Everyone loves a fantastic story with a compelling figure we can examine and judge. We also, to varying degrees, anxiously try to figure out who we are and what we’re doing.
These two things often coincide.
External inputs are critical for effective growth. Taking information from the world around us and adding to our evolving mosaic of identity allows us to learn lessons faster (cutting down on wasted time) and expand the boundaries of how we view the world (changing our perspective)1.
Our focus intensifies as we find anchor figures and ideas which resonate deeply with us (and who we think we want to be). We look to people like Elon Musk and romanticize (understandably so) how much innovation a single man can manifest. We remember Steve Jobs and mourn, in awe, of the early loss of perhaps the greatest wizard of marketing and product visionary to ever exist. In respecting and pursuing such human greatness, and adopting the ideas and values we think fuel that level of achievement, we can lose ourselves and progress from devoted student to misguided cultist.
Two things happen as this transformation silently unfolds: 1. Our ideological design (mosaic) goes from a kaleidoscope of new experiences and information, to a rigid image of the ones we now cherish; an aging photograph we can now praise. 2. We can begin to judge our worth by achievements and perspectives that aren’t our own; we can lose individuality in service of the identity and achievements of others.
Learning from others becomes a tightrope walk when we forget that we are building our own identity from the ideas around us, and not simply adopting one. Tethering our existence to singular individuals or concepts puts us in the balancing act between self-compassion and external validation. Instead, we should use outside sources and voices as beacons of knowledge – as tools – to craft an entirely new image unique to us.
Understanding this is the difference between inspiration and replication; between individuality and living someone else’s life.
The infatuation with greatness, and replicating greatness, can become obsessive. We lose ourselves in thinking that achieving a high level of success requires black turtlenecks, unapologetic office tantrums, and sending flippant tweets which…influence…the stock market2. We pickup all the qualities, including the unnecessary (I’d say damaging), in service of replication. In service of chasing something we couldn’t obtain within the boundaries of our life.
Investor and modern philosopher Naval Ravikant discusses the importance of being the best version of you in his interview on The Knowledge Project3. He explains how we all, as individuals, inherently are unique and have something we can offer the world, in our own way. Admiration, and even worship, of leaders is common in society, with scores of motivated individuals trying to become “that” person exactly. People mortgage their own unique existence in the desperate pursuit of trying to be someone that already exists, never exploring the idea that they could be something totally different, themselves, and still live a rich life.
Naval goes on to explain how these hypothetical trades are damaging and stupid. You don’t get to become that person without being that person. He mentions how he’ll ask entrepreneurs and leaders he works with if they would switch places with Steve Jobs, and they always say yes. He then simply points out to them that they would be dead.
You don’t get to wish to be someone else without genuinely appreciating that the trade is not your brain in their body, you’re just them. You leave yourself behind. And while the Jobs example is morbid and hyperbolic, it drives the point home well. Each of us is the collection of all our experiences, good and bad, and wishing to be someone else means that you have to adopt their life entirely.
Who wouldn’t want to look backward in time and be able to say they accomplished something we already know is great? But trading places doesn’t get you anywhere. It robs you of your own potential.
A better path is to a live a life where you learn from these people; evaluate and incorporate the pieces which help you improve, leave the rest behind, and move on. After all, everyone is still fallible. Everyone is human. Even though it often doesn’t feel like it.
Don’t live someone else’s dream. Focus on finding and building yours. Be a student, a scientist, and an entrepreneur, not a cultist. Adopting traits and perspectives without question from someone else, from anyone else, is a guarantee you’ll always be chasing. Worse yet, you’ll be chasing something that was never yours. And it will never be enough.
Inner Game of Self-Compassion and Individuality
Understanding the difference between thoughtfully adding to the mosaic versus trying to thoughtlessly copy what others are producing is a critical distinction. It’s an undercurrent to how we choose to operate in the world, and therefore how we value our own actions.
Developing an inner feedback loop which prioritizes the achievements of others creates a disastrous situation for our inner narrative. The story we tell ourselves about ourself becomes wholly bound to the activities, experiences, and successes of things we can’t control and of people we don’t even know.
It seems impossible to think that someone who is adopting the life of another person as their own journey could ever find peace and love for themselves. It seems incomprehensible that that same person could have a good inner monologue, as all their activities must inherently be compared to and evaluated through external events – things we have no control over.
How we speak to ourselves is everything. If our internal evaluation criteria is founded in externalities, and robs us of our individuality, our progress will always have a dark shadow cast over it. We will always be chasing the changing opinions and progress of others, and we will compare ourselves to the achievements of an infinitesimal group of humans. Every time we seek to reflect and provide ourselves with feedback, it will feel like we are falling behind and are incomplete. It will be like trying to bail water out of a ship with a bucket while a piece of the hull is missing.
Be the best version of yourself. Take pieces from the world around you and adopt them into your life, but ensure that is your life. You are the only you. And while we all may be average at almost everything, we can still be ourselves. And that is worth something.
I leave you with this excerpt from W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis on how to observe ourselves with more kindness and compassion4:
“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”
1 – Reference to the concept of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Has this come up multiple times in a couple weeks? Yes. Do I care? Sort of
2 – Market manipulation seems to be a factor of who’s involved. For Jim Cramer, it’s a career. For Elon Musk, it’s a by-product of greatness. For WallStreetBets it’s an SEC investigation. I also don’t know what I’m talking about. If you’d like educated and well-written input on finance, the stock market, and general Money Stuff, I’d highly recommend… Money Stuff (link to articles) by Matt Levine. Subscription link
3 – Episode #18 – word for word, an incredibly value/idea dense podcast episode
4 – A wonderfully reflective and pleasant read. I do not play Tennis. Book link