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 Social Media Silo Situation

The year is 2016. The place, Facebook. A 30-something man is scrolling through his newsfeed when he sees the inflammatory headline of a news article bashing the presidential candidate he supports. Angrily, the man glances up to see who posted the article, hesitates momentarily, and then “unfriends” the “friend” he has not seen since high school.

Is the man right to remove the offending presence? After all, the article was clearly biased, and discussing politics over social media never changes anyone’s mind, right?

.. The idea of social media echo chambers has garnered much attention lately. The concept of “confirmation bias” — the instinct to seek information that supports a current belief or conviction — has long been established in the world of science, and is something to be avoided whenever searching for truth. But in social media, this bias is propagated simply by reading, liking, and sharing content that acts to support those convictions we already hold, while avoiding content that challenges our beliefs. Essentially, we begin to isolate ourselves from those opposing opinions until we’re surrounded with people who agree with us.

.. “That’s a problem for Christians,” Goforth continues, “It’s like I want the simplistic kind of thing. Keep me out of the grays. But my view is, the grays are where the interesting things are, and it’s also where God can do things. When you are uncertain and when things are confusing you turn to God. So it’s an opportunity for Him to work in our lives.”

But it doesn’t stop there. In today’s age of data tracking, each like or click provides search engines and social media sites with information about the kinds of things we like and then works to provide us with more of the same, further insulating us from news or opinions we don’t want to see.

The theory is we become stuck in a feedback loop, liberated from the uncomfortable experience of confronting ideas or beliefs that oppose or challenge our own. And the theory is true, if only to an extent.

.. The researchers concluded that, “Unlike news, where there is solid evidence that people seek out ideologically consistent viewpoints, social media functions differently, perhaps driven by different motivations for use,” they wrote. “[Social media users] may come to learn that their friends don’t agree with them politically but recognize that disagreement isn’t a deal breaker, hence fostering some attenuation of dislike for people we disagree with.”

This recognition — that political views don’t have to make or break a relationship — is a great example of embracing “the grays,” that Goforth referred to. It requires inhabiting a space of tension, holding firmly to that view we profess, while also valuing the human being across from us enough to be drawn into a conversation, rather than walling ourselves off from the “opposition.”

If that mutual respect is demonstrated, social media can be used as a tool to foster community. Of course, if the subject of our ire continuously perpetuates a disregard for the value of others, perhaps engaging that individual over social media will prove fruitless, in which case the unfollow or unfriend options become reasonable.

However, in most instances, what we get out of social media is what we put in. Therefore, if used intentionally, it can prove to create opportunities to genuinely engage with others. Sending a heartfelt message, rather than a quippy reply to a challenging post, demonstrates a willingness to connect beyond a public fray. Yes, this requires more effort, but the payoff is real relationships in which God can move.

By turning away from what’s easiest and stepping into the gray areas, the unknown, where no one person has everything right, we allow God to work in our lives and mold us into the people He created us to be — people who are humble and open, and who acknowledge the inherent value of others.

Why Marx Was Wrong

On the occasion of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, the co-founder of communism has received more than a few positive reappraisals, even from Western leaders. But those arguing that Marx cannot be blamed for the atrocities that his ideas inspired should reexamine his ideas.

.. For much of the twentieth century, 40% of humanity suffered famines, gulags, censorship, and other forms of repression at the hands of self-proclaimed Marxists.
.. Marx regarded private property as the source of all evil in the emerging capitalist societies of his day. Accordingly, he believed that only by abolishing it could society’s class divisions be healed, and a harmonious future ensured.
.. Under communism, his collaborator Friedrich Engels later claimed, the state itself would become unnecessary and “wither away.” These assertions were not made as speculation, but rather as scientific claims about what the future held in store.
.. it was all rubbish, and Marx’s theory of history – dialectical materialism – has since been proved wrong and dangerous in practically every respect. The great twentieth-century philosopher Karl Popper, one of Marx’s strongest critics, rightly called him a “false prophet.” And, if more evidence were needed, the countries that embraced capitalism in the twentieth century went on to become democratic, open, and prosperous societies.
By contrast, every regime that has rejected capitalism in the name of Marxism has failed – and not by coincidence or as a result of some unfortunate doctrinal misunderstanding on the part of Marx’s followers. By abolishing private ownership and establishing state control of the economy, one not only deprives society of the entrepreneurship needed to propel it forward; one also abolishes freedom itself.
.. Because Marxism treats all contradictions in society as the products of a class struggle that will disappear when private property does, dissent after the establishment of communism is impossible.
By definition, any challenge to the new order must be an illegitimate remnant of the oppressive order that came before.
.. Marx showed almost no interest in people as they actually exist. “Marxism takes little or no account of the fact that people are born and die, that they are men and women, young or old, healthy or sick,” he writes. As such, “Evil and suffering, in his eyes, had no meaning except as instruments of liberation; they were purely social facts, not an essential part of the human condition.”
.. Xi views China’s economic development over the past few decades as “cast iron proof” of Marxism’s continued validity.
But, if anything, it is exactly the other way around.
it was the China of pure communism that produced the famine and terror of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” Mao’s decision to deprive farmers of their land and entrepreneurs of their firms had predictably disastrous results, and the Communist Party of China has since abandoned that doctrinaire approach.
Under Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, the CPC launched China’s great economic “opening-up.” After 1978, it began to restore private ownership and permit entrepreneurship, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
.. If China’s development is being held back by anything today, it is the remnants of Marxism that are still visible in inefficient state-owned enterprises and the repression of dissent.