My post over the weekend, one long in germination, regarding the personal and societal dilemma of balancing one’s duty to oneself, one’s duty to be useful and the infuriating hard-wired human tendency to always seek something different and better, received a gratifying response and at least two Comments of the Day.
This is the first, by frequent COTD auteur Extradimensional Cephalopod, is a marvelous supplement to my post, and I wish I had written it myself, except I couldn’t have.
Here is EC’s Comment of the Day on the post, Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay:
One of the central principles of Buddhism is “life is suffering”. Clarified, it means that conscious beings inherently have some concept of how they want the world to be that is different from how it actually is. Alternatively, if the world is already how they want it to be, either the chaos in the world will bring it out of alignment with their desires, or they will eventually become dissatisfied as their minds develop further. This is what the bartender in Saroyan’s story is referring to. It’s the existential condition; “condemned to be free”, as Sartre put it.
Having studied desire and motivation from an existential point of view, I’ve codified eight motivations that lead people to form goals. They are based on three dichotomies: experience versus control, greater and lesser quantity, and order versus chaos.
Greed/ambition: the desire for more control or more accomplishment (acquiring more possessions or becoming more important).
Gluttony/celebration: the desire for more of an experience (greater intensities or more constant access).
Wrath/boldness: the desire to break through limits by exerting control (disregarding rules or doing the impossible).
Lust/curiosity: the desire to remove limits on one’s experiences (experiencing the unknown).
Hubris/scrupulousness: the desire to impose limits through one’s control (absolute, perfect control over something).
Envy/dedication: the desire to impose limits on one’s experiences (obsession or tunnel vision).
Sloth/contentment: the desire to have less control (having responsibility or having to pay less attention).
Cowardice/prudence: the desire to have less of an experience (avoiding pain or discomfort).
Each of these motivations, or vices, also has two attributes: intensity (advancing goals) and mobility (switching goals).
None of these motivations are inherently good or evil. They’re the reason good and evil can exist in the first place; helping other people fulfill their motivations at your own expense is “good”, and parasitically hurting people to further your own motivations is “evil”. (There’s also “neutral”, where you’re neither generous nor parasitic, but only make mutually beneficial transactions.)
However, a person who is addicted to any of these motivations and unable to resist it is more likely to do evil things. Additionally, if a person is motivated primarily by only one or two motivations, at least within a particular context, they’re fairly easy to predict or manipulate. (I myself am largely motivated by wrath, lust, hubris, sloth, cowardice, and to a limited extent gluttony and envy. Greed isn’t as much my thing, but I can still appreciate it.)
Some of these motivations, and mobility attribute, go a long ways towards explaining why people would leave a sure thing for a new career. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world that kept them from trying. We can’t really say they owe it to us to stay, at least no more than we owe it to each other to hold ourselves to increasing standards, though it would certainly be “good” of them to sacrifice their personal dreams to keep helping people by doing what they’re good at. The polymaths in your list, who apparently didn’t face that same tradeoff, would have mastered enough mindsets and been passionate about enough different things that they could focus on making great works in many fields (while making a living in at least one of them at any given time).
Ultimately, I’d like for people to become so capable on average that it doesn’t matter much if some gifted people choose not to use their gifts. To me, the greatest tragedy is that nearly everyone is squandering their ability to make the world a better place by holding society and civilization to higher standards, refusing to tolerate complacency, and creating constructive solutions to problems. Society could be a lot better off than it is if people practiced better thinking habits. Exponentially so if people had started practicing them farther back in history.
As for myself, I am struggling with the very concepts you describe, but I don’t quite know where I fit in your lists. I am confident that I could become fairly skilled in any one of a number of disciplines, but I don’t have the energy to be a polymath, at least without a very supportive environment. I would rather not spend my time and mental energy doing things that other people could do just as well, when I could better apply my intensity-attribute perception mindset towards changing the world so that people are more on the same page and systems work the way we would hope them to. That’s something far too few people are working on. If I accomplish it in my lifetime and have enough time left over, I may take up acting or fiction writing, or go back to the STEM disciplines.