Beware When Studying Greatness
Studying intelligent fanatics, or greatness in any field should have a large disclaimer. Brent Beshore’s recent tweet should be it:
Success, of any magnitude, is an excellent liar - life's fun house mirror. It rewrites history, glosses over shortcomings, magnifies talents, gives the illusion of control, strips empathy, and creates false friends/enemies. The bigger the success, the greater the distortion.— Brent Beshore (@BrentBeshore) February 4, 2018
Since we study greatness here, this is a very important topic. I’ll build on Brent’s disclaimer and talk about how to face it head on.
Everyone Has Flaws
One of the major pitfalls while internalizing extreme success is what I call mindless emulation. As Jimi Hendrix once stated, “I’ve been imitated so well that I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” People who emulate without thought mistakenly imitate the mistakes. The idea is that the minutiae of their whole beings add up into genius.
For example, some might believe that to get Steve Jobs-like results you need to live in a sparsely furnished home and drive a Mercedes SL55 AMG making sure to park in handicap spots.
Oh, make sure to treat your employees and fellow human beings like garbage. Walter Isaacson wrote in Jobs’s biography how Steve responded to partners performing inadequately, which was often how he reacted to his employees:
VLSI Technology, a chip company, was having trouble delivering enough chips on time. Jobs stormed into a meeting and started shouting that they were “fu%&ing dickless a$$holes.”
Or, if you want to be a successful musician it’s necessary to do drugs because the best did them. Make sure to neglect your family and friends, too.
The problem is that most “successful” individuals don’t feel very successful or happy.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered today as one of the top classical composers ever. Yet, he died depressed and penniless at 35. Violinist Karl Holz, in 1825, perfectly summarized Mozart: “Outside of his genius as a musical artist, Mozart was a nullity”. Mozart‘s inane and immature behavior, poor social habits, and other eccentricities are likely to have contributed to his financial struggles and were surely a cause to his depression.
Mozart’s letters to others were filled with vulgarity. This trait, along with his immature behavior and tics turned many people off to Mozart as a human being. He often used to touch his napkin to his lips, make grimaces, tap his hands or feet on objects, or play with hats, pockets, tables, etc. In addition to Mozart’s fear of his wife leaving the house, he was obsessively meticulous even about his wife’s mode of hygiene: “I entreat you to take the bath only every other day, and only for an hour. But if you want me to feel quite easy on my mind, do not take them at all, until I am with you again.”
That doesn’t sound like a great life, does it?
Billionaire Sir James Goldsmith openly maintained three families. Yes, he had three relationships with three different women, had children with each one of them, all at the same time. Let alone other mistresses he likely had.
Media magnate Sumner Redstone is worth $5 billion but has led a very flawed life. Charlie Munger used Redstone as an example of what not to do. Munger said:
“Sumner Redstone was a very peculiar man. Almost nobody has ever liked him. He’s a very hard driven, tough tomato. And basically, almost nobody has ever liked him including his wives and his children. And he’s just gone through life… There’s an old saying: ‘screw them all except six and save those for pallbearers.’ That is the way Sumner Redstone went through life.”
John H. Patterson enjoyed firing and then rehiring executives to break their self-esteem. Patterson even went to the length of firing executive Thomas Watson, later to become the founder of IBM, by leaving his desk outside the office building.
Henry Wellcome’s obsession with collecting artifacts almost led to the implosion of Burroughs & Wellcome Company. Thanks to his hunch for hiring talent, his leaders helped turn around his ailing business and turned Wellcome Trust into the world’s second largest charitable foundation, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bob Johnson was vindictive when long time BET executives didn’t opt to cut their stock options by 50% to line Johnson’s pockets. Shortly after paying each $6.5 million, Johnson ousted the executives.
Clessie Cummins created some of the most important diesel engine patents. A grudge prevented him from reaping the full profits of his genius. He sold his Cummins shares very early missing out on millions of dollars. He died bitter and resentful.
The inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth’s self-image as a self-reliant individual prevented him from burying his competitor RCA. Farnsworth was invited to testify against RCA for monopolistic practices. While Philo could have recounted RCA’s numerous attempts to interfere with his patents, corporate espionage, and RCAs spreading of misinformation, he mentioned none of it. To Farnsworth getting help from the government was unnecessary. He thought he could succeed by himself. His company eventually went bankrupt.
A great book recommendation from Brent Beshore is Intellectuals. In it, the author exposes how immensely flawed some of the most prominent philosophers were. For instance, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was interred as a national hero by the French 16 years after his death. Yet Rousseau treated other human beings like horse manure. When others gave, he took. The author said: “He bolstered this by an audacious argument: because of his uniqueness, anyone who helped him was in fact doing a favour to himself.”
Steve Jobs, Mozart and countless others were successful despite their eccentricities, flaws and mistakes. A great majority of the distinguishing qualities of any genius, those who are born with rare abilities to see the world differently, are actually disadvantages. Emulating their flaws is a waste of time. You’ll never get their results, since it’s already been done, nor will you lead a balanced happy life. Emulating flaws is the equivalent to practicing all the wrong notes to a song. It’s negative practice.
Getting Past the Disclaimer
“Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
Emulating is the best way to learn only when the pupil emulates the right things and adds their own unique twist.
Acknowledge the flaws of your heroes. Then immediately throw them away. I imagine these flaws as banana peels. Let someone else trip over them.
Imagine yourself making a great huge pot of gumbo. Including only one or two ingredients doesn’t make for a tasty meal. So don’t just internalize one or two heroes. If you do, not only will you sound too much like them, you’ll likely pick up their shared flaws.
The wider and more numerous your influences, the better. You’ll have a better sample of quality “ingredients” to internalize and draw from. You’ll cover many of the common flaws found in one group with the appropriate habits of another.
Start internalizing the under the radar “successes” to pick up the slack. For example, I’ve looked to studying centurions, 100 year olds, who are happy. I befriended a 101 year old who was beaming with life. He got around better than some 50 year olds that I’ve come across. My friend outlived three consecutive wives. He outlived some of his children. He lived through some significant tragedies, yet he was quite possibly the happiest man I’ve ever met. I’ve tried to internalize some of his lessons on family, relationships and industriousness that are often the flaws of many.
Stir all the influences together.
From this huge pot of influences you’ll be able to take a scoop and get the best version of yourself. It will be truly unique. And, quite possibly, help you reach your fullest potential.
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