Get Out Of Your Own Head
“A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able — always remembering the results will be infinitesimal — and to attend to his own soul.”
It was a trying time for George C. Marshall. His country was at war, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had offered him the opportunity of a lifetime — to command the troops on D-Day. It was a moment he had been dreaming of and trained his whole life for. President Roosevelt made it clear that the job was his if he wanted it.
Surprisingly, Marshall turned down the offer. “The decision is yours, Mr. President,” he said, ”My wishes have nothing to do with the matter.”
Marshall didn’t want his personal feelings to get in the way of what actually mattered. Maybe he wasn’t yet fit for that job. Maybe there was another person who could perform the duty better and lead the country to victory. It wasn’t for him to decide.
It came to be that Dwight D. Eisenhower was in fact, the best man for the job, and so the role and glory went to Eisenhower.
But behind the scenes, the real hero was Marshall, who thought only about what was best for his country, rather than making it all about himself. If it were otherwise, history would probably tell a different story. Who knows, maybe even one of defeat. Marshall is already one of the relatively less famous historical figures. If it weren’t for the Marshall Plan that was named after him, he would probably have been forgotten.
We are lead to believe that “following your passion” is the key to everything. Most self-help speakers and gurus would talk about the same thing over and over again, that an unquenchable desire to attain your goal is what you need. Except that isn’t necessarily true.
Passion is the nourishing of your ego —Ego in the sense of inflated self-importance, is something we must constantly temper down. It’s the childish tantrum inside us that yearns for praise, acknowledgement, recognition and attention — especially in the form of pride, fame and popularity — that you are the center of everything — that the world revolves around you. As children we wanted things, even if they weren’t good for us — but that is something that didn’t sound nice for us to hear. So we still wanted them.
With passion, you are inclined to believe that the world is in your favor, that the world is on your side to “make your dreams happen”. You want to be youngest, the fastest, the strongest something in the world. But what does that actually mean, save to yourself? Is the world you live in a better place because of that?
You have this youthful, restless energy deep in your bones and you feel like nothing in the universe can stop you, but that’s really just your impatience, and your arrogance. You have passion, but you lack everything else. Passion is a poor substitute for humility, strategy, discipline, and mastery. Zeal can’t trump work ethics, principles and careful calculation of each and every circumstance.
In this case, purpose beats passion. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do what you love, but that you need to have a sense of realism. Do what you love, but never let yourself get deluded. Maybe your idea of doing what you love is getting invited to give a speech on the main stage, showing up for autograph signings, or being honored in a grand ceremony.
Just because you love what you do, that doesn’t put you on a superior position. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to appreciate what you do. You’ll get yelled at. Your feelings will get hurt. You’ll be treated just like everyone else. You still have to start at beginner’s level. All of this will make you angry. All of this will challenge your arrogance.
You need to live in reality. The world is harsh and indifferent. No one cares about your dreams. No one’s excited to hear your life story. What counts is your purpose. What other people say and think about you don’t matter. Only what you do matters. For what reason are you actually doing this?
It takes courage to live in reality. Our active engagement in social media at times makes us feel like our life is a movie, a performance — and we’re the actors. You’re obsessed with your self-image, you don’t want to live “ordinarily”. Instead of being yourself, you turn yourself into someone else at the expense of your self-worth, in order to seek attention and praise. Getting enough likes and shares makes you “well-loved” and cool. Otherwise, you would be seen as a boring, unlikable character.
The same George C. Marshall refused to keep a diary during World War Two, despite the urge from his friends and historians. Why, though?
Because he didn’t want to turn his reflective time into a sort of performance and self-deception. He didn’t want to second-guess difficult decisions for his personal reputation. In other words, he didn’t want to concern himself with how he will be remembered in history books.
Compare this with the self-indulgent Union Army General, George McClellan who fought in the American Civil War. He thought only about himself, congratulated himself on battles they had not yet won, and even worse, dangers he had saved them from. When other soldiers confronted him about this comforting fiction that he was living in, he reacted like a petulant, selfish jerk. There were even moments when battles were lost, and he completely froze — unable to order any action at all, for months at a time.
The point that you need to remember is that you’re just a tiny droplet of the ocean. You’re a tiny percentage of the human population. So what makes you so special? Who can afford to be jerked by their impulses? Who can afford to believe that they’re God’s gift to humanity?
Your existence here is only brief and temporary, but you can choose to enjoy being a part of the ocean. You can choose to be a participant in this large world that we live in.
Many people have come before you and are simply gone today — along with their wealth and fame. But good work, under a good purpose will last — and that is only if Allah wills so.
Leave ego and passion for the delusional and the self-absorbed. Always ask yourself — What would a more humble person do if he were in your current situation? One of the original meanings of the word hero, after all, is servant.
Do Your Job
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”
John Steinbeck was one of the most influential writers who wrote about the Great Depression. The plight of the homeless and the jobless was immortalized in his 1939 novel The Grapes Of Wrath — a work for which he had meticulously researched and poured his whole heart into. Shortly after its publication, copies of the novel were burned in his own hometown. Steinbeck’s portrayal of their condition was honest and true, but of course, was heavily criticized, with some even labelling him a communist.
Friends and neighbors deserted Steinbeck and his family. Since then, much to their heartbreak, they were no longer welcomed in the town they called home, and it stayed that way until the end of their lives.
Decades later, the National Steinbeck Center was built just blocks away from where Grapes was burned. The novel is now required reading in American schools and stands today as one of the most important works ever written. The people who burned his books and called him a communist? — They’re long dead. But Steinbeck’s message lives on. And will do in the years, and hopefully ages to come.
Let’s not pull any punches here. Doing the right thing is easier said than done — It’s easy to say so when you’re not really doing anything. And to be really frank, doing the right thing does suck. A lot of the time.
Because the plain reality is that no one actually likes you for being honest. Honesty in your words and actions is surely an admirable trait, but not when other people are having fun.
Still, it’s absolutely necessary. Even if you have to hurt others in the short term. Even when it hurts you more. Especially when it hurts you more. They might not totally understand what you’re doing now. Maybe they will in the years to come — maybe, only later in Akhirah.
Think about someone like Robert Greene. His books, especially the 48 Laws of Power are heavily criticized as immoral and evil. But the thing is, the world would be in a worse state if he hadn’t written them. People are angered not so much because of what he says in his books; they’re pissed off because he actually says them. The central theme in his books is human nature. He tells us, this is what’s happening around you — people lie and do immoral things to get what they want. This is what you must understand and these are the things you must do to prevent yourself from getting caught in their web. Why does he write his books? — He’s sick of living in a world of manipulation and people who are afraid to confront this reality. And because no one else dared to write them.
I’m pretty sure people like Robert Greene and John Steinbeck didn’t do these things for fun because it was plainly their passion to do so. No, no. They had a purpose to serve. They cared about making the world better. Because the right thing is simply right.
Listen, Even If It Hurts
“There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.”
East of Eden
In secondary school, my Biology teacher was the go-to father figure for nearly everything that I needed help with —religious matters, studies, career stuff, solutions to all kinds of problems, or sometimes, just to have a random chatter after class.
Half the time, his words really stung me. They were like bitter medicine. You hate taking them, but they eventually help a lot. They challenged what I firmly believed in, and they questioned how I thought about myself.
I can never forget the lonely walks I had heading back to the hostel block. And being there, still wanting to be alone with my rebuilding thoughts and a cup of coffee to make me feel better.
As I grow older, the more I come to realize that he was right about everything. And I just couldn’t thank him enough. The least I could do is to constantly try as best as I can to put all those lessons into practice.
In the story East of Eden (by Steinbeck also), love was a painful thing for the character Adam Trask. He fell in love with a woman he met, very much at first sight. He saw beauty, innocence and qualities that were only in his own head. He wanted to believe in this magical thing going on, and he continued to indulge in this delusion, when in reality she was nothing like that.
Long story short, she eventually left him, told him she had never loved him, and shot him. Adam was shattered and couldn’t think of anything else, until a friend of his finally confided to him the truth that he was so blinded from — who she really was. Only then was Adam able to pick himself up, put his life back in perspective and keep moving forward. “Was she beautiful?”, asked Adam, to which his friend responded, “Only what you built of her.”
We have blind-spots in our perception — flaws in ourselves or in our work that we can’t see but others can. Because other people aren’t as emotionally attached as we are. They don’t perceive through the same lens that we do. They don’t love our work as much as we do. They don’t care about us as much as we care about ourselves. We, on the other hand, need to instill in ourselves the wisdom to accept the criticism and brutal objectivity that help in improving ourselves, over the praise that hardly do us any good.
In various parts of our lives we need someone to tell us what we’re doing wrong, or what we’re doing isn’t good enough, or even, what we’re going for isn’t the best for us, that we should consider taking up a different job or a different study.
It hurts, but it doesn’t have to be about you. You don’t have to take it personally. It’s about becoming a better man or a better woman. It’s about improving your work. It’s about the purpose that you serve.