Making the world better may require hubris and narcissism

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 25, 2021, 10:27 PM | comments: 0

One of the things that I've found super fun (that's sarcasm) about entering midlife is that my desire to find purpose and meaning in life is not easy. I consistently come back to the idea that I want to leave the world slightly better than I found it. I don't need to be remembered or recognized, and I'm at peace with the idea that few will care that I was a thing years after I'm gone. When I take my last breath, I'm content knowing I didn't make anything worse.

I feel like I'm doing some baseline things that help. We're sustainable energy nuts, with more than two-thirds of our direct energy consumption (including driving electric vehicles) provided by the sun. We're mostly conscious of the packaging associated with things that we buy and recycle as much as possible. I'm hopefully raising an anti-racism child who will eventually understand his privilege. I donate to a wide range of philanthropic causes. I have my weaknesses, like anyone, including ocean cruising (carbon!) and Asian fusion takeout (single-use plastic!), but I'm trying to mostly do the right things so my kid has a better future. As late parents, he will likely have a good four decades after we're gone, so I have a duty to do something to make the world better.

At some point I negotiated with myself to declare that the scope of "doing good" doesn't really matter. I alone won't eliminate systemic racism or solve climate change, but that doesn't mean that I can't do my part. Little things in the scope of our influence matter.

As I've considered who in the world has made, or is making meaningful change to better the world, I have noticed that the folks who take the big swings are frankly a little arrogant to think that they can do so. Certainly there's a component of hubris and narcissism to their personalities, right? I think that we generally find those to be less than endearing qualities in people, but I often wonder if they're necessary. I look at some of the most public folks in our time to move a needle, and they typically have personalities that make me a little squeamish. Steve Jobs was notoriously horrible to his own people, and definitely arrogant, but he was instrumental in making technology a ubiquitous thing your grandparents could use. Bill Gates' foundation has helped move us toward eradicating polio and reducing transmission of TB and HIV, though he's heavily criticized for how and where he invests the foundation's capital. Elon Musk is transforming space exploration, transportation and energy, and we could spend all day talking about his hubris when it comes to random problem solving (like getting people stuck in a cave).

I think it's really important to gauge intent. These rich white dudes in their own ways conquered the world in terms of their wealth, and with that success, became mission driven. Jobs wasn't much of a philanthropist, and he wanted Apple to win, but not because he needed the money. He believed that great design would change the way we interact with the world. Gates is always one of the top two richest people in the world, and his charity has made some big bets that were horrible failures, but his intent is to do what he thinks will lead to a better world. Musk certainly doesn't need anymore money, but what kind of person says, "We have to become a multiplanetary species for survival," while growing a car company from scratch? You probably need a sense of inflated self-importance to do those things.

I don't think there's ever a good reason to be a dick to other people (and I admittedly, in the moment, sometimes forget that), but there are some brilliant people who benefit from the confidence that they are more capable than they think. I know that my biggest constraint to achieving things is myself. Maybe a little hubris and narcissism helps you get over your self-imposed constraints. The hard part is having the wisdom to have the right intent.


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