Just a quick shower thought this morning, something that occurred to me while thinking about Jonathan Franzen’s article/excerpt from The Kraus Project (about Austrian satirist Karl Kraus):
But Kraus had changed me. When I gave up on short stories and returned to my novel, I was mindful of his moral fervour, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence-writer. I wanted to expose America’s contradictions the way he’d exposed Austria’s, and I wanted to do it via the novel, the popular genre that Kraus had disdained but I did not. I still hoped to finish my Kraus project, too, after my novel had made me famous and a millionaire.
What struck me about the passage was Franzen’s confession of grandiosity as a young writer. In Franzen’s case his younger self’s grandiosity turned out to be predictive, but obviously there are far more grandiose young writers who do not become rich and famous (or even moderately successful). So what’s the relationship between grandiosity and greatness? None at all?
I’m trying this hypothesis on for size: grandiosity is a prerequisite for greatness.
Obviously there are many prerequisites for achieving anything even remotely great (as measured by popular appeal, universal appeal across cultures and generations, influence on thinking and the direction of a field, pleasing critics — however you want to define the term). Most would agree that some degree of natural talent is required, as is a cultural context of support (encouraging parents, mentors, access to equipment/gear/materials/information), a diligent work ethic, perseverance, and of course luck. I’d argue that grandiosity is an additional prerequisite, just as important as the others. Grandiosity is simply the conviction that you might be able to achieve something great before you have actually done so.
Is grandiosity only the expression of such a conviction? I don’t think so. If the conviction exists without being expressed, it’s simply silent grandiosity (the best kind). The strong ego is still there. Ego in this case is a good thing, a strong sense of I does not necessarily make someone egotistical. Without a strong ego, without the conviction that the work might lead to something worthy, there’s not chance of greatness. Instead the result is no work at all, or dabbling, or unambitious projects. Thinking small.
What about the artist/creator who sees themselves as a channel for some higher force? “I just get out of the way and the art flows through me.” Fine — whatever works — but the strong ego is still there (in the channeler/conduit role, if not originator).
So how should a person deal with these feelings, the conviction that something great might be achieved, with enough sweat equity? Here’s my take on it:
- Keep the feeling to yourself. Don’t talk about what you plan to do, refer to only what you have done (and then only when asked).
- Be in on the joke. The odds are against you. You’re probably wrong. Most people don’t achieve anything great. So what?
- Focus on the things you can control. You can’t control your natural talent or your cultural background. You can control what you focus on (choose an area where you have some talent!), your practice/work habits, your perseverance, and your internal convictions.
The paradox is that the ego actually gets in the way when you’re doing the work. For creative work you need to be in touch with the subconscious and perceptual and empathic parts of the brain (at least in order to create anything interesting). Thinking about achievement and goals and how the work will be judged is a terrible distraction. But the ego plays a role in organizing and allocating the resources that allow the work to happen and continue (time, money, career), and the ego needs the promise of rewards. Without the conviction that there are rewards to be had (grandiosity), the ego might shut down the work.
The key thing to remember? Without a little grandiosity (hopefully not the obnoxious kind), there is 0% chance of achieving anything great. So cherish your illusions/delusions of grandeur. And keep working.