A young man wrote to Slashdot some time ago. He described himself as a person of natural ability, broad interests and unfocused energies. I was a bright kid, too. I am also, I think, an underachiever. For those of you who know about such things, I’m an INTP. If you are—like that young man—uniquely bright, or if you are struggling to find success, allow me to offer some advice gleaned from my life so far:
First, decide now whether you’re okay with being mediocre the rest of your life. If mediocrity is your goal, then coasting on your natural abilities will get you there and keep you there, and you can survive just fine as a mediocre citizen. If, however, what you really want is to distinguish yourself and to contribute something unique to the world, start getting used to the idea right now that you’re going to have to work your ass off. You’re going to have to work far outside of your comfort zone, and not be content with achieving only what most people will tell you is acceptable. You know bettter. You know you can achieve more. The lazy way you’ve been operating up ‘till now can not continue; it will not be acceptable if you want to be a better you.
Genius is no guarantee of success, and stupidity is no guarantee of failure. The difference in almost every case is how much hard work and sacrifice you’re prepared to put in to achieve your goals. I had people telling me my whole life how brilliant I was and how much of a success I would be, but I never really achieved the kind of success they described. I’m proud of what I’ve done and of who I am, but I’m not a famous actor and writer, winning Oscars and Tonys left and right. That kind of success takes a level of self-examination and courage I never sought to muster. I believed my own press clippings and that was the death of my career.
Don’t believe people who tell you you’ll be successful because you’re clever or because you do clever things. These people do not understand success. There’s no clever way to win a marathon. You simply have to be willing to endure more.
If you have trouble staying focused, then surround yourself with people who inspire you. Be responsible to someone. Surround yourself with people who won’t let you off the hook.
And insist on making your own way. Your path is your own, and no one can tell you where it is or how to traverse it. To understand this, read anything you can get your hands on by Joseph Campbell – watch his videos if you can find them at your local library. He often talks of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. When the knights embarked on their quest for the Holy Grail, “each entered the forest where they could see that it was the darkest, and there was no way or path.” To achieve the Grail, you need to decide where to enter the forest, and you have to choose the place to enter that is the most challenging for you.
Most importantly, perhaps, make sure you can answer the question, “What do I want?” Ask this question often and answer it honestly. Seems simple enough, but in our early lives what we want is often determined by others, and we don’t always practice developing our own sense of what’s important. When you can truly know what you want for yourself, you will find that getting it is a hell of a lot easier.
Finally, enjoy yourself. Listen to music, walk through the woods, go see plays – whatever it is that calms you, centers you, awakens your sense of joy… do that thing. You should work hard, yes, but you shouldn’t have to suffer endlessly. You will know you’re on the right path when your hard work is something you do because it brings you to life. You will know you’re in balance when you spend as much energy on appreciation as on accomplishment.
Life is the adventure of fulfilling your unique abilities. If you find this advice resonates with you, don’t try to follow it. Just tuck it away in your back pocket and head into the woods.