I wrote this post a few weeks ago & didn't post it because I was kind of moody when I wrote it, and I don't like subjecting people to my moodiness. (Actually that's too charitable - really I don't like having my moodiness archived on the internet for the indefinite future.) Today I read it again in slightly lifted spirits, and I still think it's interesting, so here it is. The title is kind of pretentious but I couldn't think of a better one (suggestions welcome).
When I was young I had it firmly in my mind that I was going to do something *important* with my life, and I believe now that this was my way of dealing with that youthful existential dread that arises when you first grasp the reality of the fact that you, like everyone else, will someday die. The thinking goes that if you have some visible influence on the overall trajectory of life on Earth, then your presence will be felt long after you die, and your life will be just a little less meaningless overall. Of course then some smart aleck will point out that if you wait long enough everyone will die, the universe will end, and at this cosmic scale your existence would have meant just as much as if you'd died the moment you were born. In spite of this being probably true, the idea of making a difference and living through your influence on the world still "works" as a cure for the common existential cold, for as long as you believe it.
I don't think I've ever asked other people about this, but I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of people out there who have thought the same way, and had had their ego stroked enough as a child to be totally convinced that, yes, they were destined to do something VERY important, and by fulfilling their destiny as an important person they wouldn't have to pay mind to the reality of dying and being completely forgotten as time marches ever onward without them.
For the people whose peace of mind hinges on the idea of eventually having greater cultural significance, you might start having some unfortunate revelations around your mid-20s. One - that there really is no guarantee that you will succeed at the thing you're trying to do. There are probably millions of stories of people devoting their whole lives to some cause that they felt would be their big contribution to humanity, only to die before anyone takes notice. We don't hear these stories because these people were not famous. Actually, if you're looking hard enough you can find them, and they are depressing.
Two - some people succeed wildly at the very thing they set out to do, only to find that, with all their power and influence, they have not quelled the voice in their head saying "maybe this is all a waste of time." I don't know what was going through Kurt Cobain's head when he shot himself, but my best guess is it was some cocktail of said voice and a refrain from Automatic For The People. I have had a milder version of this, having worked on a cartoon show that was apparently seen by many millions of kids. You'd think this would give you some kind of lifetime self-satisfaction buff, but the warm feeling goes away in like a week.
Three - the realization that you are probably not the best choice of person who should have that level of influence over that many people. In a world of 7 billion people, the chances that your unique voice should really be heard by millions - such that they spread your teachings and carry your legacy long after you die - seems a little far fetched, even if you were the "best drawer" in your 3rd grade art class. True, no one can do exactly what you do in exactly the way you do it, but there is probably someone a little smarter, more empathetic, more eloquent, and a little more deserving of the audience, and I think we can agree that the world would be a better place if everyone else got out of the way and let these people speak. (Then again, the bar for what society will present to millions of people is disturbingly low, so maybe it's not so bad for the pretty-good guys like me to take their shot, at least for now.)
It was probably easier to deal with abstract existential fears back in the stone age - or maybe they didn't exist, because back then there were more literal existential fears such as "cold," "no food," and "big snake." But at least back then people didn't have to confront the reality of there being 7 billion people on earth who also would like to feel important. Back then, the world, for all you knew, consisted of the people in your immediate surroundings, some other guys you met once or twice in your travels, and maybe some other other guys you haven't run into yet. And in that context, it's not hard to feel important. If you are, in your mind, 1/200th of the population of earth, that's kind of a big deal. To have an equivalent sense of self-importance today, you would have to affect more people than are currently alive in the US. (Or, technically, you would have to BE everyone in America, and then affect vastly more people.)
There's a lot of people touting the evils of smartphones and social media - citing stuff like the increase in teen suicide following the iPhone boom, and a lot of that is attributed to the whole slot-machine-in-your-pocket thing. And it is evil that tech companies are exploiting people like that, but maybe a big part of social-media-depression isn't just about twitter hijacking your dopamine receptors - maybe it's that now we all must confront the reality of the vast sea of other people who also want attention. 7 billion is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who wants to feel significant, but when you're bombarded daily with random samples from the sea of people, and you can see their bedrooms and dogs and five-o-clock shadows, the bitter pill becomes thick and spiky as you realize that these people have exactly the same disease as you - the need to be seen and to feel important, regardless of how distinguished they really are, or how much they really deserve to be seen. Unconsciously, you get a vivid picture of how big and real that 7 billion figure really is. Consciously, you realize that your feelings of self-importance don't come from some objective assessment of your own self-worth - it's just something everyone gets by default.
Getting over the self-importance thing is probably just a part of growing up, and I'm probably only doing it now because I got a lot of positive feedback for most of my life. It's kind of ironic that the people we see on our screens probably only got there because they were able to hold onto that ego just long enough to succeed for real (or they really were a one-in-seven-billion talent, but that seems to be the minority.) And so the people with all the influence are these weird, arrogant, anomalous people who are mostly delusional and disconnected from the reality of most people's lives - even though they are the people who purported themselves to be voices of great importance to the greater population.
So I've become a bit disillusioned lately, but you know what - at least I'm an artist! I have my whole life to prove myself wrong by doing something meaningful. If I played football I would be so fucked right about now. I can't imagine how bad it must feel to age out of the only thing that gave your life meaning. Or like, you get one injury and your whole scheme gets derailed and you turn into Uncle Rico.
I have a great respect for culinary artists - there's a real humility to someone creating art that will be enjoyed by exactly one person, for exactly one moment, never to be eaten again. He can make the same dish again, of course, but they will all be subtly different, and when he dies, that's it. Paintings can live a pretty long time and books can last as long as the language they were written in, but great cooking will always die with the chef. He can hand you the recipes, sure, but to execute on that sort of thing at a high level you need to have technique - at which point the art is more yours than the original author's. In any case, their capacity to leave a "legacy" is pretty limited. Maybe some people will write about the great chef and pass along some of their unique insights, but people 100 years from now will never taste the greatest steak cooked today. It is only for now, and that's perfectly fine. Actually, It doesn't even have to be the greatest, and that would still be fine.
So here's a journal entry. A pretty good steak, from me to you, right now, in the present moment. Maybe you hate it, but the joke's on you because you read it, and I have subtly affected your life, and that means I win.
Present day Marty again. I want to add one more bullet point to this so no one thinks the takeaway is "you're going to fail and you should just give up" - which, to be clear, is not at all what I was trying to say. It is still important to try. If 10,000 people try to do something significant, and only 100 of them actually do, those 100 wouldn't have done anything if all 10,000 decided it was too unlikely. And of course, before they succeed, no one knows if they're in the 1% or 99%, which is why it's important that everyone tried, even if 99% of them failed. I think it is noble to try and fail, and that is what I will continue to probably do. For the record, I also don't think the numbers are nearly that bad, since there is a lot of stuff to do and comparatively few people who are serious about doing it.
To clarify, my point in writing this wasn't to wallow in self-pity or spread negativity in that depression-fueled "hey man I'm just being real" kind of way - I wanted to look specifically at the feeling of wanting to make an impact, as I believe it's something that a lot of artists have that helps them to aim high, and is a weird thing that both propels you to do your best work but can also cripple you with self-doubt. I don't really hear people ever talk about this, probably because any talk of self-importance can seem arrogant or egotistical, and so, to appear humble, we the arrogant & egotistical don't speak openly about this stuff because it's just too unflattering. But I still think it's an interesting thing to think about, and even in the event that I'm in a minority of people who have thought about themselves this way, I am not above mining my own character flaws for interesting content.