When I look back on my life, I’ve made countless mistakes, some of which were more costly than others, but one general theme I’ve noticed about my own mistakes is that in my younger years (i.e., 20s and early 30s) I let my ego grow a little too large. This post–I suppose–could serve as a letter to my younger self, containing some thoughts I wish I had internalized then.
I grew up in the 90s, when computers and the Internet were on the cusp of upending every aspect of life. Because I taught myself to code at a somewhat young age, people thought I was some kind of computer savant (which I hardly am). In reality, I was just a socially awkward kid with few friends and a limited social life, thus I took to computers as a way to entertain and stimulate my mind, and perhaps find some human connection through the Internet.
In those early years of my life, people were constantly telling me how I was special, simply because I had some basic computer skills. To those people, it seemed that what I could do with computers was magic. The reality was that there was no magic, I had merely spent a lot of time on the Internet reading and tinkering, so I acquired some knowledge, but I was no more special than anyone else. Many years of getting my ego fluffed made me feel as if I was special, and it wasn’t until my luck started to run out in my 30s that I began to realize I was merely lucky, and not particularly brilliant.
To be fair, I did have to work hard, and I did make things happen in my life, but it had a lot less to do with any skills, talent, abilities, intellect, etc., and more to do with being in the right place at the right time (a young lonely kid growing up with the Internet as my only friend). These days when I read stories about “genius”, I roll my eyes because having been called a “genius” many times I know full well that there’s no such thing as genius, only people who let their egos grow bigger than their intellect. The vast majority of insanely successful people got there not because of their skills or talent, but simply because they came from a privileged background and had no qualms about climbing over everyone else.
For some people, that luck never runs out. Or rather, if you get lucky enough early on, you can simply keep riding that initial wave of success. In my interactions with various “successful” people (i.e., much more successful than me), I’ve found they are all pretty unremarkable once you get past the aura that surrounds them. Most of the time the stories of success are much bigger and more fanciful than the reality of what those super-successful people did to get where they are. And by “success”, most people think of some combination of money and fame. In my case, I made some money but I’ve made a great effort to avoid any sort of fame because after getting a tiny taste of attention I realized it was better to be anonymous.
To be clear, some people do have incredible talent or skills, but society doesn’t reward those people as much as it should, aside from a select handful of people. There are countless highly talented artists, performers, scientists, researchers, philosophers, and so on who never manage to make a living doing what they love, and instead are forced to either pursue side gigs or go into fields that are orthogonal to their passions to make ends meet. There are many examples of such historical figures who lived lives of desperation and never received much success, praise, or appreciation during their lives. Some of the most successful of these highly talented people are those who got rich another way (such as from their parents or some unrelated mundane business) and were free to pursue their passions because of that privilege. You see this a lot in the entertainment industry: many of the top artists or actors coincidentally came from well-to-do and well-connected parents.
That brings me to my final point: one lesson I learned much too late is to stay humble. It’s easy to forget how difficult things can become while you’re riding high atop the wave, but it never lasts forever and your luck can change in an instant. If I could go back and speak to a younger version of myself, I’d try to implore myself to be grateful for what I’ve currently got, rather than getting overly ambitious and trying to keep up with those around me who appear to be succeeding more than me. It turns out, most of those people who I thought were succeeding more than me or happier than me weren’t, and I was doing quite well in life, even if didn’t feel that way at the time. It’s also true that more money or fame will not increase your happiness beyond a certain baseline.
There’s a delicate balance between ambition and accepting where you’re at in life. Ambition is great, but there’s also nothing wrong with learning to be happy with where you are and what you’ve got, especially when you’re in a great place with no real problems.