To Be At Once Serious and Self-Mocking

Say you’re an ambitious person. You need to at once take seriously your aspiration for greatness and impact while also humbly laughing at the odds that your time on this planet will be very insignificant indeed. The smallest of dots on the map of human history, in fact. The task of reconciling these two opposing ideas I find a central struggle of the ambitious go-getter: without seriousness and without big dreams you will not fulfill your potential, without the broader perspective your seriousness becomes unbearable and you alienate others.

I meet young entrepreneurs all the time struggling with this. I’ve met teenagers convinced that intensity, relentless goal setting, and workaholism will lead them to the promised land. They have bet me with a stone-cold face that they will be president of the United States or the next Bill Gates. Part of me says, you go brother! But at times they display this ambition so nakedly that they turn me (and others) off. Their seriousness is suffocating. As any entrepreneur knows, you can’t do it alone — you gotta enlist the support and loyalty of others — so ignoring how you’re perceived is stupid. Likability matters.

I also meet student journalists searching for this middle ground. (I did when I ran my high school newspaper.)

The challenge of being a student journalist is that you want to stay away from well-covered national or international issues and focus on your niche (campus life), and you want to do so with a certain respectable seriousness as you’re trying to accumulate real journalistic experience. The problem is if you apply more than a modicum of seriousness to most campus issues the exercise goes from amusing to absurd pretty quickly. The trivial (how much is the party security budget? is vegetarian food served in the cafeteria?) gets transformed into matters of worldly importance. So you want to professionally tackle the reporting task at hand while also injecting your work with a healthy dose of awareness about the likely triviality of the entire enterprise. Which is why, in my view, the best student publications tend to be heavy on humor and satire and wit.

Bottom Line: Be serious about your brief time on the planet. Dream big. But also be self-mocking enough to dilute your earnestness to a level that makes you tolerable.


Additional Note on Journalism: Since we’re on the topic. Cynicism is a cheap path to seriousness. I think this explains the negativity underlying most student journalism, a conviction that things at school are always getting worse not better and that exposing this decline somehow upholds a forsaken ideal as opposed to just feeding a throbbing self-obsession. Any student publication I’ve been a part of or observed thinks this way. Though maybe this tendency is built into journalism in general under the banner of keeping authorities accountable, not just student journalism…

Hat tip: Thanks Larissa MacFarquhar for inspiring the last sentence of the Bottom Line.

13 Responses to To Be At Once Serious and Self-Mocking

  1. Nisha says:

    This is a really interesting post. I think it is definitely characteristic of our generation that we want our lives to matter and to create an impact; but at the same time have to force ourselves to recognize we can have impact yet still not be that significant in the grand scheme of things.

    Great post!

  2. Ted says:

    I agree that narcissitic ambition (“I’m the next Bill Gates”) can be ugly. But I don’t think ambition for accomplishing a goal outside yourself is particularly ugly. And if it happens that you have to become Bill Gates to reach your goal*, then so be it — if you ask me, there’s nothing inherently ugly about ambition, as long as it’s not narcissistic.

    I think big goals and plans outside yourself are something to be unashamedly proud of — I don’t think we should have to deprecate them with doses of we’re-all-insignificant-ism. I think a good way to avoid alienating others (along with avoiding narcissistic ambition) is just to avoid being an alien. Despite your goals, you eat drink sleep fuck get happy and get sad along with everyone else, so maybe all you have to do is remember it, and show your humanity.

    *or have to become President, like Obama, who went into politics after becoming disillusioned with what could be accomplished via community organizing alone

  3. About age fourteen or so, when I first read Portnoy’s Complaint, which mightily impressed me with its protagonist’s ejaculatory feats (he hit a light bulb overhead!) I began to think of Jesus Christ as a Jewish comedian who went around trying to stir people up with jokes that no one got, so eventually they got tired of his pain-in-the-ass ways and crucified him, kind of like what happened to Lenny Bruce.

    But now I really dig Chris Bennet’s idea link to hightimes.com that Jesus was a stoner who used cannabis ointment to heal people of epilepsy, skin and eye diseases, and menstrual problems.

    Some old Rastafarians in Jamaica are quite knowledgable about the indigenous medicinal herbs there and have told me about the physical healing properties of ganja. I personally use it as a metaphysical tool in my alternative vocation as professional psychonaut (no jokes, please;-).

    Speaking of pains-in-the-ass, whoever designed this new comment system created a real boner.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Hey Vince — what is annoying about the new comment system? Let me know…

  5. Glenn says:

    My roommate and I were discussing this issue earlier today, reflecting upon meeting students our age (freshmen or so in college) who have already decided that they will one day be a senator. Self-confidence certainly matters in becoming successful, but the smugness and sense of entitlement which accompanies the convictions of these folks is usually so overwhelming that their general presence is off-putting.

    I feel that a touch of humility, appropriately mixed with the self-mocking and satire you prescribe, can carry someone (no matter how ambitious) a very long ways.

  6. Oh, come on. You’re not the first generation to suffer from delusions of grandeur. Methinks that my generation invented them.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Fair enough. :) I didn¹t, however, say it was a generational thing, more a
    ³youth² thing ­ and every generation starts as youth.

  8. Jared says:

    ben, maybe you should change the “you go, brother” to something gender neutral?

  9. Kellen says:

    As young people, we ought to take our work very seriously, but ourselves less so.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    I gave up on being gender neutral in writing a long time ago. As far as I¹m
    concerned Œhim¹ is a neutral pronoun at this point. Otherwise one¹s
    constantly trying to say him/her….

  11. Krishna says:

    Overwhelming self-focus sometimes dwarfs the criticality of work-in-progress + quality control that eventually leads to the end product. While he aspires to be the next Bill Gates, often there is a tendency to overlook the need to learn the dull middleware of advanced coding + gaining astute grasp of market realities, which wouldn’t be as exciting.

  12. Chris Whitny says:

    Perfect example of “narcissistic ambition”: link to youtube.com

    It’s funny enough on its own, but Michael Cera’s spoof is great: link to youtube.com

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