Reader alert! Dense Argument Ahead!
Maureen Dowd has a great line about Mitt Romney today in her NYT oped. She writes
Romney seems to be forever on a journey out of vagueness, an endless search for identity.
Forever on a journey out of vagueness? Brilliant. And the phrase might apply more broadly than to poor old Mitt. Perhaps it even is a universal description of how it feels to be trapped in youth. When you feel childhood fading away and you need a new focus. You need an anchor that tells the world who you are. But just who are you? Well, at that moment, it is too early to tell. And it can be painful to realize that as a young person, you don’t yet have a worthy story to tell. And Mitt may feel as well that his life so far is not the story he wants to tell. So he adjusts the story for the sake of his ambition. For what he could become.
So what does one normally do? One goes looking for anchors. Role models. That is what I did when it hit me that at some point I would need to become a man. I became fascinated by the life stories of great men. Lincoln’s story appealed, though it was rather bloody. Churchill too, with his amazing ups and downs. Both had tremendous strength of character. And there was Joyce and an endless array of writers. Less resoluteness but more entertaining. Finally, there were my own forebears. I thought deeply about their stories, wondering what I could and would carry further.
Taking these stories in helped me quite a lot in those days. But it was not enough. Why not? Because you can never take over the life stories of others. At some point you need to make a pivot. At some moment in time, you need to move from looking for an anchor to being an anchor.
To see this more clearly, we might consider the “reward” we get from great adventure stories. After the monsters are slain and the hero returns home, his or her experience radiates through time, inspiring us. But being inspired by heroism is not quite the same as being heroic ourselves. To become the hero, you need to earn the title by creating the story and making it your badge. Which, BTW, is why Mitt is a bit odd. He wants the hero role, but can’t seem to tell the hero story.
Here is the kicker. In this type of story, “earning” is more valuable than “having”. Using Pressfield’s vocabulary, we cannot kill the monster once and for all. We do it in each moment as we build our evolving story. The more we do, the more we earn the title. Consider this rant from Pressfield
Everything wasn’t always a “business.” We didn’t always look at the world in terms of return on investment, quarterly profits, or net worth. We didn’t follow Presidential elections based on how much money a candidate raises per month or define the American dream based purely on the pursuit of Ayn Randian self-interest.
We admired people for what they did. Not how much money they made.
Hold onto that idea of “self-interest” for a moment. We have more to say about what the “earning” story is about.
It is an old, old story. In zen tradition, for example, one earned enlightenment as part of a heroic story. When one hears the beautiful final verses from the ten bulls
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.
one should recall that these words are possible only after the hero goes through an incredible series of adventures. The story is less about the fact that he has a certain presence than how he earned it. The comment to the above verse says this more clearly
Inside my gate, a thousand sages do not know me. The beauty of my garden is invisible.
Of course it is because it comes from within - not just for show. Going further,
Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs?
One need not chase any longer when one already has become what is needed.
I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff. I visit the wineshop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.
We might think of enlightenment in this context as an activity, not just a good feeling. These days, we use a different vocabulary. We speak of “building engagement”. You can do this when you are an anchor. Less so when you are searching for an anchor. And the critical first step to become an anchor is to make the decision that it must be done. With that decision in hand, everything else becomes possible. Indeed, making that decision earns a certain reward in itself, being part of a story. Not making the decision guarantees a certain youthful vagueness.
In light of the above, consider Mark Ruxin’s definition of “taste” and how taste differs from “interests”
Taste … cuts to the core of a person’s evolving identity – his past, present and future. Interests can be more casual and transactional – stuff you might have, not the person that you are. But taste implies a commitment of time and thought and, beyond defining who you are, it can inspire others.
I am most amused by the distinction. I agree with Ruxin that media these days, including web platforms, is mostly about cultivating interests rather than taste. In the end, it is a bit like eating cardboard instead of food. But there is a deeper issue here.
As you may recall, the great Roger Fisher advised negotiators to find common “interests” rather than to negotiate from fixed positions. Fisher made a worthy contribution by opening a discussion about how effective communication builds joint opportunities. But I was never overly fond of the word “interests”. As Ruxin argues, the word has a certain tenuous quality. We look elsewhere for strength and clarity.
And “self-interest”? Remember Pressfield’s rant? Well, by now I hope that you will agree that this also has a rather tenuous value. While we all are self-interested to a degree, how much we “feed the monkey” is not the stuff of great life stories. And if you want to get deeper into that thought, go back to Pressfield. He has something to say to you.