Soren Kierkegaard asked God to give him the power to will one thing. Amid all the distractions of life he asked for the power to live a focused life, wholeheartedly, toward a single point.
We’ve all known geniuses and others who have practiced a secular version of this. They have found their talent and specialty. They focus monomaniacally upon it.
I just read “You Must Change Your Life,” Rachel Corbett’s joint biography of sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and they were certainly versions of this type.
The elder Rodin had one lesson for the young Rilke. “Travailler, toujours travailler.” Work, always work.
This is the heroic vision of the artist. He renounces earthly and domestic pleasures and throws himself into his craft. In his studio, Rodin could be feverishly obsessed, oblivious to all around him. “He abided by his own code, and no one else’s standards could measure him,” Corbett writes. “He contained within himself his own universe, which Rilke decided was more valuable than living in a world of others’ making.”
Rilke had the same solitary focus. With the bohemian revelry of turn-of-the-century Paris all around him, he was alone in his room. He celebrated love, but as a general outlook and not as something you gave to any one person.
Both men produced masterworks that millions have treasured. But readers finish Corbett’s book feeling that both men misspent their lives.
They were both horrid to their wives and children. Rodin grew pathetically creepy, needy and lonely. Rilke didn’t go back home as his father was dying, nor allow his wife and child to be with him as he died.
Do you have to be so obsessively focused to be great? The traditional masculine answer is yes. But probably the right answer is no.
In the first place, being monomaniacal may not even be good for your work. Another book on my summer reading list was “Range,” by David Epstein. It’s a powerful argument that generalists perform better than specialists.
The people who achieve excellence tend to have one foot outside their main world. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.
People who specialize in one thing succeed early, but then they slide back to mediocrity as their minds rigidify. A tech entrepreneur who is 50 is twice as likely to start a superstar company than one who is 30, because he or she has a broader range of experience. A survey of the fastest-growing tech startups found that the average age of the founder was 45.
For most people, creativity is precisely the ability to pursue multiple interests at once, and then bring them together in new ways. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote.
Furthermore, living a great life is more important than producing great work. A life devoted to one thing is a stunted life, while a pluralistic life is an abundant one. This is a truth feminism has brought into the culture. Women have rarely been able to live as monads. They were generally compelled to switch, hour by hour, between different domains and roles: home, work, market, the neighborhood.
A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram – the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life – say, family, vocation, friends, community, faith – and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.
You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.
Over the past month, while reading these books, I attended four conferences. Two were very progressive, with almost no conservatives. The other two were very conservative, with almost no progressives. Each of the worlds was so hermetically sealed I found that I couldn’t even describe one world to members of the other. It would have been like trying to describe bicycles to a fish.
I was reading about how rich the pluralistic life is, and how stifling a homogeneous life is. And I was realizing that while we’re learning to preach a gospel of openness and diversity, we’re mostly not living it. In the realm of public life, many live as monads, within the small circles of one specialty, one code, no greatness.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.