“The first follower is actually an underestimated form of leadership in itself. … The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.” – Derek Sivers.
I’m sure you know someone with a big awesome crazy idea that could set the world on fire. They’re probably working on it right now. They find it completely absorbing and fascinating, and you’re pretty sure you would too if you understood it.
You know that person, right? They’re not the best communicators, they’re not always that well organized, but they have a clear, simple, pure idea. It drives them, and it gives them meaning. Sometimes it lasts the length of a project, sometimes it defines an entire life.
I have a friend who has devoted the entire month of July to writing his first novel. He’s well into the quintuple digits on his word count. Every day he updates it on Facebook, and every day I feel a curiously inspiring blend of inadequacy and power. As someone who has struggled with the various ways I express my various arts, and knowing the ways he has struggled, too, it gives me hope for myself.
Yesterday, I met a man at a green networking event who has designed, tested, and used an ultra low energy water pump, very efficient for lifting water. He thinks it could remove one of the biggest inefficiencies in window farms, and he would like to test it with an aquaponics rig. This simple idea is one that has driven his contributions to our efforts to make our human systems work for the earth.
I have a huge amount of admiration for people with a single driving idea, but I’m not one of those people. Hell, I have a huge amount of admiration for people that can focus their attention for even a month to simulate that kind of drive. I sometimes feel like my life would be easier, or maybe richer, or maybe more fulfilling, or maybe more interesting if I could, singly and under my own power, devote that kind of effort to a single project.
If you asked me the secret to happiness, I would probably say something like “learn how to be you.” Or maybe “first be who you are, then be a better version of that.” “Accept yourself as you are and the world as it is, then set about improving both.” Those sound trite and inadequate, like all advice. But they come from what I believe to be a profoundly observed phenomenon. Nothing in nature makes any effort to be anything but what it is. The human gift/curse of awareness allows us to make up ways we think we should be, and then to berate ourselves for not being it. Happiness, or at least a station along the way, lies in learning to be who you are without judging that.
I know all that, but the hardest part is to apply in my own life. I’m not the lone genius, and I’m not the general leading the charge. I admire them, and in some ways, at some times, I think I should try to be more like them. But I’m not like them, and I know misery will result from any effort I make in that direction.
I’ve spent my entire life thinking about things greater than myself. When I was, say, 7, I would very literally lay in bed and contemplate the infinite. That’s not a metaphor for meditation or curiosity about cosmology. I literally tried to imagine something infinitely large, or I would try to picture nothingness. I would see if I could stop thinking, and I would catch myself thinking about whether or not I was thinking. In my earnest teenage years, I would think about politics, the great ideologies, and try to puzzle out solutions to all social ills between practicing my guitar and bingeing on junk food in front of Saturday Night Live. In University I studied psychology, sociology, and world cultures. I was looking for indications of what not only a positive, ethical, green life would look like, but a positive, ethical, and green society and culture. I’ve been working on this project a while, and I think I’ve gotten some pretty solid ideas of what is and isn’t working.
And yet, I watch someone build a shed in their back yard, and I feel like I haven’t “done” anything to be proud of.
So, I give myself over. I can’t resolve this tension on my own. I don’t want to be a leader, at least not right away. I have too many ideas, too many interests, too much I still want to learn. But I want to give of my knowledge, and curiosity, and inspiration. I have so much of the intangibles, and I love nothing more than to share them. But I don’t know what to “do” about it. My attempts to “do” something about it usually draw my directly into another glorious binge on pure unstructured learning. And then I drive my fiancee nuts lecturing her about all my fun new knowledge. Theoretical, practical, doesn’t matter. Put learnings in brain.
Now that I think of it, know anyone who needs an R&D department?