Navigating the tension between work and relationships.
Soren Kierkegaard asked God to give him the power to will one thing. Amid all the distractions of life he asked for the power to live a focused life, wholeheartedly, toward a single point.
And we’ve all known geniuses and others who have practiced a secular version of this. They have found their talent and specialty. They focus monomaniacally upon it. They put in the 10,000 hours (and more) that true excellence requires.
I just read “You Must Change Your Life,” Rachel Corbett’s joint biography of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and they were certainly versions of this type.
The elder Rodin had one lesson for the young Rilke. “Travailler, toujours travailler.” Work, always work.
This is the heroic vision of the artist. He renounces earthly and domestic pleasures and throws himself into his craft. Only through total dedication can you really see deeply and produce art.
In his studio, Rodin could be feverishly obsessed, oblivious to all around him. “He abided by his own code, and no one else’s standards could measure him,” Corbett writes. “He contained within himself his own universe, which Rilke decided was more valuable than living in a world of others’ making.”
Rilke had the same solitary focus. With the bohemian revelry of turn-of-the-century Paris all around him, Rilke was alone writing in his room. He didn’t drink or dance. He celebrated love, but as a general outlook and not as something you gave to any one person or place.
Both men produced masterworks that millions have treasured. But readers finish Corbett’s book feeling that both men had misspent their lives.
They were both horrid to their wives and children. Rodin grew pathetically creepy, needy and lonely. Rilke didn’t go back home as his father was dying, nor allow his wife and child to be with him as he died. Both men lived most of their lives without intimate care.
Their lives raise the question: Do you have to be so obsessively focused to be great? The traditional masculine answer is yes. But probably the right answer is no.
In the first place, being monomaniacal may not even be good for your work. Another book on my summer reading list was “Range,” by David Epstein. It’s a powerful argument that generalists perform better than specialists.
The people who achieve excellence tend to have one foot outside their main world. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.
He shows the same pattern in domain after domain: People who specialize in one thing succeed early, but then they slide back to mediocrity as their minds rigidify.
Children who explore many instruments when they are young end up as more skilled musicians than the ones who are locked into just one. People who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.
A tech entrepreneur who is 50 is twice as likely to start a superstar company than one who is 30, because he or she has a broader range of experience. A survey of the fastest-growing tech start-ups found that the average age of the founder was 45.
For most people, creativity is precisely the ability to pursue multiple interests at once, and then bring them together in new ways. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote.
Furthermore, living a great life is more important than producing great work. A life devoted to one thing is a stunted life, while a pluralistic life is an abundant one. This is a truth feminism has brought into the culture. Women have rarely been able to live as monads. They were generally compelled to switch, hour by hour, between different domains and roles: home, work, market, the neighborhood.
A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say,
- faith —
and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.
You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.
Over the past month, while reading these books, I attended four conferences. Two were very progressive, with almost no conservatives. The other two were very conservative, with almost no progressives. Each of the worlds was so hermetically sealed I found that I couldn’t even describe one world to members of the other. It would have been like trying to describe bicycles to a fish.
I was reading about how rich the pluralistic life is, and how stifling a homogeneous life is. And I was realizing that while we’re learning to preach gospel of openness and diversity, we’re mostly not living it. In the realm of public life, many live as monads, within the small circles of one specialty, one code, no greatness.
The truth is, Sheryl Sandberg has been preoccupied with her own P.R. — and has been a master of the cold science of optics — ever since she was a teenager. One of the most revealing stories in “Lean In” is about her senior year, when she was voted Most Likely to Succeed. Believing that the title would interfere with her chances of getting a date to the biggest party of the year — “Who wants to go to the prom with the smartest girl in the class?”— she got a friend on the yearbook to remove the designation.
.. Much of the advice Sandberg gives in “Lean In” is, frankly, unapologetically strategic. And why ever not, when the obstacles to female advancement can seem as high as the moon? But controversially, much of it was also retrograde, a nod to realpolitik: Ask for a raise because women as a group tend to be underpaid, not because you personally deserve it. Note that someone more senior to you suggested that you ask for this salary negotiation in the first place. Be “relentlessly pleasant,” to borrow a phrase from Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities.
.. What makes Sandberg’s current behavior so unsavory is that she put corporate interests — and her own image — ahead of the needs of democracy. She would sooner downplay Facebook’s involvement in a national security crisis than compromise the integrity of her reputation. And in so doing, Sandberg, one of the country’s most influential and renowned feminists, may have contributed to the historic loss of the first viable female candidate for president of the United States.
Professor Janice Fiamengo from the University of Ottawa explains why she identifies as an anti-feminist. Fiamengo, a former feminist who in earlier years marched in “Take Back The Night” campaigns, has given lectures on feminist-related topics at the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, the University of Ottawa, and more, and has been featured on The Agenda with Steve Paiken as well as many videos here on Studio Brulé. Thanks to Jack Carter for bringing to my attention that the current “Yes Means Yes” laws sweeping across the continent actually first appeared at Antioch College in 1991, and were criticized for being impossible to obey. “Adopted in 1991 at the prompting of the “Womyn of Antioch,”” here are some links : https://www.thefire.org/antiochs-infa… http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jham…
Originally written and performed by Otis Redding, “Respect” became a feminist and civil rights anthem by the “Queen of Soul.” Here’s how that happened. (Sarah Hashemi, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)