Is It Success If Nobody Knows About It?
There is a type of person I run into once in a while. They’re a rare breed, but I’ve met six or seven of them in my life. I don’t know how to classify them, but they have some things in common. They’re all extremely capable people who seem indifferent to the traditional trappings of success.
For a couple years in college and a few years afterwards I got into Role Playing games to a minor extent. A local group met at a used book and record shop in a slightly seedy part of town. One of the guys who worked at the shop played in some of the games. There was nothing about him that drew attention to him—just a skinny guy in his late twenties who wore blue jeans and a little beard. Gradually, over a period of six months I accidentally stumbled across this guy’s accomplishments. He was a world class chess player. He was also world class at half a dozen other things, some of them intellectual, some of them involving athletics of some kind. I never found out anything about this from him. The only time he talked about himself was to say that he had taught math at the high school level until he ran out of students who wanted to learn. He worked quietly at the record shop for a year or two, then moved on.
A few months ago I stumbled upon a website full of very powerful writing, very thoughtful and very well written. The guy behind it apparently isn’t a professional writer. He has a disclaimer on the site that says that as far as he’s concerned, when he puts something on the website it’s published. He makes no effort to reach a wider audience. He has a small body of fans, some of whom have created a forum to discuss his stuff, but he seems totally uninterested in promoting himself or his writing.
A few years ago I had a couple of students who were exceptionally accomplished. One would come in just before class started and create simple but beautiful computer art, then delete it. She showed other signs of an exceptional level of talent. The other was just exceptional skilled with computers—everything about them, hardware and software. He could have easily put together a thriving little business helping people with their computers even as a high school student, but for the most part he didn’t. He was quite willing to help if the issue interested him, but was unwilling to be tied down in the role of a computer person.
I’ve been thinking about those people. What do they have in common? What, if anything do they say about life and success? I see some common themes in their lives. First, they accomplished things because they wanted to, not because it gave them the traditional trapping of success. Second, they guarded their time jealously. They did what they wanted to with as much of their time as possible, in some cases sacrificing money and publicity to do that, and avoiding having their talents or time exploited in ways they didn’t find enjoyable. Third, and to some extent overlapping with the first two, they were deliberately fame indifferent.
Is that a rational set of behaviors and priorities? Can a person be a success when only a small circle of friends knows about their accomplishments? I think so, and in some ways I think it’s a rational way to deal with the world. Seeking fame can be giving other people control over whether or not your accomplishments are considered worthwhile. If you accomplish for yourself you only have to satisfy yourself. All of these people set high standards for themselves, but they control the standards and outside opinions aren’t really the point of the exercise.