Of Mice and Men

by Abiola Lapite | 5/13/98 5:00am

There are essentially two schools of thought on how life is best lived. There are those who believe that the important thing in life is to have a steady, well-paying source of income, to have a nice home and family, to be liked by one's peers and neighbors and to live to old age in good health. In the eyes of such people, exertion too far above and beyond the ordinary seems not only unnecessary but even unseemly: why kill oneself striving to do something extraordinary when it takes so little to be above average? Far better, in the eyes of those who reason in this fashion, to take life easy and to enjoy all the moments of leisure that one can: eating, drinking, watching television, enjoying gossip, playing games -- these are the things that supposedly give meaning to life.

I come from a very different school of thought. My view of life is simple -- life is a fleeting thing at which one gets only a single shot, so why waste it on the trivial and the routine? Why not try to make one's life mean something? Why not try to do really significant things with the opportunities and talents one has? Am I by nature an underling; should I not seek to surpass all that came before me?

If you view life the way I do, you feel that every moment is precious, and every hour spent in idleness or rehashing what has been done before is a wasted hour, an hour that could have been spent doing something truly significant. If you think as I do, every day you to say to yourself about everything "but what if the whole world is wrong on this matter? Can't I find a better way?" You at all times would rather struggle with an issue, however technical, rather than take some authority's word for it, and if the whole world is saying one thing and your reason another, you have the courage to say "The world be damned!"

I am talking here not about armchair criticism, but "creative destruction," by which I mean criticism on behalf of innovation, rather than as a sterile exercise in rhetoric. It means being able to change one's mind when the evidence compels one to do so, but it also means being willing to stand one's ground even if it means tearing down sacred institutions. It isn't about suburban youths wearing peace signs and smoking dope on the White House steps. It means having some great goal in life, something both truly innovative and extremely difficult. The goal could be one of any number of things -- it could be to write the greatest novel of one's age, to find a grand unifying theory of physics, to create a new architecture fitting for a new age, to be a pioneer in an industry being born. What is important is that the vision be so central to one's life that it seems a divine mandate one has no choice but to obey.

That state of almost divine mission is what it means to truly be alive. Instead of being yet another dull, salaried professional, instead or resisting change, going unaware that change is actually occurring or even embracing change as an ally, one is instead the instigator of change, the nuisance who lives to rock the boat everyone else is so comfortably sitting in, the outsider burning, itching, to turn the whole world upside down.

This is not a role that many can play, as it requires being willing to stand on one's own, to reject everything that one's acquaintances care about, if the need arises. It means being willing to take risks and to go the extra mile to learn about issues relevant to one's purpose. The agent of change is necessarily a thoroughgoing individualist; nothing really worthwhile in the annals of history has been achieved by committee effort, and truly original ideas by definition cannot be popular. To go the route of innovation is to be seen as arrogant, stubborn, elitist and excessively ambitious by those who don't share one's intensity and passion for a goal, and it can mean a lifetime of relentless toiling on behalf of a vision that is never realized. On the other hand, it can mean being among the handful in every generation who add to the storehouse of human achievement.

Whether one becomes another seat-warmer on a good salary or an agent of change isn't really one's choice to make -- one either has a need to do something significant or one doesn't. Most people, at Dartmouth and elsewhere, fall into the latter category, and however much it may seem a moral failing to those of us who live more intensely, the steady professionals of the world are no more to be blamed for their outlook than we are for ours. The world does need innovators, but it also needs its armies of steady middle-managers, bankers and lawyers. What does not make sense to me is that they should be at Dartmouth at the expense of the future Steve Jobses and Frank Lloyd Wrights of the world.

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