At first glance, my body seems to be a paradox: I have a very strong immune system, yet I get sick all the time. What can explain this most intractable of problems? Well, it turns out that my frequent bouts of illness are not related to germs, viruses or infections and, therefore, have nothing to do with the strength or weakness of my immune system. I get sick because I get overly excited. It’s that simple. Nearly every time a cascade of ideas, plans and projects washes over me, my body shuts down and starts to ache; my head begins to throb; my eyes get dry and scratchy; and my throat gets sore. It’s gotten to the point that I can predict when it will happen-and still be powerless to stop it.
The onset of these symptoms wouldn’t be so bad-and they aren’t that bad, since, as they aren’t symptoms of a real cold, they go away much more quickly-if it weren’t for the fact that they are part of a larger cycle that goes from idea to excitement to sickness to exhaustion to disappointment. But let me back up for a moment. I should mention that the underlying cause of this cycle is that I demand greatness of myself and, if i feel I am not achieving it, I push myself beyond my limits. I do so for the simple reason that ever since I “discovered” the idealism of the Romantics when I was 16, I have heard people tell me that idealism is but a phase of my life that I would grow out of. I understood even then that it’s not that the ideals are bad, but rather that most people choose not to live up to them.
And so I have fought hard to live up to my ideals, to ensure that I lead a life of greatness rather than mediocrity. And what are my ideals? That I be an agent of positive change in the world. That I make use of my privileged position in life to create prosperity for the 4 billion or so people in the world that lack it to varying degrees. And that I be source of inspiration that helps unleash human creativity and potential, so that all of us together can express the beauty, pain, joy and anguish of existence.What happens, however, is that while I ceaselessly fight to be the person I demand myself to be, I am imperfect and therefore often doubt and reproach myself. My doubts stem from the fact that I am never entirely sure if I am on the right path; if my ideas are viable; and, in short, if I’m not crazy. And I often reproach myself for putting myself in positions where so much is asked of me that I do not know if I will be able to keep up with the expectations.
A fantastic example of both my perfections and imperfections is my masters thesis. Here is where I really intend to live up to my expectations for myself; I refuse to hand in a mediocre thesis. Yet I know that that desire will, for lack of a better term, drive me out of my mind for the next one and a half years as I constantly strive to be more creative, innovative and insightful. I don’t want something that will simply sit on a shelf of a library collecting dust; I want something that is practical, replicable, scalable, etc. My latest idea is to write a book. At first glance that might seem a tad impractical. But it isn’t uncommon for a master’s thesis to be 180 pages and, if we consider that the bulk of time is spent researching, rather than writing, the thesis, then expanding that to, say, 250 pages, shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.The problem is not that I want to write a book, nor that I want to do something great; rather, the problem is that I struggle with translating my initial burst of enthusiasm into the sustained effort needed to complete the task.
It isn’t laziness or anything like that that holds me back. It seems to be that the initial burst of enthusiasm thrusts me into a state of mind that somehow feels cut off from the kind of pragmatic, step-by-step process that writing a book entails. In other words, the idea comes to me when I am thinking in mythological, philosophical and poetic terms, yet when it comes time to bring the idea to professors and fellow students, I become aware of the chasm between the state of mind that inspired the idea and the state of mind necessary to make it happen. At the same time, I worry that I am approaching this whole process the wrong way, constantly seeking to wring every “ounce of greatness” out of every little thing I do, rather than enjoying the process and relaxing.
Another problem with my mentality is that any time I come across something I don’t know-an aspect of farming, engineering, science, or any myriad number of other things-I get really frustrated and feel like I cannot possibly accomplish all that I want to if I know so little. The fact is that I do know quite a bit, I am young, and it’s not necessary or possible that I know everything. But somehow the desire remains to be a renaissance man, to be able to build things with my hands, design things with my mind, and so on. At present, my strongest ability is my ability to think big and to put my thoughts together on paper. I should recognize that those are incredible strengths, yet my weaknesses drive me crazy.All this leads me back to the whole problem of getting sick every time I get excited. It seems the underlying cause is a fear of not being able to translate the excitement into action, and so I tense my body and run around like a chicken trying to cram as much thought into as little time as possible.
I need to learn to relax, let the ideas sink in, view then as a beautiful and fun process that slowly unfolds as my understanding keeps up with the new knowledge needed to complete the next step. The great thing about doing a thesis is that I will do something-at the end of two years I will have an M.A. in Environmental Studies from Brown University, regardless of how much I drive myself crazy in the process. I guess what excites me most is the realization that finally, after years of wishing I could at least complete one great idea, I will now be forced (and have the opportunity) to see that dream come to fruition.The question is not if my thesis and what I do with my life live up to my ideals; the question is how calm I can remain in the face of my overwhelming passion, enthusiasm and eagerness for both life and ideas.