I didn’t unlock the secret to success. Although, it’s likely that I’m in a slightly better position than I was yesterday. On a recent and brief trip to Cadaqués for the purpose of a little relaxation and recuperation, I embarked on an unplanned adventure through time that unexpectedly gave me a much-needed lift on my perspective. The mechanism through which most of this change occurred was through the relaxation of the mind by virtue of one of the most fascinating and curious reads I’ve ever had.
It was a book on personality, lent to me by one of my best friends who I met while studying my master’s degree in Barcelona this past year. While skeptical at first, the catalyst for me actually opening the book was my understanding that that this book was published in 1915 and that it had been in the family of my classmate (who hails from Germany) for at least 3 generations. Humorously, I had misunderstood the origins of the book. It was actually a gift to him during his undergraduate studies in the States from one of his professors who was an avid book collector. The fact that the book was a portable size and just 120 pages also helped my cause.
This book, called “Personality: How to Build It,” was written from the perspective of a French man, who presumably was himself, “successful”. In this book, the author is concerned with conveying what he believes to be the recipe for success in terms of creating for oneself an aura, a reputation, and a unique identity focused around cunning, sensible discretion, winning ways, and various categories of achievement relative to others. The key element of the author’s taxonomy of a winner, who he refers to as “adroit arrivers”, which I could not reconcile, was this conditionality and relativity to others.
The author, to be fair, in all of his brazen, omniscient authority, certainly conveys some advice which is helpful and relevant today – perhaps even timeless. The way he eloquently speaks of exposing something original to the world and knowing oneself well enough to identify special qualities and to develop them, is inspiring. Care and vigilance, energetic sincerity, perspicacity, determination, and perseverance are all astutely analyzed as elements necessary to form a personality. While pride, envy, jealousy, and conceit are graphically described and demonstrated as defects to be overcome.
But what is most fascinating is that valuable insights can be derived even from the elements that aren’t accurate or relevant today. By combining a contemporary perspective, a reflective mind and a little multidisciplinary academic knowledge, it’s possible to infer from the contextual setting of the author, valuable lessons to better understand the world of yesterday and today, and the people in it. For one thing, the world was much simpler back then, or at least our understanding of it was. Now globalism drives our world economy, almost everything we know about our world is available online, and greater attention gets paid to social issues such as poverty, equality, human/civil rights, and climate change. Also, Psychology (the study of the human mind and behavior) was in its infancy – and still is, really; although it has come a long way since 1915.
Despite the author’s elegant early 20th century language and convincing tact when conveying his point of view, I still disagree with a couple of concepts. Although the author masterfully sells the ideology of “arriving” and that of narcissism, using subtle descriptions, intriguing anecdotes, and profound assurance in his tone, I couldn’t come to grips with his outlook. Maybe it’s not so obvious at first, what’s so bad about “arriving” or being a “winner”. Aside from the conditionality of the author’s definition on one’s position relative to others; is there really a definitive end, a point at which we can confidently say, “I’ve arrived; I’ve won; I’ve done IT!”?
I do not agree that this belief in a definite goal – which still requires maintenance to retain one’s position over others – is superior to the approach that life is a journey with no predefined script where the only instructions for this role are those related to self-improvement. Not to mention that progress or achievement defined dependent upon one’s initial position across the spectrum of others, may not maximize one’s potential. Rather, competing with one’s self is a strategy better designed to maximize one’s potential. Aside from fulfilling our potential, happiness and meaning can come from other sources – often those we least expect – like everyday wonders that occur when we stop to smell the roses. This highlights the importance of also enjoying the journey; cherishing the present.
Perhaps another thing that our overwhelmingly complex world of today impresses upon us is the consciousness that each of us is but a blip in the grand scheme of time, generations, cultures, and societies. To live with this realization, it is essential to have humility. If we have great faith in something, it must come from some source more profound, more enduring than our selfish ego. Trusting too much in one’s mind can be tempting but dangerous.
The author seductively paints the portrait of the ideal personality as one who must necessarily think critically and strategically about how to advance one’s position via self-centered manipulation of the mind. Depending on how you look at it, this can work out well as in the case of the Medici family with the help of Niccolo Machiavelli during the Italian Renaissance period. These teachings make me think that the author must have been skilled in his ability to overpower his cognitive dissonance with confirmation bias. I further hypothesize that he lived within society in which his state of mind actually served him quite well. Perhaps the author’s stance still maintains great advantages at an individual level, but on an aggregate scale, I don’t think the general equilibrium outcome would be so wonderful if too many in the population subscribed to his outlook.
Our brains are an indispensable tool, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves by overestimating its ability to unlock the answers to some of the greatest challenges we’ll face in life. Excessive stroking of the mental ego can actually build a toxic immunity to one’s humanity. Ego-centrism puts self-interest ahead of building relationships, serving others, improving the livelihoods of those we touch and the welfare of the greater global society. Our humanitarian instincts can mysteriously tap into the unknown, and more likely build a connection to something infinitely vaster than one’s self.
The read was fascinating, helpful, humorous, curious, and even a little disconcerting (at the moments I was hoping that not everyone in the world is thinking the same way as the author with respect to “arriving” on a narcissistic shuttle). At the dismaying moments it seemed possible that the elite establishment of this previous era were the precursor to the dominance of unfettered global capitalism, and the seeds of the now robust and rising tide of neoliberal politics and academics we observe in the US and in parts of Europe? I clearly connect the author’s categorical mindset to statistical discrimination and virtuous cycles for the upper classes and vicious cycles for the poor.
Developmental psychology tells us that some of the personality traits the author addresses are not so easy to change, and traumatic life experiences during sensitive stages of life can have a much more formative impact on one’s psychology than a self-help book or coach as an adult, when one’s personality is all but cemented. Nonetheless, we should always celebrate and foster the full evolution of our character, personality and unique identity, while not failing to take lessons from the past; and let’s motivate ourselves to maximize our potential in ways that can only be defined more broadly.
The first thing to avoid is that chronic and contagious folly, fashion, which changes our habits, our thoughts, our body and our life. Accept it only in reasonable form, follow it from a distance and under the least enslaving form.
Conserve your innate originality. Don’t be dragged into tastes which are not your own. Defend yourself against any characteristic of others. Learn to judge everything for yourself without being the perfect repeater of the judgements of others.
… Live stoically on the borders of a promised land, in spite of revolts and unbeliefs which mutter within you. Be the captain of your ship of destiny launched on the ocean of life.”
— H. Laurent, “Personality: How to Build It”
(Image © Benjamin Anderson 2015)