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.

Choosing Curiosity Over Fear With Elizabeth Gilbert

And all of that is a very strange way to see creativity and, I would say, a very new way. And by “new,” I mean post-Enlightenment, the last couple hundred years, and very Western — and, I would also say, very macho, in a way, very male, [laughs] because it comes with this grandiosity that’s on the individual, and this pressure to be great and to be a genius. And it’s strange.

One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.”

.. this refrain that’s everywhere out there in our culture — to “follow your passion, follow your passion” — and that that, also, becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded, because they’re not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it’s their passion, can they really measure the value they’re creating?

And I love the language of “curiosity” you use, and I’d love for you to talk some more about that. One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.” [laughs]

MS. GILBERT: [laughs] Oh, I love curiosity — our friend. I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes, not so available. And so, when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting, or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life. Just follow your passion,” [laughs] I do think that they have harmed you, because it just makes people feel more excluded and more exiled and, sometimes, like a failure.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, exactly.

MS. GILBERT: And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word, “passion,” has this sort of sexual connotation that you’re — I’m much more interested in intimacy [laughs] and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly, and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you. And it may not set your head on fire; it may not change your life; it may not change the world; it may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign, and your curiosities, sometimes, are so mild and so strange [laughs] and so, almost, nothing — it’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop, waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.

MS. TIPPETT: You said curiosity “gives you clues.” [laughs]

MS. GILBERT: It’s clues and…

MS. TIPPETT: Doesn’t necessarily give you a destination at all, right?

MS. GILBERT: [laughs] It doesn’t. And here’s the thing. Sometimes, following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t; and then, guess what? That’s still totally fine.

You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art — not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that, I think, is a lot more interesting, and also, a lot more sustainable.

MS. TIPPETT: You use the language, “the virtue of inquisitiveness.” That’s great.

MS. GILBERT: I think a definition of an interesting person is an interested person. I’ve never met an interesting person who’s not also an interested person.

.. He doesn’t pretend — I know the first line of that poem is, “Suffering everywhere.” It’s the first line, “Suffering everywhere.” Look. It’s everywhere. There’s no denial of that, and yet, something in us, something in the universe — there’s some sort of spirit that also wants to be glad, and also, wants to be amazed, and also, wants to be engaged.

And we can’t lose that, because then, we’ve lost everything. He has another line in there, which I don’t know if I know by heart, but it’s something about — “To only give your attention to darkness and suffering is to worship the devil,” or, “to give your power to the devil.” And you know, you have to be careful about this, especially when you have an impulse to be a good person — a “good person,” and your definition of a good person is somebody who gives everything to others. It’s a beautiful impulse, but if it’s done from a place of only giving darkness and suffering your attention, then you become somebody who’s very difficult to be around. [laughs] There’s a lovely line that this British columnist said, one time, that “You can always tell people who live for others by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others.” [laughs] There’s some heaviness in there that just spreads out of you and makes everyone feel heavy, and even makes the people that you’re serving feel heavy, because they feel like they’re a burden and a responsibility. And so, if you can find the gladness and the lightness, I think your service becomes better, and I think your art becomes better, and I think your worship becomes better and lighter.

.. the false choice that people are given are these two ideas. One is that it’s all coming from me: Nothing funny is going on here; there is no spirit moving across the face of the earth. I’m just a pile of DNA, my cerebral cortex is firing off, and that is why my creativity exists, right? It’s all me; it’s only me — which is great, except then, how do you explain the mysterious part that you can’t explain, about why one day you were in flow, and it did feel like something was coming through you, not from you, and you brushed up against a sense of great mystery and communion. And then the next day, Wednesday morning, it was gone.

.. the very hippie-trippy idea of “I’m just a vessel. I’m just a vessel; channel — it just comes through me.” Then why am I so tired? [laughs] Because I’ve been working hard. So there’s some sort of a — there’s some third way. And I think the third way is, it’s a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in, but you are very much an agent in that story. You’re not just a passive receptacle. And also, it’s not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process — if you can find it.

.. Terrified people make terrible decisions. Terror and fear make you irresponsible. They make you not think very clearly, and they make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling. And we’ve seen people do that on the individual level, and we’ve seen cultures do that. And we’ve seen politicians who find ways to exploit terror and fear in order to get short-term power — or, sometimes, long-term power, because if you can figure out how to hold the reins of other people’s fear, then you can control them for a while.

.. And so one of the very most powerful ways to not end up being controlled by that is to remain more curious than you are afraid. I think, any time in the community that there’s anybody who’s keeping their head, I think it’s a benefit to everyone around them. I think everything is contagious. Our fear is contagious, but our courage also is. And our courage makes other people be able to be more brave and come out of their houses and come out of their shells and out of their fear.

.. “<strong>I want to live in a world full of explorers and generous souls, rather than people who have voluntarily become prisoners of their own fortresses.</strong> I want to live in a world full of people who look into each other’s faces along the path of life and ask, ‘Who are you, my friend, and how can we serve each other?’”

.. I had a very dumb idea, it turned out, that what I really needed was to just be alone and as far away from everyone in the world as I could get. And I went to this island off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia and rented a thatched cottage on the beach for ten dollars a day. And I decided, for ten days, I wasn’t going to speak. I don’t advise that if you’re in the state that I was in. [laughs] What I probably really needed was to be around community and, maybe, some therapists. Putting a magnifying lens on yourself when you’re in distress like that can be very hard. And I ended up getting sick.

.. She had been keeping an eye on me, and I didn’t keep my schedule. I usually walked around the island at dawn and at dusk, and when she didn’t see me, she came and found me. And when she saw how sick I was, she brought me food. And I think — I’ve never forgotten this woman.

And what I think I learned from her was: Pay attention to what’s happening in your community. That’s what it means to be deeply engaged with the place where you live, such that you will see when someone is in trouble. And there’s ways that you can reach toward people, rather than away from them. And you can do that. I know we talk often, in this society, about how terrible social media and the Internet is. But used properly, that too can become a tool of outreach, a way of knocking on someone’s door.

.. it’s because the universe is looking for collaborators, because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of. And it’s a much more interesting way to be part of that story, to work in collaboration and in partnership and in friendly curiosity with it, than to be terrified of it.

.. I didn’t really understand how much <strong>you had really written a lot about men and for men</strong>, and been a journalist and been — I don’t know, what is it? You once said you were the only girl in the room a lot. [laughs]

And so that’s not really the trajectory of, I think, what people would expect of this person who eventually writes Eat Pray Love. And, ironically — that is such a phenomenally successful project, but you said once, it had not escaped your attention that <strong>when you wrote about a man’s emotional journey, they gave you the National Book Award nomination, but when you wrote about a woman’s emotional journey, they “shunted” you “into the ‘chick-lit’ dungeon.”</strong> And I sense that you’ve — this has been part of your growth and reflection out of this, is — and I wrestle with this too, with my work — pushing back against the idea that there’s something unserious about talking about these things.

.. the Dalai Lama that — when he first came to the West. And somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, “What do you think about self-hatred?”

The whole conference ended for a while, while he had to have a couple of translators sit there and try to explain to him how a human being could be taught to hate himself. And he was so — he just said — there’s this transcript of this conversation and that moment of him saying, “This is very concerning.” [laughs] And I see self-loathing everywhere I look, in so many different forms, and it’s so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing, because I have been in it. Anybody who’s been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, <strong>depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward</strong>, so there’s this battle that’s going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself.

.. “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” And I’ll just say, even as somebody who feels like I’ve done a lot of work on befriending myself, but that’s still a hard statement to claim, for me, and, I think, for a lot of people. It’s an aspiration, to be able to feel that way, to trust that.

.. when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me. And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason.


Understanding Student Mobbists

My gut reaction is that these student mobbists manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.

.. I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we have developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force.

.. sophisticated people in those days wanted to be seen, to use Scott Alexander’s term, as mistake theorists. Mistake theorists believe that the world is complicated and most of our troubles are caused by error and incompetence, not by malice or evil intent.

.. Mistake theorists also believe that most social problems are hard and that obvious perfect solutions are scarce. Debate is essential. You bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. You reduce passion and increase learning. Basically, we’re all physicians standing over a patient with a very complex condition and we’re trying to collectively figure out what to do.

.. The idea for decades was that racial justice would come when we reduced individual bigotry — the goal was colorblind individualism. As Nils Gilman argues in The American Interest, that ideal reached its apogee with the election of Barack Obama.

.. But Obama’s election also revealed the limits of that ideal. Now the crucial barriers to racial justice are seen not just as individual, but as structural economic structures, the incarceration crisis, the breakdown of family structure.

.. The second thing that happened was that reason, apparently, ceased to matter. Today’s young people were raised within an educational ideology that taught them that individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivismwhat perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.

These students were raised with the idea that individual reason is downstream from group identity. Then along came the 2016 election to validate that point of view! If reason and deliberation are central to democracy, how on earth did Donald Trump get elected?

.. If you were born after 1990, it’s not totally shocking that you would see public life as an inevitable war of tribe versus tribe. It’s not surprising that you would become, in Scott Alexander’s terminology, a conflict theorist, not a mistake theorist.

In the conflict theorist worldview, most public problems are caused not by errors or complexity, but by malice and oppression. The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful. Passion is more important than reason because the oppressed masses have to mobilize to storm the barricades. Debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. Discordant ideas are not there to inform; they are there to provide cover for oppression.

.. So I’d just ask them to take two courses. The first would be in revolutions — the French, Russian, Chinese and all the other ones that unleashed the passion of the mob in an effort to overthrow oppression — and the way they ALL wound up waist deep in blood.

The second would be in constitutionalism. We dump on lawyers, but the law is beautiful, living proof that we can rise above tribalism and force — proof that the edifice of civilizations is a great gift, which our ancestors gave their lives for.

.. Our new generation was never taught how to communicate outside it’s own tribe. And failure to learn how to do that will not bode well for their future or ours.
.. I have spent my entire adult life on college campuses, and I would say that most students do not subscribe to mobbism or tribalism. Alas, I would say apathy is far more common than protest, and that most students are unlikely to know that Christina Hoff Sommers is even speaking on campus, to have an opinion about her ideas, or to attend. I see few protests, flyers, or petitions on campus these days. Instead, I see harried students who work part-time, struggle to pay tuition, and are anxious about landing a decent job when they graduate.

Divided America Stands—Then, and Now

Historian Allen Guelzo says the nation is more bitterly split than ever—with the exception of the Civil War era.

..  it wasn’t because Taney was the most vile pro-slavery ideologue in the country,” Mr. Guelzo says. “He wasn’t—I mean, the man had actually emancipated his own slaves. And while he certainly wasn’t friendly to abolitionists, that’s not why he wrote Dred Scott the way he did. He did it because the situation in 1857 seemed to have demonstrated that neither the legislative branch nor the executive branch was capable of arriving at a solution for the slavery question. So who steps up into the batter’s box? The judiciary—we will settle this.”
.. “Because these slave states were all contiguous, they could look at a map and see themselves as a political unit.” Eleven did in 1860-61.
.. If you look at Democrats and Republicans since the middle of the 19th century,” he says, “the political culture of the parties has not changed all that much.” Their policies may be drastically different, but “that’s the tip of the iceberg. What you want to look at, as far as historical continuity, is the seven-eighths of the iceberg below the water.”
.. The other components pairs do seem continuous for both parties, as Mr. Guelzo says. Morals: Democrats, “individual”; Republicans, “collective.” Economic system: Democrats, “static”; Republicans, “dynamic.” Philosophy: Democrats, “Romantic”; Republicans, “Enlightenment.”
.. Democrats preferred the economic uniformity of a society of small farmers and artisans but were more tolerant of cultural and moral diversity.”
.. political style, a cousin of philosophy: “Democrats love passion, Republicans love reason.”
.. “Lincoln is as reasonable as a Vulcan with Asperger’s,” Mr. Guelzo says. “If you listened to him for five minutes, you weren’t impressed. If you listened to him for 25 minutes, he had you, because you couldn’t argue. He had done all the work.”
.. Republicans think of themselves as Americans first, whereas today Democratic localism takes the form of subnational identity politics.
.. decline in national solidarity, Mr. Guelzo cites Nancy Pelosi’s and Harry Reid’s public assertions .. that the Iraq war was a failure.
.. In the 1850s, “you had brawls on the floor of the House of Representatives. One of the most precious ones was when William Barksdale from Mississippi got into a flying fistfight with a Northern representative, and one of them reached out to grab him by the hair and pulled off his wig.” That was in 1858.
.. “The people who always wanted to silence others, always wanted to have the lynchings, were the pro-slavery people,” he says. “It surprises my students, as it should, that Southern postmasters were given free rein to censor the mails coming into Southern post offices. They could take material that might be suspected of being abolitionist in nature; they were allowed to destroy it—because you didn’t want a slave who might turn out to be literate to read any of that, now did you?”
.. “By getting it out of the states, it’s removed an opportunity for it to become that kind of sectional issue. I’m not saying that as a fan of Roe v. Wade, but at least we haven’t gone to war over it.

What It Means for Trump to ‘Speak From the Heart’

“Trump speaks from the heart.” For months, Mr. Trump’s supporters have been leaning hard on those words to turn his vengefulness and vigilantism into a virtue.

.. Casting Mr. Trump’s incitements to xenophobia and violence as heartfelt evidently makes them slightly less terrifying.  A through-line of the convention has been to set up a powerful antagonism between “political correctness,” the province of the hypocritical, intellectual and weak-willed, and “speaking from the heart,” as a province of … Donald Trump.

.. I’m going to speak from the heart tonight.”

The phrase sounds smarmy. It compromises the Republican Party’s usual claim of hardheadedness over and against the bleeding-heart emotionalism of the other party.

But it’s probably the only possible rhetorical move of the Trump campaign.

.. It’s become impossible for Mr. Trump’s supporters to lend reason or logic to his vendettas, daft misogyny, thoroughgoing racism and bloodlust. Instead, they advertise it as lovable.