Like most of us, Steve Jobs was a flawed human being. Yet, he remains one of the most admired people of the last few generations.
There are enough stories of him treating people poorly that I don’t need to list them. The question of whether or not he grew, whether or not he learned from his mistakes, is also an open one. What is beyond contention, however, is that he had a vision that could inspire people from all walks of life in a way that few before him could and few after him will be able to.
When asked about what he was looking to do, he famously said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”
Immediately that framing taps into something deeper, something that resonates with each person in their own way. I don’t know what your personal definition of a dent in the universe is, nor do you know mine, but if we sit down to talk for a little while, we would likely both broadly agree with the fact that it means something to us, and that it should mean something, that we should tap into that kind of ambition in our own way.
Many have gone to work in the technology industry because of that vision. Others have taken that same mindset to help, say, fight poverty overseas. In either case, what we are getting at is a yearning for something. Maybe we don’t always know quite what, but a yearning for something better; a belief that things can indeed be better in the future.
At the same time, however, it’s easy to say that you want to make a dent. It’s easy to feel something when you read or hear something like that, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually will. Fundamentally, life is about action, and thoughts and emotions and actions all create feedback loops with each other in strange ways that aren’t as direct as: think and then do.
The anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that our sense of self is created in response to our deep, fundamental fear of death. Because humans can imagine the future with their thought patterns, they can imagine their own death, and as such, we build a sense of self to defy this destiny. The self can live on in culture, in the hearts of other people, and that makes the shortness and the impermanence of life a little more bearable. We use this self to think, we use it to imagine, and we use it to judge.
But the question is: How does someone like Steve Jobs use his sense of self, his personal thinking patterns, to imagine a distant world and bring it into reality, whereas most of us fail to do so?
I can’t speak for Jobs, nor can I speak for others like him, but it seems to me that the problem isn’t thinking or imagination. Many people have vivid imaginations. They live much of their lives lost in their thoughts, hoping for something, wishing for something, but never quite getting it. To come to a clearer answer, we have to dig a little deeper into our motivations.
Evolution says that we are motivated broadly by two things: the natural selection aspect means that we fight for survival by avoiding what is harmful, by overcoming competitors for a bunch of resources; the sexual selection aspect, on the other hand, means that we are driven by a desire to preserve our genetic code — we find mates, we rear children, and we hope they will pass on our legacy, and we sacrifice a lot to do all of this. So, we broadly have a fear of harm, and we have a desire for preservation.
Fear of harm means that we are in survival mode — we are constantly thinking of limiting the downside. The desire for preservation, however, doesn’t have an upper limit the way the fear of harm has a lower limit (eg. death). In this sense, fear is a more immediate motivator in the short-term, whereas desire is a stronger motivator across the larger horizons of time.
In the complexity of human thought, in the world of imagination, both of these motivators are present. They are intervened. Depending on our individual genetic code, depending on the cultural environment that raises us, depending on the life experience that shapes us, each of us has some fear in us and some desire in us woven together to create an inner life that influences our decisions and our actions in the world.
We can also broadly make another distinction between fear and desire. Fear is generally inhibitory. It’s a fight and flight response meant to overreact to dangerous situations. Desire, on the other hand, is what makes us want more in the larger context of the world we live in. In our imagination, both of these drives play into each other. Fear stops us from taking action or at least taking coherent, thought-out actions. Desire motivates us to do things.
This kind of thinking provides little more clarity as to why most people don’t make their dent like, say, Steve Jobs did. If their thoughts and their imagination are active, and they still can’t bring themselves to do something in the world, the problem isn’t the desire. The problem is fear. Even if they are not fearful-seeming on the surface, even they can’t pinpoint any great fears in their mind, deep down somewhere, they have something holding them back because they don’t truly believe that they can overcome the challenges waiting for them in the future. And sometimes, even if they do believe they can overcome them, they don’t think they are worthy.
If we look at things from this end, what it comes down to is this: Thoughts in the imagination do become actions and results in the real world, but only if we have the tenacity to face our fears in the pursuit of them.
The physician Maria Montessori, who I recently stumbled upon and who has a philosophy of education that bears her name, once said:
“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”
The act of creation in the world is born out of desire. Desire fuels our thoughts and imagination. And if we don’t have any fears obstructing us, or if we have the courage and the strength to face them when they do come up, there is no reason — beyond the limits of our knowledge of the Cosmos and the laws of physics — we can’t use our thinking patterns to create a world in our mind that we can then bend the reality around us into.
The problem with fear, however, is that it often manifests in strange ways. Some people naturally display a higher level of anxiety than others, and that sometimes makes it a little clearer. Others, however, shield their fears with latent anger and constant frustration. A few yet hide behind the comfort of procrastination or what they think of as innate laziness. All of these things are rooted in the same thing — either a lack of belief in your ability to accomplish something or a lack of self-worth.
The solution to these problems are personal, and they are different for each of us depending on how we model the world in our mind, but a big part of the journey is just awareness — of your sense of self, of your behavior, of the gap between what you think, what you imagine, you want and what you actually do on a day to day basis to manifest those things into reality.
Steve Jobs was a genius, no doubt; he worked incredibly hard; and he had the charisma to get others to do the same in pursuit of his goals. The first and the last of these are not things most of us can borrow from him. We might be able to steal a spark on our own journey to betterment, but he was who he is and you are who you are, and that is as it is. The second, however, only comes when there is no longer any mental friction in the mind in regards to what you want, and what you are going to do to get it.
There are lots of things that aren’t fair in life. What is fair, however, is that effort, fueled by the right kind of thinking, can create worlds that most people just haven’t built up the courage to act out. And that acting just comes down to one thing: the will of desire over the inhibition of fear.
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