I have three insights about doing great things and achieving major breakthroughs, and they all turn out to be contradictions.
Making a commitment to achieve a breakthrough is very exciting, but very uncomfortable. I discovered that the journey itself is also perpetually uncomfortable. In breakthrough land, it feels uncomfortable ALL the time.
The biggest sources of that discomfort are constant ambiguity, and the constant threat of total absolute failure. When we’re going for breakthroughs, we’re in totally uncharted territory. There are no clear roles, no models, and even when there are clear metrics, there is no certainty that those metrics are even remotely reasonable. There is also a voice constantly nagging me that all that effort could be entirely for naught. My peers doing their prescribed day jobs will get their promotions and recognitions etc, while I could end up with absolutely nothing to show for.
The best analogy I can think of is the effort to find a “northwest passage”. The goal was very clear, find a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Canadian arctic. And there are clear milestones, you know when you’re exactly halfway successful, and so on. But even with all that certainty in metrics, there were many people known in history merely as those who died trying whose names I don’t even remember.
The journey is very exhilarating, but it turned out that the discomfort didn’t stop the moment I made the leap, the discomfort is perpetual.
Living a breakthrough simultaneously makes diametrically opposite demands on one’s ego.
On one hand, you need to have enough of an ego to tell yourself, “This challenge is huge, huge, but I can meet it”. On the other hand, breakthroughs require full commitment from other people, so your success is always dependent on the mercy of others. You can only get to the destination on the generosity, kindness, commitment, expertise and effort of others. So you need to have enough humility to acknowledge how little you matter in the grand scheme of things.
There is another source of polarly opposite demands on one’s ego, connected to the “Exhilarating Discomfort” theme. On one hand, you need enough of an ego to know that your effort could make a very important difference. On the other hand, you find that success (or lack thereof) is beyond your control (there is no guarantee that you won’t be one of those who died failing), so to play this game, you need to have enough humility to accept that lack of control.
I’m beginning to increasingly believe that breakthrough achievements require a state of mind that can resolve the contradiction of “egoless ego”.
I think it goes beyond self-awareness and self-regulation (in Emotional Intelligence) and “egoless mind” (in Buddhism). I don’t know the words for it. I’ve seen it hinted at in the words and actions of wise men, but I’m not aware of any detailed treatment of it. Eg, Gandhi lived it better than anybody else I know. Eg, Covey hinted at it in the “interdependence vs independence vs dependence” discussion in Seven Habits. Eg, Thich Nhat Hanh promotes proactive global social action while living a simple life of peaceful mindfulness.
For lack of a term that I’m aware of, I call it “Selfless Glory”. It’s a mind that seeks glory without the glory. It’s the state of mind of peaceful stillness surrounded by powerful motion.
I’m beginning to think that cultivating this mind is a necessary but insufficient condition towards truly powerful breakthroughs.
I don’t know how this mind can be cultivated. I suspect having a strong sense of mission is necessary. It’s probably also necessary to have compassion, generosity and non-attachment. But I don’t know, I’m only a novice at this.14