INSPIRING GREATNESS IN OTHERS through our UNIQUENESS

stuff-learnt

know I talk a lot about being human, our fundamental shared humanity. I do so because one of my main goals in writing Stuff Learnt is to communicate a strongly held (and scientifically valid) belief – that beyond our physical, cultural and ideological differences, we feel the same things, have the same fears, want the same things in life, and often behave in the same ways. Despite what we teach our children about being the most unique snowflake that ever existed, we should also focus on celebrating our non-uniqueness. As wonderful as an individual snowflake is, it wouldn’t and cannot exist without the equally unique snowflakes surrounding it.

Knowing how interconnected, how similar, how equal we all are – in our desires, needs, emotions and experiences throughout life – is crucial in breeding empathy. And in my opinion (again, research backed), empathy is the key ingredient towards cultivating social good, meaningful progress, more fulfilling lives and individual well-being. At least I hope my diatribes communicate these sentiments!

Though I stand by all my beliefs on our sameness, I could never deny our uniqueness. That my blood, guts and material glory is the only specific combination of matter that will ever exist in this world is pretty extraordinary. That this applies to all seven-plus billion of us is, well, mind blowing. Yet therein lies a dichotomy; we are essentially the same – sentient beings imbedded in sophisticatedly evolved matter, but the complex structure of the matter that encapsulates each of us is utterly unique.

Some of us are born with the quick reflexes and muscles memory to excel at football, or the height to dunk a basketball. Others are blessed with perfect facial symmetry, long limbs and all the enchanting physical features we label under the modern ideal of beauty. Others are equipped with minds that speak the language of mathematics, or are remarkably attuned to the energy waves that create sounds.

Call it luck, destiny, nature, hereditary – whatever concept you use to describe the grand, messed up lottery of life – either way, the disparity of talent, the randomness of assigned physical attributes, and attributes that connote to success in our modern world, is, just, unfair.

That I was born privileged, with above average intelligence and relatively attractive physical attributes is basically a golden lottery ticket. I know it sounds completely arrogant, but the fact is that I don’t, and really can’t take credit for this luck of the draw. Of course I most certainly must, and have taken advantage of all the positive internal and external factors assigned to my being, combining good luck with lots and lots of hard work to get to where I am. Nevertheless, I can’t deny the fact that many of life’s golden gates were opened for me before I could take my first glimpse at sunlight as an infant.

Yet as a child I was brought up to believe that life was all about talent and hard work, that talent was a God-given blessing, not luck, and that hard work was, well, hard work. Like many, I spent my schooling years comparing myself to the smarter, prettier, and far more talented kids surrounding me, while bypassing those less-than kids in the rungs below me. But here’s where things start to get unfair; because I was naturally smart/lucky, I didn’t have to work very hard to reach the top rungs of the academic ladder. I may have had to put more effort into certain subjects (numbers were my kryptonite), but even then a little effort was usually enough to boost me where I needed to be. As long as I was rewarded for my achievements, it didn’t matter how hard I had to, or didn’t have to, work to get there. Hence it was easy for me to rest on my laurels and get by, by being talented with a T! Smart! Gifted!

But as mentioned, life is very unfair and despite my temper tantrums and prayers to God, I was not blessed with being the most talented, smartest, gifted child amongst my peers. You know who was? Samantha, that’s who, one of my close friends in primary school. Samantha was, without a doubt, on any human scale, phenomenal. Top of the class in pretty much every subject. Captain of every single sports team. A virtuoso violinist. Applying her genius fingers and mind to everything she encountered. And without any externally visible effort. And she was beautiful, with luscious, perfect dark locks. AND she was a lovely, sweet, humble, impossible to hate human being! Urgh. I sincerely loved her as a friend. But boy, did I hate the gods that created her?

Throughout my schooling, even through my undergraduate years, I envied all the Samanthas I came across. The ones that won awards, that barely studied yet excelled, that headed all the school clubs and sports teams while being best friends with the entire campus. The beyond gifted, seemingly perfect individuals, the kind of people you imagine leaping from one peak to another, probably tripping over all their successes, suitors, wealth and Pulitzer prizes. Urgh.

So you’d think that if I felt so insecure I would have settled myself in an environment with few Samanthas to compete with. But, alas, I didn’t; I now find myself living in a city drowning with Samanthas. You literally can barely walk a block in NYC without being shoved aside by a Samantha. It is a fact of life here that every other person you meet is likely smarter, richer, happier and better connected than you. The high caliber human species and zero sum fight for achievement is ingrained in the very fiber of this city. It’s why millions of young Samanthas and almost Samanthas, like myself, flock to the empire state’s siren call year after year. It’s also why millions more flee soon thereafter; being bulldozed day after day by herds of Samanthas, who will deflate even the toughest of souls.

But rather counter-intuitively, unlike in school where the competition against Samanthas overwhelmed me, here in NYC I find it, for the most part, exhilarating. Be it due to the confidence that comes with maturity and personal growth, or simply the scale and diversity of individuals living in this city, I love being surrounded by millions of Samanthas. It pushes you towards greater heights, forcing you to work harder, do better, achieve more than you thought you could ever accomplish, especially when you realize that you’re all competing on completely different playing fields for completely different goals. The undulating searing energy of action that makes NYC what it is truly feeds my soul – it’s what has ignited my professional passions, it’s what inspires me day after day, it’s what has awakened me to creating a life that I want to live.

However, it can also be downright exhausting. Especially thanks to the digital, inescapably interconnected sphere of existence that pre-determines every physical interaction. Thanks to our digital lives lived through social media, everybody has a chance to shine and everybody is screaming about their shiny-ness. “I have three businesses, 10 million Facebook friends and 100 albums of perfect selfies! Look at me, I’m uniquely, amazingly, fantastically GREAT!!!” It seems the more platforms we have to share our talents, the louder we have to scream, the more our screams get drowned out in the noise, the harder it gets to be heard, the more irrelevant we feel we become. And thus we scream even louder, and the vicious cycle continues.

I have a problem with this. A problem that’s difficult to put to words. While I think it’s necessary and important to proclaim our distinctive talents to the world with pride and confidence, and while the world may seem to value the said uniqueness with exclamation points, likes and emjoiis, at the end of the day does it really matter?

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt the very hard way is that being a unique, skilled, talented, hard working individual/Samantha is not, in any urban city, let alone NYC, unique at all. And the secret that I wish I knew way back then? Most people don’t even care about your bountiful talents and achievements. All they really care about is how you make them feel.

Because daily life isn’t a competition to become captain of the team but for many of us an arduous hustle of existence, and for the lucky upon us a marathon journey towards well-being and our individual definitions of success. Yet despite whatever lofty goals we’re aiming towards, we’re all confronted with the drudgery of daily life wherein talent and hard work are irrelevant in the face of stress, physical and emotional health, uncontrollable circumstances and inevitably, death and taxes. Hence, if you’re not adding value to someone’s life, if you don’t bring something positive to one’s daily existence then why should anyone care about your perfect GPA or Olympic gold medals?

And here’s the other secret I stumbled upon, the one that in my opinion, matters the most – though we claim to desire to be recognized for our uniqueness, all we really want is to be recognized, period! To be seen and heard. To connect and share. To communicate and collaborate. From my experience this can only authentically happen when we see and feel all of that which binds us together, not what sets us apart.

Bringing me back to my original thesis – we are one in the same; are we not? Rather than striving to be one of a kind wouldn’t it be more productive to focus on connecting with other kinds? As opposed to exalting our individual greatness, what if we could inspire greatness in others? What if we focused on helping each other become Samanthas, can you imagine what a roomful of Samanthas collaborating together could create?

I can, and I hope you can too.

njeri@parents.co.ke

Published June 2016