Say you were given the choice:
- Spend your life in obscurity, broke, unappreciated (even ridiculed), yet produce a work of art, or an invention, so brilliant but so ahead of it’s time that it’s only after your death (which is, of course, unpleasant) that you become famous. Not only is your brilliance recognized but it will be recognized for generations to come. Or…
- Live out your life with no worries, plenty of money, perfectly happy, contributing nothing to this world that will have any lasting importance (including children who might be of any future importance) — but you die happy.
Some of you will contend it’s impossible to have so little impact on the world. So let me explain that #2 choice is as unique as #1, in that if we were able to go back in time and make it so you never existed, it would make absolutely no difference to the world. Whoever you would have married, would end up marrying someone equally insignificant and they too would produce insignificant offspring. (This is NOT a wonderful life… but, it’s not bad.)
WHY am I pondering this? I recently read a paper and a short story about Vincent Van Gogh, the brilliant artist who created Starry Night. Van Gogh committed suicide having suffered terribly for years, both mentally and physically, from an undiagnosed disease. He died broke, his art unappreciated and ridiculed. It is said he couldn’t even trade a piece of his art for a dinner. And YET, he created Starry Night (as well as over 2000 other works of art), and to this day (over 120 years after his death) is one of the most famous and influential painters in the history of the world.
The choices I give you are extreme: making a huge difference, with a huge amount of suffering, or making zero (to little) difference, with zero pain. Most of us, given a 3rd choice, would choose something in between. We can take a little pain, knowing that even if our own accomplishments are small, maybe our children possess that spark which will make a difference in the world. But I’m not giving you a third choice, only two.
Which would you choose? And if you dare—WHY?