A remarkable life requires chutzpah

remarkable accomplishments are hard, not scary. Almost without exception, building a remarkable career requires that you become remarkably good at something valuable. This requires time and is hard. But it’s not particularly scary. By the time most people are skilled enough to do something remarkable, the decision can seem more obvious than fear-inducing.

via The Courage Crutch: A Remarkable Life Requires You to Overcome Mediocrity, Not Fear – Study Hacks – Cal Newport.

As usual, Mr. Newport has some sensible things to say. Memes about great career accomplishments requiring “courage” are largely dumb and facile.

Also as usual with Newport, his advice is most applicable to people like him: well-educated technocrats starting from a base of substantial privilege.

When I look around at friends who have “broken away from the pack”, as it were, it’s true that hard work towards becoming great at something is what stands out about their journey. Not courage. That said, what I also observe is that these people did have to break free from a particular narrative about their life.

We all know that some childhoods confer more of a head-start than others. But it’s not just about money and connections.

When you’re brought up in the 1%, you learn from childhood that people like us run corporationsWhen grow up working-class, you learn that people like us work for other people. When you grow up poor, or more importantly, as part of a historically marginalized group, you learn people like us just keep their heads down and try to stay out of jail.

I’m not sure if courage is the right word for what it takes to break free from a life-narrative like these. But there is certainly a kind of chutzpah in involved. There’s some hubris.

I’ve had the privilege of watching at least one friend make the mental transition from I am the kind of person who works for people to I am the kind of person who works for themselves to I am the kind of person who runs a business and hires other people. And I know for a fact that there were some scary moments. Some moments of this isn’t really me. Some moments where, if we really do live in a multiverse, another version of them gave up and walked away and applied for a job.

Every decision I’ve made that has brought me closer to my goal has been objectively well-supported by evidence. None of them were the total leaps of faith that the “courage theory” would have you believe they were. And yet, there were still moments in my career when the people I trusted were telling me to keep my head down, do my time, and jump through all the conventional hoops. And I worried that they were right, and I was wrong.

Fortunately for me, I had an upbringing that uniquely equipped me with, well, let’s call it what it is: hubris. I think I can do anything I set my mind to, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a life that largely confirmed this feeling, rather than crushing it. I trust my own judgement.  If someone tells me I’m wrong, I might waffle for a few extra days or months or years, but eventually I decide I’m right and act.

I think Newport is right that “courage” is the wrong thing to emphasize. Sheer stupid courage isn’t going to take you far; you’ll leap, sure, but you’ll also fail pretty quickly.

Success does take hard work. But you will also eventually hit a point where  you’ve measured the gap, you’ve tested your own capabilities, you’ve done the math, and you know that it’s the right leap to make… and smart voices are still telling you not to do it. (Some of these voices may be in your own head.) Because it’s outside their narrative; because they don’t have the data you have; because it’s “not what people like us do”. And moving forward from that situation might not take courage, per se. But it does take a lot of chutzpah.

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One Comment

  1. This is a nice piece. I must admit that I actually have no idea what you do now–I know you used to be a programmer–and now you travel ALL OVER CREATION… but I’m glad it’s working out for you. 🙂

    For me–there are scary things afoot.. not because I’m bad at what I do–I really like teaching people how to think and communicate–esp. engineering students and I seem to be really damn good at it–but mainly because despite what everyone in the industry says.. … it also seems pretty clear that no one ACTUALLY wants to pay for that to happen.

    They want it for free somehow. It’s kinda a weird kind of tragedy of the commons thing happening.. in a way..

    Anyway.. It’ll be interesting to see what happens for me… I’m sure something reasonable will work itself out–because I have a pretty strong network.. my boss likes me and my boss’s boss also likes me.. and maybe I’ll end up doing something else–like directing some other kind of program or something.. Time will tell…

    This rambling digression was brought to you by a 7.2 mile bike ride home after a long day.. 🙂

    Hope y’all are well–it looks like it! 🙂

    PS–actually we’ll be driving near you sometime in June as we drive down to Charleston to see my brother, Sis-in-law, and nephew… I don’t know the timing yet–but maybe there’s a chance to actually stop by and say HI as I and the kids drive through…

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