You should consider yourself exceptional
Nietzsche, Christ, Jobs, and a soon-to-be centenarian on whether or not you should think of yourself as special.
Welcome to A Work in Progress. This is not a “newsletter”—I do not publish on a regular cadence or about any particular topic; sometimes I write essays and sometimes I write poems. If you’re reading this because you are a subscriber, thank you for following along.
Today, I am expanding on a recent thread of mine. The truth is that I, for the most part, write to convince myself. I suspect that this is the mark of an amateur writer, but anyways, here we are. Today’s words are words that I am perhaps more in need of hearing right now than I have ever been in my entire life, and from my discussion on Twitter I got the sense that other people feel the same way. There is a delicate line to walk here, one which I hope to walk appropriately as I think about it more deeply; I hope I have struck the right balance. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Consider yourself exceptional. Anything short of that is a gross disservice to the inherent potential that all human beings are endowed with. I say all of us because it is true, in today’s world at least. If the world were cut and dry and perfectly efficient perhaps only those of us with the highest IQs would see any chance at success, however you’d like to define it. But we live in a messy world, a non-exact realm comprised entirely of probabilities and correlations, one where the immaterial and the intangible are non-negligible. You can will your way around the world, for now, at least. The world is truly your oyster, should you will it.
The one thing that all exceptional people throughout all of human history have had in common no matter their flavor, from Christ to Jobs to Caesar and Napoleon, is the simple fact that they willed something into existence. They chose to do something. And not only did they engage in the act of choosing, not only did they bend the arc of history to their will, but they often felt themselves to be uniquely suited for the job, and sometimes even destined for it. They thought themselves to be special, and thus they were.1
The common Nietzschean refrain here is that this attitude was washed away in the tides of the Christian revolution, for the worse of us all. “The meek shall inherent the Earth”, said Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, deftly managing to completely subvert the predominant ethical framework that had until then governed the entirety of human affairs since the very beginning of time. In criticizing this, Nietzsche was directionally correct, but only directionally so. This is something I have echoed in my past writing:
Nietzsche was worried about morality and the “instinct of obedience” running wild and being taken to some final extreme:
“If we think of this instinct taken to its ultimate extravagance there would be no commanders or independent men at all; or, if they existed, they would suffer from a bad conscience and in order to be able to command would have to practise a deceit upon themselves: the deceit, that is, that they too were only obeying.”
Nietzsche believed that Christianity made us too nice and too soft, an awfully easy way to neuter the creative instinct. But Nietzsche chose the wrong culprit, there is nothing soft about the example of Christ. The most remarkable aspect of Christ, I would posit, is that until him, men like him were conqueror-types. They were the Alexanders and the Caesars. What Christ did was subvert the very definition of greatness, and there is nothing meek about that. Christ was the ultimate Carlylean great man, something Carlyle himself did not seem to realize, from what I can tell.
Christ flipped tables too. He was exceptional and absolutely thought himself to be so. Metaphysical considerations aside, how else do you, in the ultimate act of political atheism, flip the entire world order on its head? Christ birthed the most popular and longstanding meme in all of history, one who’s ethics remain unshakeable no matter how hard you try to throw out its metaphysics. (The truth is that the water you are currently swimming in is Christian.) There is a delicate line to walk here, but surely one can admit that there is nothing meek about the example of Christ.2
All of this is to say: you can be a nice person and impose yourself at the very same time—Christ certainly did. I think back to a quote in my last piece:
La calidad se impone no se improvisa; es el producto de una laboriosa experiencia.3
Quality is imposed, not improvised. It is the storms who water the flowers, I have also written. If you’re looking for permission, perhaps this is will be of help to you: “You are permitted to do what you think is right.”
The only gift in this life is life itself, all other things require that you reach out and grab them. Grabbing something is not the same as taking it; there is nothing inherently wrong with imposing yourself, and you must believe the act of imposition to be ethical if doing something remarkable is of any interest to you.
This act of imposition requires a belief in yourself that comes from nowhere. Or rather, it can only come from yourself. What makes this worth mentioning is just how difficult it is to realize when living the average modern existence, one where you are getting paid to do what somebody else tells you to do. This existence comes with what feels like a subset of the laws of physics, one where inertia is largely accounted for.
Things happen because someone else is making them happen. You, on the other hand, are simply asked to keep things in motion and on occasion change their course.4 Imposition, as it turns out, is the only antidote to inertia—something that becomes more obvious should you live an unemployed existence for a sufficiently long amount of time, as I currently am.
The default state of your world, from a subjective point of view, is motionless. Or even worse, everything moves in only one direction and that direction is backwards. Sit still and do nothing, thinking nothing in particular about yourself or even in some cases just taking what others may think of yourself as objectively true, and not only will literally nothing positive happen but you will find yourself consumed by the entropy of the universe. Things will happen without you and you will be left behind. As with most things, the only way out is through, and in this case through confidence and even narcissism.
On January 3, 1977, after about nine months of existing informally, Apple Computer Co. was officially incorporated. The company was comprised of cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak together with Mike Markkula, a seasoned marketing executive who was introduced to Jobs by way of legendary founder of Sequoia Capital Don Valentine.
One of Markkula’s first acts was a one-pager titled The Apple Marketing Philosophy. In it, he stressed that “the essence of Apple’s marketing philosophy is contained in just three words… empathy, focus, and impute.” It is this last principle that motivates our mentioning of Apple. Markkula wrote:
Impute—the process by which an impression of a product, company or person is formed by mentally transferring the characteristics of the communicating media to the product, company, or person. In other words, people DO judge a book by its cover, a company by its representatives, a product’s quality by the quality of its collateral materials etc.
“Here are just a few examples of how Apple has used this concept….” he continued:
The general impression of Apple Computer Inc. (our image) is the combined result of everything the customer sees, hears or feels from Apple, not necessarily what Apple actually is! We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod, if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.
The crux of the message lies at the start of the second paragraph: “the combined result of everything the customer sees, hears or feels from Apple, not necessarily what Apple actually is!” We have words for the ability to confidently mask and eventually transform the disconnect between the ideal, Platonic form of ourselves and our actual reality: confidence and narcissism.
Thus, we should all feel called not only to impose but also to impute. We must impute our desired qualities. We become what we tell other people that we are, and you do not always have to tell the truth. In fact, you cannot always tell the truth, because you must become the truth, and to become the truth you must begin by lying.
Everybody who has ever done anything remarkable throughout all of history has necessarily imputed their uniqueness onto the world before it was true. They have lied, and you should too. Do not feel bad about this. “You have permission to do what you believe is right.” Go forth and impute the qualities that your desire in yourself.
One final anecdote. I recently spent some time with my ninety-four year old soon-to-be grandmother-in-law, mother of eight children, three of which she has managed to outlive. It was a quiet week in the Dallas suburbs, once I managed to drown out the roar of the eighteen-wheelers on the freeway adjacent to the Starbucks down the street (one of two in the same parking lot) where I would get at least one coffee a day, sometimes two.
Being ninety-four, there is not much left that she can do besides sit outside in the sun or watch Netflix. Throughout the week, she occasionally retreated to the home office to sit and diligently work through her coloring book. Insatiably curious to see what her grandmother was up to, Luisa decided to grab the book and flip through it. Amongst the fairly standard but admittedly well-colored outlines of butterflies and pineapples she found a handwritten note of a quote, written in what looked like blue colored pencil. It read:
"No es suficiente con solo andar por la tierra, tienes que desear las alturas, querer volar. Es tu deber."5
On my way home from Dallas I finished reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which I thoroughly enjoyed and found highly motivating. But it was the quote handwritten with a blue colored-pencil that stood out to me as the most crystalline example of how to impose and impute yourself onto the world: ambition framed as a duty to yourself and to the world.
Over the course of the next few days, I googled frantically to find the original source of the quote. Nothing came up. I even tried asking ChatGPT, until finally I realized: it was written by a soon-to-be centenarian matriarch. Even at the age of ninety-four, or perhaps especially at the age of ninety-four, it is your duty to desire the heights.
I do not disagree with the spirit of the original tweet, I only think that there is a delicate line to walk here. It’s possible to define anxiety as a hyperactive and unrealistic paranoia around your own specialness. Hypochondriacs, for example, suffer from exactly this—fear from misaligned probabilities concerning the self. That said, in the general case, I am choosing to fall on the special side of the line.
Nietzsche ultimately made the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: criticizing cancerous outgrowths of an underlying worldview is far from the same thing as criticizing the underlying worldview itself. Today, this same exact mistake is often made with wokeness and Christianity.
Quality is imposed, not improvised; it is the product of a laborious experience.
It is precisely this, I would say, that is most underrated about founders in today’s contemporary political landscape. Starting anew is an attack against inertia.
It is insufficient to just go about the Earth, you should desire the heights; desire to fly. It is your duty.