A few years back, I was getting complacent. I was a successful entrepreneur, in the top 1% for my age. Whenever I compared myself to people similar to me, it wasn't even close. I worked more, accomplished more, produced more, did more meaningful things, was traveling the world. I read more books, did more writing, was generally healthier and more disciplined, spent my time well. I was the top 1% for my age, and even better than that if you measured me against people from similar backgrounds.
I think it's easy for people who are doing great to get complacent. You look at the general sloth and laziness and complacency of most people, you see that you're achieving greatly, and you feel like you're so far above that. You give yourself a pat on the back. "Ah, yes, I'm doing great!"
I had a shift. I don't remember the exact day, but one day I thought to myself -
"I'm not going to compare myself against people my age any more. I'm going to start comparing myself to the greatest men of all time."
Instantly, I'd gone from top 1% of my peer group (people near my age, self-made, alive today), to the bottom 1% of the greatest people of all time. I started looking at Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Tokugawa, Meiji, Augustus, Trajan, Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Wellington, Rockefeller, Rothschild, Medici, Zhuge, Sejong, Salah, Shah Jahan, and so on.
Suddenly I was not doing excellent; in fact, I was behind schedule. In fact, I realized entirely that the path I was on did not lead to where I was capable of going.
Similar to what I wrote in "Give Me Strife and Suffering (but in manageable doses)," this is something I do not recommend. It's neurosis-inducing. It's brutal. Mentally taking yourself off the top of a comfortable mountain and putting yourself at the bottom of a larger, more brutal, more intense mountain does not make for contentment, nor happiness.
People like to be better than those around them and better than their peers. I was, I really was. I was traveling the world and working on hard problems while most people my age were out drinking beer at parties with other kids. I was playing on a level far above my peers - but what was the difference in how much I built? Going from being top 1% to top .9% - is this working breaking your back and straining for? Is it inspiring, going to be even better than the lazy, complacent children I was comparing myself to? Most young people these days have no real dreams, no strong ethics, no strength. They stand for nothing, they want nothing, they do nothing. Just by trying, even a little bit, you wind up better than most of them.
And it's easy to stop there, have a nice life, be very well off. Not me. You see, I have friends, colleagues, acquaintances who are amazing people, who I am honored to serve and associate with. But I don't have any peers. I don't know anyone who wishes to build as much as I do, who want to do as much as I do, who want to serve as much as I do, who want to be strong as I aspire to become.
I'm calm in this right now. It's not defiance, it's not a mighty roar. If anything, it is more like a shrug of the shoulders. Yes, I will become excellent. Because, why not become excellent?
But it wasn't that way at first. The way we mentally evaluate ourselves, our identity - it has such a huge impact on how we think, how we feel, and what we do. Taking myself mentally out of the top 1% and dropping myself into the bottom 1% - do you know how sickening that feels? Maybe you can imagine it intellectually, maybe, but I doubt I could show you what the emotions feel like. One day, I am feeling good, comfortable, happy, I am achieving and I am proud of my achievements, I am doing better than anyone would have thought possible for me, and doing well by anyone's standards. The next day, I am feeling neurotic, uncomfortable, unhappy, pressed for time, having achieved nothing of what I need to do yet.
I am on the bottom of the ladder - no, worse than that, I am on the top of the wrong ladder. I need to climb down, dismantling my old way of doing things. Giving up and forsaking the easy paths, scaling down my comfort, breaking the trivial desires in myself, giving myself over to greater causes, suffering. I had a small very successful thing going, and I dismantled it, and had nothing. And I will not lie, I will not tell you that I was always confident, that I felt strong all the time. Oh, no, many times I was second guessing myself, feeling stupid about my decisions. Things were dissolving, and the way forwards was not clear. I knew that where I came from wasn't the way forwards, but what now? I was lost.
I stood still in 2009, I rested and studied. In 1000 years, one year will not seem like a long time. If you hear that a great man was doing well in the from 1600 to 1620, had a bleak year 1621, and pulled through in 1622, you barely notice it while reading the history books. But, y'know, it's different when you're living through that year. A lot of times I wondered if I'd made a mistake, and what the hell was I doing?
Things happen slowly at first, then more quickly. I'm seeing things start to move quickly, things are falling into place. I have hit some of a stride, the next steps are starting to become clear. This is good. I would be lying to you if I said I believed in myself all the time. I still doubt, sometimes, but less often each passing day.
More and more, I immerse myself in what I'm going to do. I write specs and outlines for my books, I write articles daily, I am starting to contribute to magazines and other people's sites. I walk through dangerous areas at high awareness, observing crime and criminals, and thinking about how to protect the weak from them. I walk through the slums of Saigon, through the dangerous parts of Barcelona at night. I observe. I learn how to protect people. I draw up specs and plans for improving security. I'll have to get better at presenting, but I think I can recruit civilians to work undercover and make themselves look like easy targets for street criminals, draw them out and then crush the criminals. How could we completely dismantle street crime? Perhaps I could recruit some small girls who are martial artists to look unaware, but then have a team in place to spring if a bag snatcher or pickpocket or mugger comes. What we have to do to build that? Some insurance, perhaps, against injury. Would we need to get deputized by a city? How we would keep our team safe, this is dangerous work... I work on this.
I dig through history books and strategy, I read the classics, I study the great men. I listen to audiobooks and learning while doing other things. I classify and reclassify things. I work out and try to combine different branches of social science. There's so much information available for free! How could anyone not dive into it? Neurochemistry is fascinating, maybe I could do some work in that. I study the systems of the body, I want to perfect my own. How to improve the lymph system? Digestion? Energy levels? What are the tolerance building effects of caffeine, at what rate is new adenosine produced when you have more coffee? How long do those levels take to return to normal when you stop?
I study social sciences, economics, governance. I am a strategist. I am trying to turn off emotions and sentiment and be rational when I study strategy. Yes, this particular policy is appalling to me as someone who believes in freedom, but it does help achieve XYZ goal. I must be neutral, study even successful people I don't like. My mind should not become an echo chamber.
I must train as a warrior, become better with my fists, improvised weapons, firearms. I should become a pilot, and learn how to sail and captain a ship.
I presented yesterday to the Director of Marketing for a prestigious local company with my new technology and engineering company. He was skeptical and unimpressed, I couldn't break through, and we were cut short after 15 minutes by someone more important arriving. Not good enough, Sebastian! I need to get better at communicating, showing the ideas I have in my head to people in a way that makes it meaningful to them.
I need to understand the nature of faith and religion. I have some faith, and no religion. I like religious people a lot. I need to read all the Holy Books, study the history of all the religions, and connect more with people from various faiths.
What will be the next trends in art, and how can I support them? How can we make the visual and sensory world into one that inspires people, pulls them to great heights? I think about what statues I will commission later, what artists I will patronize, what art I'll attempt to make myself.
I study charity and philanthropy. How can it be made to work? I draw and re-draw specs for a charity I might build. I publicly commit to giving a percent of my income to charity. Why not? I am strong, it would be trivially easy for me to spend some of my time helping the weak. Originally, I was not going to do so. Then, I decided I would, because why not do so? The aggressively mediocre, though, I am no friend to them.
How can I serve the strong and virtuous? Service is the way. What do great people require? How can I provide this? How can I stimulate great thinkers who have minor blocks to write more, to build more, to produce more? If I could inspire 1 out of 100 people I meet to produce at higher levels, then there will be a cascading effect through all of humanity. Everyone will be pulled up.
I have much to do. Who am I? No one in particular. But I'm working on things that matter. No losing sight, no getting comfortable nor complacent. Successful for my age? Bah! To hell with that. I keep the counsel of General Washington, President Jefferson, Shoguns Ieyasu and Yoshimune, Emperors Meiji and Augustus. My tutor in combat is Miyamoto Musashi, in economics it is Adam Smith, in strategy it is Carl von Clauswitz.
Would someone who reads this call me arrogant? Perhaps, but they are mistaken if so. There is no arrogance. I know who I am, what I am. Greatness is not something you are, it's something you do, it's something you work towards. I, me, the entity, the human, the flesh and blood, the chemicals and electricity - this is nothing of particular significance. But I'm unified, mind and body, to work on hard and difficult and great problems, to serve, to do more, to be more, to become strong and stronger, to inspire, to aid, to protect, to build, to write, to learn, to establish.
It is hard to say this publicly. I have drawn a line in the sand; if I fail, it will be known. The people who want all to be mediocre will perhaps hate me, would love to show me as an example of over-reaching and the danger of that, would love to use me as a story of why you shouldn't aim too high. I brace myself. I breathe. No defiance. Calmness, acceptance. No arrogance. I am not a great man, I simply aspire to work on great problems and great things. I'm no one in particular.
Is it too early to put myself at the bottom of the company of great men? Well, who is anyone to say but me? Someone will emerge from this era as the greatest strategist; I will work towards it, because it is a worthy goal. I will serve, build, inspire, connect, defend, protect, establish, write, experiment, teach, help. Or perhaps I will not, but I will try to. Over the next years, perhaps I can put hand over hand, slowly ascending, not as myself individually, but as the conduit for the works I do. There are problems and opportunities all over the place, the world could be much different than it is. Most people either do not see these at all, or see them and accept it as the way things are. Not me. I build. I try. Counsel me, ancients, share your strength and wisdom with me, so that I might become stronger. I will do my part of the bargain. We will see how the rest shakes out.
Again, I should say - I do not recommend this path to you. I do not recommend it to anyone. But if you take up this road, you are welcome to call on me as your counsel and strategist from time to time. I serve the strong and virtuous. I turn my focus to things that matter.
Thank you for joining me today while I shared these thoughts.
Sebastian, this is amazing. Truly. I am on the path, though you have brought some clarity and insight to what I have been feeling, but haven't expressed well. Thank you for the inspiration, and I may take you up on the offer to counsel.
> Indeed. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how new the internet is – a lot of people, societies, and industries haven’t adapted to it in their workflow yet.
It is. And yet it has already been so significant for humanity. This is an exciting time to be alive. If you have the time, this is an interesting talk you might enjoy on what is being called "cognitive surplus," which is on how much of an impact being so connected can have on us all. (~13 min)
> Have you read this one by Paul Graham? – http://www.paulgraham.com/top.html
Actually, yes. I've been reading his essays for quite a few years now. Even so, its still fun to go back and re-read his words every now and then.
> Great comment, great perspective. Cheers for another good comment, I hope we can have more such good discussions going forwards
Thanks :) I've only recently come across your site, but after reading just a few posts, it's quickly become one I frequently visit.
> Great quote.
Agreed, one of my favorites from Bruce Lee.
> I think this is true, but with a caveat...
Thanks for the responds, it was very insightful. Historically yes, there is a lot of rigidness when it comes to multiple disciplines. Though I believe the internet is allowing us to smooth it out by providing more hardcore information to the average, interested reader.
Its kind of like when you're out on a walk, or even in the shower, just letting your mind wonder. Your mind makes connections more easily. Casual readers seem to have the same effect. They can make connections just out of reach of the focused publisher.
Although that may not be enough to cross-reference other more complex ideas. These are the ideas like the theory of QED and some obscure theorem within the computational complexity zoo. It only takes one person, however, with a passion for both of these to make a connection. In other words, all it takes is for a group of people to have immense passion in at most two disciplines in order to create new information, as well as smooth it all out. This is because deductive inferencing is a transitive relation. Having it this way would just take longer for results.
Don't get me wrong. Its very inspiring to see people out there with real discipline still aiming to achieve greatness this way (and even more incredible to have the experience publicized). But for those overwhelmed by the idea, I believe greatness can also be achieved through hard work on a more focused route.
Comparing yourself to the great is one thing, trying to compare yourself to them all will just drive you crazy.
Even the 'Renaissance Man' had lots of things he didn't do and wasn't any good at - housework for instance.
You are not alone.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
With the amount of knowledge available today, focus seems more important than it has in the past. The top 1% has less ability for knowledge production over time, since there has been so much already discovered.
An illustration (replace ):
(Think PhD redefined as one who is great.)
Question from a reader -
Hi! Interested to hear your thoughts about this: where do you draw the line between impossible and huge-effort-possible goals?
First, I'll be honest. I don't have a perfect neat answer for this that's epiphany generating... I'm going to try to work through it on paper, and I appreciate feedback from everyone in the comments if you have related ideas.
Let's get started. First and foremost, I can't say this enough - study history! If you don't study history, you don't know what's possible. Period. You need to study history if you want to know what's possible.
Here's some good people to brush up on. Now, most people's reaction is, "I couldn't do that! He did so much!" But trace their steps, these men often came from humble origins and suffered much. Don't say "Wow." Ask, "How?" How did they do it?
All through your teenage years you feel so very grown up. I remember all the anger and rage and frustration with the world I had during those years. Then I turned 18, started attending college, setting on into the next phase in life. The anger drifted away gradually and I found a whole new set of problems. Any friends I had who weren't 18 yet began to joke about how old I was, it felt like I had stepped over some invisible line that instantly made me "old." In hindsight, I was so very silly during the ages of 18-21. I wanted to be more than I was and didn't know how to find my place because I didn't know exactly what I wanted. My friends in college didn't have jobs and were riding on scholarships or parents paying for everything; they'd only talk about homework and college activities etc. I tried to go this route and couldn't grasp how to study since I had never really learned proper studying techniques in high school, and so I did the best I could.
I was told to get a job and felt indignant about it because my friends didn't have to be working while they were in college, but I got a job anyway. After that it became a battle of finding time for myself, finding time for work, finding time for homework and trying to get myself to class on time. It's a tough thing to learn how to do. I didn't figure it out until my final year of college, at which point I finally felt achieved and was sad to be graduating. College had, at long last, become fun and rewarding.
When I turned 21 I moved out of home. My dear friend had a place and she let me live there. I got my rent paid, went to class, and was fairly irresponsible as I tried to be the person I dreamed 21 year olds are. I had never really fit in anywhere, I was determined to fit in with this age group.
Every year since my 21st I have felt even older and older and farther and farther from my life goals. I want to find a partner, have a small cottage, have a child and work on my art. I graduated college at 24, lost my boyfriend, miscarried, and lost my apartment. Over the past year and a half I've been trying to climb back up but I took so many pit falls and wrong turns trying to find something to make me feel as together as I felt when I was on a path to my life goals.
In an effort to get myself together after I hit rock bottom, I made my initial decision to move to Portland. I had been talking about it for some time before I made the ultimate decision to do it. When I had first decided to move I found myself a boyfriend and put all of my plans on hold. When that plummeted into a burning hellfire and extreme debt issues I felt like there was no time other than the present to get on that move.