Joining the Greats of History

Last time, we touched on how it might not be possible to become one of the many great people in history. I promised to return with thoughts on how to do so, if the determination is there. So, how do we develop the bone-deep conviction required to stand up for yourself in the face of the jeering masses, the criticisms of the powerful, and the persecution that underlies it all?

Let’s do a thought experiment, and imagine Martin Luther, imagine being him in the early 16th century, alone in a time where religion was law. If the Pope commanded you to jump, you asked how high. If he said you were excommunicated, well, kiss goodbye to your last glimpse of heaven and make the most of your time on Earth, because you were headed straight to Hell the moment you were laid to rest. Let’s just imagine something he might have wrote in a very secret letter:

After some criticism, I have reached my conclusion: indulgences are in error. In truth, sins of the soul cannot be erased with mere gold; Christians, in committing this error of attempting to purchase salvation from their sins, are indeed being misled by those who have sworn to lead their flocks with the best of their wisdom and knowledge.

To grant divine forgiveness is the right of God and God alone, and therefore to purchase divine salvation at the cost of earthly gold is to labor under false belief; this, though, must not cause us to slacken in our followings of the teachings of Christ.

My soul cries out at the thought that, should I be the one in error, and not my former brethren of the Church, it would be consigned forever to wander the depths of Hell itself.

But my soul also reverberates with the conviction that mine is not the erroneous belief; like that great philosopher of the Greeks who could no more silence his curious tongue than fly of his own will, I can also not waver from my conviction, else not myself I would be.

I’m not sure that my writing skill is good enough to convey just how much Luther probably struggled.

If you were him, you’d believe deep down in your heart (in that place that tells you I don’t really want to do this but I’ll do it because my friends are on those Friday nights)—you’d believe that something everyone else was doing is wrong. You’d be convinced that everyone is committing a grave mistake.

And you don’t want them to: “Look, guys, your soul is all that you’ll take with you when you die. That’s it. Buying salvation with gold does not work, and you’re risking your eternal existence, your ticket to Heaven. Please don’t do this!”

You want to follow the teachings of somebody you’ve idolized your whole life. You want your friends to be with you in Heaven. You want all of you to be there together and not miss out on the chance because somebody else wanted gold and purposefully misinformed people that gold can buy divine forgiveness, and now you’re alone, the only person that’s read the scripture and why won’t anybody just listen?!

Your friends first laugh, thinking it’s a joke. Then they get wide eyes and hush you, telling you that you’ll be excommunicated. Then, when you don’t stop, when you can’t stop yourself believing, they start fading away, not wanting to get caught with you and excommunicated too.

Your superiors raise a brow, believing it’s a joke in bad taste. Then they condescendingly chastise you for being naive, for not being as wise as they. Then, when you don’t stop, when you need to speak out against something you can’t believe is going on, they start threatening you.

The government itself, and the most powerful figure at its head, start sending agents against you. First subversive agents, sent to talk to you and dissuade you. Then threats; you’re disturbing the peace, they say, and shaking the foundations of the faith everyone carries, they continue, and that’s bad for civil stability. But you literally can’t stop.

At the end of it all, you stand alone: your brothers and fathers and mentors in faith have excommunicated you—the holy-earthly-powers-that-be have declared you a heretic, and that your soul will go straight to eternal Hell; your friends and family have left to avoid that very same fate; your government, the structure that’s supposed to protect you, has labeled you ‘outlaw’, and you’re no longer safeguarded by its laws within the borders.

You’re alone. And what do you do?

Carry on. Somehow, you find the strength, in the face of threats against your person, against your livelihood, against your intellect, against the last guarantee of happiness after terrifying death—you find the strength to believe in yourself.


I see a couple paths, and there are more I’m sure I’m not seeing; this is from the perspective, not of one of the greats, but of somebody looking at them for lessons.

The most visible path I see now is to turn your neuroses and anxieties towards your chosen purpose. Sebastian Marshall puts this into words and example far better than I would: The Weakest of the Great Men of All Time.

The gist of it that I get though, is that you turn your neuroses and self-comparing tendencies towards the greatest people. Rather than comparing yourself to the people around you (“Why don’t I have that internship/$10k bonus/research position/hot girlfriend/popular boyfriend?), you compare yourself to where and who you want to be (“At X age, Ben Franklin was writing up a list of thirteen virtues and attempting to improve all of those, besides work and general life activities, every single day!”)

Narcissism and insecurity can drive you to achieve; some people turn their bodies into walking, sculpted muscle mass and obsess over nutrition and training (at the cost of being well-rounded, maybe), and it’s still never good enough. (Not that I disapprove or approve, but there’s worse ways to deal with body image issues than having them force you to learn hard work and some human physiology.) Why not use try to direct that narcissism, insecurity, or anxiety into pushing you forward?

The second path I see is to always follow your instincts. Easier said than done. You have to go against what society says, what your friends say (at least until you break through and people start believing in you), what your family says, what even your mentors say, and listen to that lone voice in the back of your head.

It’s easy, maybe to listen to it when it’s saying I should probably question what my boss/professor just said and clarify, even if it makes you nervous to speak up in a room.

It’s on a different level, I’d bet a hundred bucks, to listen to it say this is what I believe is right, and I’ll gladly die for it, when you’ve been sitting in a cold cell for years with no end in sight, like Gandhi did. Socrates was the same; despite being warned of imminent legal action, perhaps even threats against his person, he followed his instincts and spoke out again and again.

To start on this path, I think we’d have to first be very mindful of when that voice speaks up, and make a promise to always listen to it, and use both the successes and the failures to reinforce our decision to listen. We’d also have to be continually educating ourselves, both by reflecting on personal experience, and be reading and self-learning.

Both paths would be very, very hard. After having this post bouncing around in my head, I realize, maybe a little obviously, that’s why the greats are greats. They paid immense costs, from constant crushing self-doubt to repeated bouts of physical pain. They paid the price.

That’s why I don’t think we really have a choice. Given the choice, most people would probably choose to continue living their lives over committing to an indefinite number of years of pain and hard work that’s not even guaranteed a result. It probably wouldn’t even be conscious; it would just feel like that’s not even a path they could take.

For the greats, I imagine that was the only path they could take. Given the human body and brain’s natural mechanisms to persuade us to seek out comfort and security, they probably had an overpowering internal drive that closed off the paths to comfort and security.

I’m still not sure whether we can develop that internal drive, but if you’re so inclined, I hope you find inspiration in two of the paths I see, and even find one of your own.

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