Grand Theories of Everything

In the United States we have often seen our country as destined for greatness and we often see great success as a guarantee in our own lives. There is something special about being American and about living in the middle or upper class in our society. Many people see their success and place in society as evidence of their own greatness, ignoring the fact that much of their success is random. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at these perspectives in his book, Between the World and Me, and examines the way that our history set up our country at the expense of black people.

 

In a letter to his son looking at national attitudes today he writes, “We live in a ‘goal-oriented’ era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory.” Coats is arguing that the general approach most people have when looking at America, our nation’s role in the world, and our lives within our country is to see our success as a guarantee, somehow guided by a divine plan. In reality, according to Coats, American success is in no way guaranteed, and was kickstarted two hundred years ago by the exploitation of slave labor. “America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” he writes, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”

 

Coats looks at the exploitation of slaves and the discrimination and inequities suffered by black men and women brought to this continent during the slave trade and sees connections to our lives today. After slavery ended, black men and women were still exploited in many ways, denied opportunities, restricted in where they could live, and often not able to advance in careers. The criminal justice system often singled out black men for crimes that occurred in equal numbers between black and white men, limiting freedoms and creating a caste-like system in our country.

 

It was this historical vision that eliminated the view of America as a country destined for greatness. Coats absolutely sees great possibilities for our country, but his visions are sobered by the realization that American exceptionalism is partly random and partly driven by the huge sacrifices and work of the oppressed. There is no mystical force pushing any of us individually or collectively toward greatness, there are only our decisions, our reactions, and the tremendous work of only a few to propel us.

 

When you abandon religious views, you stop asking how things are ‘supposed’ to turn out, and you give up the question of why a higher power would decide that things ‘should’ be certain way. This perspective contributes to Coats’ ability to see the world clearly, and to see not just the tremendous decisions and incredible men that led our country from its inception, but also the lives lost and the injustice suffered by countless men and women who have held up our nation all while being scorned and rejected. His views align with those of Joseph Ellis, whose book The Quartet I recently finished. Ellis looked at how four men, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay brought about the constitution as we know it today, and while he did not focus on the inequities of slavery, he did acknowledge how such a system allowed for our countries founding, and he did acknowledge that the visions and efforts of a few drove the true change and better future of our country. The decisions of our founding fathers were certainly, in Ellis’ view, not providential (as we like to believe looking back at history) but political and human, and they made decisions which sealed the fate of black men and women and elevated the opportunities for white men and women. Coats and Ellis both understood that it was luck, decisions, and efforts which afforded our country the comfort experienced today, not a pre-ordained destiny of greatness. Coats however, goes further in his writing and acknowledges the crucial role that exploitation played and has continued to play in shaping America and allowing for some people to exceed.
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Avoiding Extremes

Colin Wright is an author, podcast host, and in to some degree full time traveler writing about his experiences and the ways in which he has come to see the world through stoic principles of self-awareness and mindful consideration. In his recent book, Come Back Frayed, Wright details his experiences living in the Philippines and explains ways in which his lifestyle contribute to his being able to not just survive, but thrive in very different environments and places. One of Wright’s traits lending to a successful lifestyle of travel is his ability to avoid extremes in terms of thought, behavior, and desires. Regarding extremes he writes,

 

“Extremes are insidious because they’re incredibly valuable until they’re not. At some point on the usefulness curve, they transition, hyde-like, to harmful. Even water is deadly if you drink too much of it.
Avoiding extremes has become an integral part of my lifestyle, because I find that walking up to that line, toeing it, and then stepping back to stand on healthier, more stable ground is what allows me to work and live and enjoy the world around me without suffering the consequences of burnout, sleep-deprivation, ill-health, and fanaticism.”

 

I enjoy this passage because Wright explains the importance of remaining even and level in our actions. It is easy, tempting, and often encouraged to push toward an extreme in whatever we are doing with our lives, but in the long run the consequences of living on the extremes can be disastrous. Pursuing diets without flexibility, driving toward completing incredible amounts of work, and even participating in non-stop leisure can lead to worse outcomes than if we had been more balanced in our approach. Focusing so highly on one area may help us find incredible success, but as we push further toward the extremes, we must out of necessity, and limitations on our time and energy, give up attention for other areas of our life. Without stopping to take notice of our focus, we will find that suddenly, our laser detail on one extreme, has allowed other areas to become problematic.

 

This is the sudden change that Wright discusses in his quote above. Extremes push us to places where the supports that allow for our behavior become weakened and unable to further support our specific efforts. Because our focus is so set in one area, it also means we are oblivious to areas we have chosen to neglect, and when problems arise, we might not know where to look to find solutions.

 

Greatness and deliberate action are things to strive for, but we should recognize what we are sacrificing to reach those goals. As we drive further toward extremes in pursuit of excellence, we will notice that we must take our focus away from other areas. Being conscious of our decisions and recognizing when we are approaching extreme points will help us find a place where we can continue to seek greatness on more stable footing.

Greatness and Ego

Vera Countess von Lehndorff wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her letter she discusses goals, ambitions, talents, and our journey.  She encourages us to have courageous goals, but she also brings in a bit of self awareness with out goal setting. “You want to be the greatest? You want to just feed your ego? That’s not so great.”  This quote is her response to lofty goals and visions of success.

 

When I read over this quote I think about the goals that I have had throughout life, and how many of them are less about me, and are in one way or another more about fulfilling other people’s expectations and looking impressive.  These types of goals promise us a land where we will feel high and mighty because we will gain the respect and admiration of others as a result of our greatness. However, these goals may not always be aligned with our true purpose or talents, and pursuing them relentlessly could cost us our peace of mind, happiness, and relationships.

 

For me, building habits of self awareness and learning how to look inwards to examine my goals has helped me understand where my goals originated. When I began to examine my goals I found I pursued some because society had determined that they were lofty and valuable.  When I return to von Lehndorff’s quote I can see the ways in which pushing towards goals that simply feed an ego are more damaging than positive for the individual and the world.  Losing sight of other people to pursue a goal that will build your ego will direct you to a place where people may be impressed by your title or your material possessions, but you may risk jeopardizing true friendships along the way.  If you set out on a goal that only serves your ego, you also risk missing the chance to provide something meaningful and unique to the world. I am currently reading The Go-Giver by Bob Berg, and Berg would agree with this point of view.  He would argue that you can provide value and find success by chasing goals that only serve yourself, but that in order to reach a level of stratospheric success you must focus more on the value you provide to others.  This means that you must forget about your own ego and find goals that serve others as much as yourself.

 

Ultimately, I believe the problem with chasing a goal fueled by ego is the likelihood that you will burn out.  You run the chance of pushing yourself into situations that serve your ego rather than your purpose, and you miss out on actively working towards  goals that excite you and fuel a passion. In the end, aiming for greatness takes you away from happiness because your ego is built by your accomplishments and outside recognition.  If you abandon ego and learn to operate without requiring the praise and admiration of others, you can find a level of greatness where you understand that you are great independently of outside recognition and ego serving applause.

Correcting Mistakes

A lesson I have learned from the podcast Smart People Podcast is that successful people are always learning and always taking away something positive away from whatever situation they are in.  In a letter to James Harmon for his book Take my Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two, Bob Schacochis writes about one of his first jobs as a carpenter.  Schacochis explains a lesson he learned when working with a carpenter.  The carpenter who was guiding him and helping him learn how to be great at the craft said, “How many times I have to tell you college boys, when it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good is the same.  The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.”
This quote speaks to me on multiple levels; about the difference between being good and great, about bringing lessons form one area of life into other areas of life, and about the importance of recognizing and avoiding your own sense of entitlement.  As a young college student Schacochis did not have the patience necessary to be a great carpenter.  He focused on his work and took the time to put a full effort into his work, but the problem was that he did not have the patience to double check his work and correct his errors.  As the carpenter explained, good carpenters and bad carpenters both make mistakes, however the good carpenters make an effort to repair their mistakes.  Schacochis was a poor carpenter not because he made mistakes, but because he tried to hide his mistakes without correcting the original problem.  As I write this, I am thinking about all of the times recently where I have slacked at work, made small mistakes, or rushed through my work.  By keeping this quote in mind at work I can re-focus on what will make me great, and what will make me average.  I believe that keeping this quote in mind will help me avoid allowing my work to slack, which in turn will make me more confident while avoiding the anxiety that comes from hoping that supervisors don’t notice my mistakes.
When the carpenter working with Schacochis says, “How many times I have to tell you college boys,” it show how entitlement affects young people in the workplace.  For college students the work they do to get through college is often times not meaningful work, or at least it does not appear to be meaningful work.  Physical labor and difficult tasks are easy to slack on for students who are studying to reach higher places.  The carpenter is calling out Schacochis for his entitled attitude, and how that attitude impacts his approach to physical work. Entitlement for younger generations is not just an expectation to have material things, but it also manifests as an expectation to not do difficult work.
With the lesson from the carpenter Schacochis was able to overcome his entitlement and begin focusing on being great.  He took the lesson he learned from working with his hands and double checking his work, and applied it to other areas of his work.  Successful people as I have learned from Smart People Podcast, are self aware enough to see where they need to grow and apply lessons from other areas of their life to those areas.