts, and because I love wisdom and sharing wisdom and exposing my wisdom to as much light and scrutiny as possible. But truly, I could care less if you believe it, and would rather you don't, because wanting to APPEAR humble can only distract me from the actual task of BEING humble, seeing myself as I am, and striving to improve.
So, if you really want to compliment me, please, don't call me smart or wise or strong or talented or successful. I do appreciate your support and the gift of your words, but I cannot fully accept them, ever.
There are a few words I do accept though. I'm not sure actually why they are different. But they are. Humble, meant in this sense, is a virtue I strive to hold, and see as a key to my success and happiness. Curiosity. Honesty/Integrity. Kiai. And, a new one, that in many ways is a gift from you... greatness. One I have always held, but maybe not nurtured or defended as violently as I should. The courage to ignore limitations and strive unafraid towards the outer reaches of what is possible. That's a good one.
I think what I like about these words is that they are a constant choice, rather than a goal. People look at a strong man and say, wow, how did he become so strong? That I could be so strong... to some degree, strong falls in both categories. Here I mean "powerful", "influential". Words are such flimsy things. But you understand. If I say, "I am powerful," I must now defend my power. When power is not my aim, and when weakness is actually the path to victory, I will fail, because "I" am powerful.
The last thing I have to say, Sebastian, is no, you are not alone. My greatness will be different than yours, as will most. I detect a scent of frustration, of wishing me to break free. I do understand that I am in this piece more of a literary device, a subject to an excellent piece of writing inspired but not directed at me.
But make no mistake. I may make the playfully Japanese statement that my success is but a salute to your greatness. The language plays with the Japanese self abasement, which I enjoy, and the sentiment is true. But don't take that to mean that I see you as a mystical "great man", above what I myself can achieve.
To the contrary, in saluting your greatness, I salute all greatness. I cannot truly appreciate your glory without nurturing in myself the love of the same heights, and the courage it takes to reach them.
I may not be reaching out to the world at the moment, in the same way that you are. It is true. I have considered this, especially having someone I admire as much as yourself as an exemplar out building, creating tangible value for others, and actively working every day to achieve goals I consider admirable. But I don't think it's important to my goals right now. I dunno, maybe I'm wrong. I'm always open to thoughts on ways I can improve my life, and I hope I've convinced you that I'm usually willing to test my beliefs. But when I look at my life over the last weeks, even months and years, I honestly feel pretty good about my trajectory. Plenty of room for improvement, but very few major goals I don't feel like I'm working towards more and more each day.
I will take your post one step further. Greatness is not something that you are. Greatness is not something you do. Greatness is something you are doing. Greatness is the state of striving for the most that is possible, because it is the best thing a man can do with his life. You do not "become" great when you achieve or do a thing. Rather, I believe it is your greatness that causes you to achieve and do a thing. I realize this is a bit full circle from your original statement, but I don't think I am disagreeing. But "great" is not like "smart," a passive ability that lies dormant or can be invoked to accomplish a goal. Rather, "great" is like "honest." A choice, one that seems like a bad idea on the surface, but is in fact one of the highest goods that is.
You are not alone my friend. You face your battles alone, but the war is being fought all around us. Consciousness is striving everywhere to break free of the rules that bind it. It is not important what you do or achieve. But that you do and achieve them is critical. That everything you do, you do with the entire weight of your consciousness behind it, that we might escape entropy and create timeless beauty, a singularity of order in an empty void... the intention is enough. Your accomplishments are merely the expression of this spirit, but the spirit itself is what propels us forward.
Your battle is yours. Mine is mine. But greatness draws greatness forward, and your outward, visible example will draw much to you. I face my days these days with more power and certainty and intention than I have ever known before. I have your words and example to thank for much of that. But it is not the source. The source is what drove me to find you in the first place, and to become the kind of man you would admire and benefit from. The source is what drives me to write these ideas to you that I feel to be true, despite the fact that I have never thought them or heard them before. And eventually, it will drive me to share them with the further world, and every passing day draws me closer to those ideas that I want to share.
But today, I turn my attention to the fundamentals. I will exert my will over my body. I will communicate my spirit and intentions through my actions. I will achieve what I desire to with my career, do it excellently and with great enjoyment.
And that is my greatness. Why? Because it is what I desire to be doing more than anything else. No further greatness exists.
That day that I may turn my greatness on the world, to create great works of truth and beauty and power... yes, that will be a good day for greatness everywhere, and I understand your longing for it, because I too long for it, am drawn to it like a moth to a flame, draw from it and feed on it and serve it.
Perhaps I do not speak of how I want to be one of the greatest strategists of our age. Perhaps I should. That is a branding and marketing and communication consideration. As I read that, I don't think you actually care that you are recognized in history books. Rather, I see that as a statement of your abandonment of caution and limitations with regard to your potential. (Maybe this is me projecting... maybe it is important to you that you end in a history book. Maybe you should! It would certainly result in leading many men to greatness!) As it is, I don't think it will serve me well with most of my relationships to project an overwhelming "aura of greatness". I have, for all basic intents, solved the money problem. I can persist in this state, which lets me focus on my top priorities, and that is a good thing worthy of protection. An aura of personal greatness, outside of excellence in my work, is not a positive attribute of an "employee". If I told my boss that I intended to be the greatest philosopher and spiritualist of our generation, to found a spiritual practice dedicated to the art of perfecting humanhood... well, there's a 50% chance he would think that was awesome, and a 50% chance he would think I was nuts. If he thinks it's awesome, it doesn't really help my goals. If he thinks it's nuts, well...
Anyway, this is all the more reason why my connection to the great men in my life is so important and valued, and why I pour so much energy into preserving these relationships. Because, to a large degree, I am an iceberg underwater. But to a few, I get to express and communicate the entire enormity of what I feel, and see it reflected and magnified back to me. It's more important than air.
And you are not the only one gripped with terror at the enormity of it. Heh. I get nervous sending my thoughts to you, and I'm pretty convinced you don't have a shred of self righteous condescension or insecure breaking down of another person left in you. I can't even imagine the battle that publishing my first book is going to be.
But I have still yet to spring to life before my alarm, to get out of bed and start my day voluntarily. My ability to exert my will over my body, and more, to convince my body and mind to cooperate with my conscious desires, still battles this battle. Is that a less noble battle than to become the greatest philosopher of our age? What is winning? Rule an empire, fist full of rice. Rule a life, fist full of ashes. Though you may master your every whim, accomplish your every goal, still all you can hope is to hold a place of honor on your children's mantle. That and the battle. To fight the battle in front of you, with every second you have.
Anything's possible. Namaste. My humble efforts at success are but a salute to the greatness of House Marshall. Your friend, Brendon
Again, I thought this was magnificent and I'm so honored to have such a friend. If you learned from this, definitely drop Brendon a quick email to email@example.com - maybe you guys can connect on playing Go, martial arts, fitness, basketball, politics, philosophy, economics, or something like that - he's truly a magnificent guy, and the more people that encourage him to write and publish more stuff, the better! Thanks Bren, and thank you to all my readers for spending some time with us.
So amazingly beautiful.. I'm incredibly inspired by your posts. It's encouraging to know that people such as your friend Brendon and you still exist. I may have become too much of a cynic. I'm going to see if by attending Less Wrong meetup groups, I can find praiseworthy people to associate with.
I'm really lucky to have the friends I have. (Well, luck doesn't exist, but I'm very... blessed/fortunate/something...)
My friend Brendon and I correspond pretty regularly, keep each other on track with goals/projects, share ideas, share science papers/books. He taught me how to play Go and how to sysadmin a Linux box, and we've had lots of great chats about business, philosophy, martial arts, combat, science, learning, winning, lots of stuff. I told him my book is almost done and though isn't imperfect in some ways, it's close enough, I'm going to finish it up, and that'll free me to work on my next book, on art, on business and entrepreneurship, etc. I could re-write this sucker 3 or 4 times over the next 10 years and it'd get better each time, or I could write a book or two per year and each book I'd improve in skill. I'm going the latter route.
Still, I'm nervous and uneasy over this to some extent, actually to a very large extent, and I'm not too shy to say that. Bren wrote this to me in an email:
Incredibly exciting. Given your commitment to keep writing, I think pushing it out is a great move. The victory of achieving that will be tremendously inspiring, and you can start to get your ideas in front of people to see how they react with no further delay. Enjoy the push across the finish line. You're a great man with a great mind full of great ideas. You will do great good, which will be greatly rewarded, as greatness is all too rare a gift in this world. You will achieve great scorn, which will be promptly forgotten, as there are far too many things for a Hater to Hate in this world.
First, man, I'm so fortunate to have such great friends. Thanks, man. Intellectually I understand most of what you write, but doing it in the real world is something else entirely. Thank you for the encouragement, you couldn't possibly know how valuable it is to me and how even a few words like that help make me stronger and keep me going
It seems we can’t go a day without seeing or hearing what surprising thing Pope Francis has done. We can’t get enough of his smile—he smiles with his eyes, doesn’t he? Maybe it’s because he pays his own way, and doesn’t wear fancy shoes that we find him so charming. Maybe it’s because he sneaks out in disguise in the middle of the night to feed the poor. Is it, instead, that in him we see an example of Humility missing in a culture that made “selfie” the word of the year?
No matter our political beliefs, religions, or lack thereof, we often hear about “VALUES.” Defending our values, standing up for our values, protecting our values are all phrases that get ramped up in election years. But who can really aptly define Values? They tend to be relative to our situation in life, much like the value of the stock market, different from one day to the next.
Perhaps what we see in people like Pope Francis are examples of Virtues— ideas of moral excellence put into practice. Honesty, Integrity, Tolerance, Justice, Peace, Courage, Humility, Compassion, Generosity, the list continues, are all fixed, apolitical, non-denominational principles that strengthen the Side of the Good.
Thinkers from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to Thoreau and beyond have recycled the importance of Virtue as a step in the direction of greatness. But to be on the side of the Good, we don’t have to achieve perfection, nor greatness. Instead, maybe we look within and find which of these Virtues is lacking in our own lives? Which are most important for our children to learn? Maybe we need a bit of Francis’ Humility? Perhaps we need Courage. I always need that. Maybe our children need to work on Integrity, Tolerance, or Grit?
It’s certainly not easy, and we won’t be perfect. But we can find a comfortable balance that strengthens the Good. And as we take these steps in growing the Good, in growing our hearts, maybe we, too, will find ourselves smiling with our eyes.