We tend to measure up against each other. It’s called having a competitive nature. We love doing it. “Manchester is better than Liverpool” or vice versa. “Nelson was better than Napoleon”. “Newton was better than Einstein and both were certainly better than me”. “I should be more like Patrick Stewart or Morgan Freeman” They can be fictional too… “That Aragorn, he’s a hansom fellow and he’s good with a sword too… I suck with swords.” This is counterproductive.
In idealizing our role models, past or present we tend to take from them that which brings us closer to understanding why they are great – their flaws and by extension, their humanity. Could Newton have come up with the theory of relativity and phrased in in the same way as Einstein? Maybe… But the fact of the matter is that Newton was not Einstein, he lived in a completely different time, he was a mystic obsessed with finding the philosopher stone, and in his spare time he revolutionized natural philosophy, which is not to say that he placed as great a value on it as he did on his alchemical pursuits – he was a product of his time and it could be argued that “Principia” would never have been written or published had it not been for the insistence, friendship and patronage of Edmund Halley, who DID see the true significance of it.
The principles of Newtonian mechanics are fairly simple. So simple in fact it’s taught in 7th grade here. It is within the power of a child thirteen years of age to understand and demonstrate this understanding by writing the mathematical formulae and arguing the proofs. Was Newton therefor any different than you and I? You could say “well he thought of it first” and this is true, maybe. He was certainly the first to publish an academic paper about it, and he was the first to make clear sense of it and show it to the world, but this involved the participation of others. It is also possible, because the man named Newton thought of it, that others have or could have, but simply did not come by the set of circumstances necessary to either realize the revolutionary nature of their insight or bring it before an audience that might, or who may not have had the inclination.
Mihai Eminescu was a 19th century Romanian poet. The greatest literary mind our nation has ever known, it is taught. In a novella called “Sarmanul Dionis” – “Miserable Dyonis” in a philosophical tour de force, he tackles the issue of perception, among other things. The question of whether when you say something is red, would what you are seeing be something that I would also call red, or would it be my green? I asked myself this same question in second grade, having never read his works, I never told anyone because it never really came up in conversation after that and when I did read the novella I was rather amazed that that same idea had been thought of so long ago that I was somehow no longer special, less individual and more a collection of random thoughts that just so happen to exist together in this particular arrangement – thoughts that may be part of who other people are.
While personal experience is by no means indicative of truth, but rather a possible clue to a way forward in the pursuit thereof I too often hear from others this idea that something is beyond their comprehension or ability. To quote a cliche “genius is 99% hard work”. The quote leaves room for doubt, maybe it was the scientist in Einstein who thought one could never be sure, but can only establish degrees of certainty.
We instead tend to focus on this infinitesimal but comfortable and convenient doubt about our own potential to excuse ourselves from the hard work we must endure to achieve true greatness. This is the danger of role models and why it is stupid to assume they are greater than us. It is the pursuit of our insights and dreams that distinguishes the great from the many rather than the ideas themselves, the 1% is in fact there in everyone.
By ignoring this fact and failing to recognize one’s own individuality we end up in a uniform society, and by uniform I do not mean flat, but rather a patchwork of uniforms. We tend to think that “every generation has its’ way”. The 80s had strange hair, the 90s had full denim suits and somewhat less spandex, Generation Y has their Apple gear and thick black glass frames, metalheads have their long hair and “fuck you” attitude. These are all uniforms, worn by those who would define themselves by a certain idea, an idea that was voiced by someone else, which they may agree with, and which may be perfectly reasonable, but that does not and cannot encompass all validity.
It is far more beneficial to include all experience into one’s world view and try to make sense of it with this enhanced “dataset” than to automatically dismiss that which is foreign because it does not fit a predefined model of who we think we ought to be