Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be Great?

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,

  1. family,
  2. vocation,
  3. friends,
  4. community,
  5. 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 myth of ‘mad’ genius (aeon.co)

I’ve always wondered if a lot of “eccentric” people aren’t just behaving the way everybody would naturally behave if they could get away with it. I say and do a lot of things because I have to if I want to have food to eat and a place to sleep, but I’ll never know how different my behavior _might_ have been if I were rich enough or brilliant enough that people would just put up with whatever I happened to feel like doing at any given moment.

The ‘genius’ of Trump: What the president means when he touts his smarts

The genius in the White House has always believed that what makes him special is his ability to get things done without going through the steps others must take.

In school, he bragged that he’d do well without cracking a book. As a young real estate developer, his junior executives recalled, he skipped the studying and winged his way through meetings with politicians, bankers and union bosses. And as a novice politician, he scoffed at the notion that he might suffer from any lack of experience or knowledge.

.. doubled down on his belief that smashing conventions is the path to success but underscored his lifelong conviction that he wins when he’s the center of attention.

.. “To go into those campaign rallies with just a few notes and connect with people he wasn’t at all like, that takes a certain genius. His genius is he’ll say anything to connect with people. He won by telling the rally crowds that the people who didn’t like them also didn’t like him.”

.. familiar tactics: a bold, even brazen, drive to put on a show and make himself the star.

..  he tweeted that he did use “tough” language — a long-standing point of pride for the president, whose political ascent was fueled by his argument that, as a billionaire, he is liberated to say what some other Americans only think.

.. “He needed to be stroked all the time and told how smart he was,”

..  The way we got things done was to approach him with an idea and make him think it was his. It was so easy.”

.. “Donald was always a forest person; he never knew anything about the trees. He knew concrete was brought in on trucks, but he really didn’t know how to run a project. What he had was street smarts — good instincts about people.”

.. he has always encouraged people around him to view him as someone who could see things that others could not.

.. “He means, okay, he didn’t hit the brains lottery, but he’s brilliant and cunning in the way he operates. He’s amazing at taking the temperature of the room and knowing how to appease everyone. You want that kind of instinct in your quarterbacks, in your generals. It’s not what we’ve ever thought of as what makes a great president, but he’s never going to be the guy who makes great speeches. This is who he is.”

.. Being something of a genius was central to Trump’s self-image
.. Everyone around him learned to cater to that — even his father
.. In the first major newspaper profile of Trump, in the New York Times in 1976, his father, Fred Trump, describes his son as “the smartest person I know.”
.. Throughout his life, Trump has believed that his instincts and street smarts positioned him to succeed where others might struggle.
.. His father often told Trump that “you are a king,” instructing him to “be a killer.”
.. Fred Trump was a student of Dale Carnegie
.. and an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale .. who preached a gospel of positive thinking.
.. “I know in my gut,” he said in an interview last year. “I know in 30 seconds what the right move is.”
.. “He can’t collaborate with anybody because he doesn’t listen to anybody,”
.. “He doesn’t trust anybody, except his family. That’s why [his former wife] Ivana was involved in everything and why now his children are too.”
.. also believed he had something more: a genius for showmanship, a knack for surrounding himself with the trappings of success, thereby creating the perception that he was uniquely capable of big, bold action.
.. Genius and ego were both essential elements of success on a grand scale, Trump said
.. every great person, including Jesus and Mother Teresa, found the path to success via ego:
.. In Trump’s vocabulary, “genius” is perhaps the highest praise, and it refers to a street-level ability to get things done.
.. Trump often referred to his lawyer and early mentor Roy Cohn as “a total genius” or a “political genius,” even if he was also “a lousy lawyer.”
.. Trump explained in one of his books that his own true “genius” was for public relations: Rather than spending money on advertising, he said, he put his efforts toward winning news coverage of himself as a “genius.”
.. Trump has also had moments of extreme self-doubt. Biographer Harry Hurt described a period around 1990 when, as his marriage to Ivana Trump was breaking up, he occasionally spoke about suicide

 

How Actual Smart People Talk About Themselves

Hint: not by discussing IQ

.. Virtually none of them (need to) say it. There are a few prominent exceptions, of talented people who annoyingly go out of their way to announce that fact. Muhammad Ali is the charming extreme exception illustrating the rule: he said he was The Greatest, and was. Most greats don’t need to say so.* It would be like Roger Federer introducing himself with, “You know, I’m quite graceful and gifted.” Or Meryl Streep asking, “Have you seen my awards?”

.. They know what they don’t know. This to me is the most consistent marker of real intelligence. The more acute someone’s ability to perceive and assess, the more likely that person is to recognize his or her limits. These include the unevenness of any one person’s talents; the specific areas of weakness—social awkwardness, musical tin ear, being stronger with numbers than with words, or vice versa

.. To read books seriously is to be staggered by the knowledge of how many more books will remain beyond your ken. It’s like looking up at the star-filled sky.

.. the clearest mark of intelligence, even “genius,” is awareness of one’s limits and ignorance

.. On the other hand, we have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be.