You can’t have it all. No one can.
Not in the world as we know it, anyway: for everything you “have” you have to let go of something. And we get that in our heads, but it’s hard to accept in real life, because when we chase things we too easily focus on our lack of them, and not on what chasing them might mean giving up.
Two broad outcomes can follow.
- You hold on to what you have: You realise you like what you already have and hold on to it, turning down the new thing. Which is alright if the new thing isn’t so hot anyway. But it’s tough to realise the new thing is way better, but you lost grasp of it by trying to renew your hold on the old.
- You get what you want: Again if it’s way better, and you prefer it, cool. But it might not be, but by the time you see that, you’ve been charged, as it were. Life has already extracted payment. It’s hard enough to find out you’ve been charged for what you thought was a free product, or that you were being charged more than you expected because there were hidden costs. When the cost goes beyond money to meaning, that can be very hard to bear.
In both cases, the challenge is realising too late that you weren’t just deciding to do something, you were choosing it over something else. It’s worse when it’s the tangible consequences of a choice you didn’t even realise you were making: you didn’t realise that in taking one thing you were un-choosing the other. And you end up feeling cheated, and wanting to find someone to blame—including yourself.
Like you probably learned in secondary school economics: every opportunity comes with a cost. Every path you take is another you turn down. Every yes is a thousand nos.
One area where this really shows up is in developing personal strengths.
Everyone gets that you should grow your strengths—what most aren’t ready for is what that will cost them. Being highly developed in any one area is being less developed in others. Balance is the price you pay for brilliance.
Let’s call this the personal cost.
It’s no small cost, either. And I’m not even referring to lack of work-life balance as part of an unhealthy prioritisation of work. I’m talking about the fact that the effort you put into getting better at anything means very simply leaving some other things on the table. The 3 or so hours I spend most weekends with fellow writing friends is three hours I don’t have to spend on other things. But if I spent it on those other things, they wouldn’t be available for writing either. Saying yes to my writing means saying no to other things. That’s the personal cost.
But there’s an even deeper cost, which I think is at the root of we tend to aim for balance over brilliance: the social cost.
What if the strengths you think you’ve got aren’t prized by the people you know?
What if no one cares about what I write? Even worse, what if they actually pay attention to it, but it’s the wrong kind of attention: dislike, criticism, condemnation? Is it still worth it then to work at being better at this thing I think I’m good at? (David Perell talks about this writer’s paradox of our being afraid our writing won’t be known but also being afraid that it’ll be lambasted.)
We instinctively realise that being outstanding will make us stand out—perhaps like a sore thumb. It’s why we intuitively understand the mad genius trope: the insanely intelligent person who ends up being really seen as insane. On a deep level, we recognise that the price they pay for their brilliance is a fundamental inability to fit in. But we also recognise that somehow it’s a price worth paying.
In real life, though, it’s rarely this dramatic. “Brilliance” probably feels too strong a description of our skills and strengths. But the issue remains: focusing where we have an edge is how you end up edgy, and we’re really not trying to be. Life is less socially stressful for the rounded. And meanwhile, we continue to secretly admire the brilliant people on screen and in our lives.
How to ease this conflict? Some advice I once received comes to mind.
When I wanted to buy my first car, an older relative said to me: “Don’t buy a car that stands out too much for the part of town you live in”. It wasn’t something I’d really considered before that, but I quickly saw his point: unless I was prepared to live with the gossip, I’d best not stand out if I could help it. I decided I could live with it and bought the best car I liked that was within my budget—a secondhand Toyota Corolla that in other parts of town was really quite average—or less.
But although I didn’t take the advice, I was grateful for the perspective it offered, and have thought about it often in many other decisions. For me, its value was threefold: it reminded me that choices come with social consequences, but also that those consequences, being social, will depend on where you are—and sometimes those consequences are deserved.
And both apply to this issue of brilliance and balance:
- Don’t get a “flashy” car and expect people not to talk. If you choose to work on your strengths and your interests, be prepared to own the edges that come with them.
- Every “flashy” car is just average somewhere. For everywhere you stand out, there’s somewhere you fit in. Find a community of people for whom your strengths are average, and your interests are norms. It’s easier to be outstanding in one place when you know there’s another where you’re just regular.
- Don’t ignore the others. It’s possible the talk is right, and you (and your community) are mistaken, and your interests are really insidious. It’s possible you’re being a jerk. Sometimes insane geniuses really aren’t genius at all.
How do you know which is which? That’s not an easy question, because the right answer changes as you grow, and as things change. But I think a good place to start is to keep asking it—as long as you’re asking, you’re still hopefully listening, rather than egocentrically navel-gazing and ignoring the real world.
Hone your strengths, own your edges, and pay attention.
My thanks to Markus Winkler for the image.