In Redesign Your Mind I describe personality as being made up of three constituent parts: original personality, formed personality, and available personality. Formed personality operates like a straightjacket. We stiffen over time into our repetitive, “regular” self and, unless and until we make some changes, we are obliged to operate from that stiff place, without much room to move or much room to breathe.
Plus, the modern world straightjackets us. If you’re smart, sensitive and creative, you’re likely to want to manifest all that potential in you. But the modern world is designed to restrict your options and straightjacket your efforts. There is no contemporary category of “general thinker” that matches the ancient job title of “natural philosopher,” where one could do science, philosophy, art and anything else that caught one’s fancy. Nowadays you must do something much smaller than that.
A smart person today must become a clear something—a college professor specializing in the early works of Melville, an engineer specializing in bridges, a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of tax law, and so on. Having become that something he must stay right there, trapped needing to prepare yet another journal article, ponder yet another bend in the river, or familiarize himself with yet another tax code change. How existentially debilitating is that!
Marilyn, a client and a biological researcher, explained to me:
“The journey to get where I am today as a biological researcher at a prestigious university was long and hard and because it was so hard, with so many hurdles to jump over and hoops to jump through, I never noticed exactly what was happening. I never noticed that in some of my undergraduate classes I was actually excited by the material and actually enjoyed thinking about the big questions but that as each year progressed and as I had to narrow my focus, find my niche, and choose my life form (I’ve ended up an expert on a certain worm), I stopped thinking and spent my days in pretty dreary fashion trying to find some enthusiasm for my own research. Biology is amazing; and yet it has all come together in a very disappointing way.”
Martin, a client and a philosophy professor, described his situation in the following way: “I’ve spent the last two months defending a journal article I wrote about praise and blame in Kantian ethics, defending it from the three peer reviewers who nitpicked my article to death. In order to have a chance to get it published I need to address every one of their trivial concerns—and the problem for me isn’t so much that I’m spending all of my time on what feels like a silly and mind-numbing task but rather that this is the box I’ve put myself in, this exact box, where I make some fine logical or linguistic distinctions and then have to act like that matters, like I am increasing human knowledge.
“The academy is a comfortable place to be and I suppose that I could turn myself into someone who does think bigger than I currently think. But I don’t. I don’t know what the problem is: if it’s the system, if it’s philosophy itself that I don’t believe in, if it’s a lack of genuine interest in thinking, if it’s a lack of confidence, if it’s a fear of biting off more than I can chew, or what. All I know is, can I really do this for twenty or thirty more years? That seems completely unbearable.”
What can you possibly do if this is the sort of challenge that you’re facing, that your formed personality and life-as-you-are-living-it both straightjacket you? A step in the direction of a possible solution is the following. Metaphorically remove that straightjacket that is forcing you to work small, think small, and be small. Like a Houdini, slip right out of it. Go to the room that is your mind, create a closet or a storage chest, wriggle out of your straightjacket, and hang it up or store it away.
And feel freer!
You may have to put that straightjacket back on when you go back to the lab tomorrow, but for this evening you can wander anywhere in biology you like. You may have to put it back on tomorrow when you’re obliged to defend your article on Kantian ethics, but for this evening you can think as broadly as Plato, Aristotle or one of the pre-Socratic philosophers you admire so much. At the very least, you’ll be able to spend a few blissful, unbound hours. Enjoy them and revel in them!
The challenges that smart, sensitive, creative people face when it comes to finding meaningful employment, surviving dull, routine work, avoiding a lifetime in a claustrophobic corner of a given profession, choosing between work that pays and work that interests them, and generally adapting their smarts to the contours of society’s configurations are never-ending. You may prove to be one of the lucky ones, make an excellent match, and never feel straightjacketed. As likely as not, however, you will find yourself among the majority of folks who perennially find that the world is designed to restrict their thinking and designed to restrain their talents. If you are among this multitude, at least you can remove that straightjacket for some hours at a time and, for those hours, breathe and think more freely.