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Oh, wow, Joshua, I'm reeling with this. I was the young writer whose education was utterly grounded in the concept of greatness, whether in trying to write great books (and failing except for maybe 500 pages of the hundreds of thousands I've published) or in seeking out and reading the greats (of which there are more than enough to occupy my entire life). And, frankly, I don't see much of this push for greatness in contemporary fiction. In fact, there's active hostility toward the concept, especially because it's usually associated with white male writers. But then I think of Emily Dickinson, who could very well be the greatest poet in human history, who devoted herself so completely to her work, writing hundreds of poems, while publishing only a handful in her life. Did she suffer because of her greatness? Did she consciously pursue greatness? Was she lonely? Did she sacrifice for that greatness? I think she did.

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You and I came of age when the idea of a canon was still pretty broadly accepted, and I suppose that inevitably shapes young writers in the way that the MLB Hall of Fame shapes young baseball players. The canon and Cooperstown once were pretty straightforward benchmarks to aim for. And even after the canon was either expanded or discarded, it was still possibly to believe in a version of it: topping the bestseller list or ending up in a lot of academic syllabi. And it's possible that this definition of greatness persists: some degree of celebrity or ubiquity or assumed relevance. Someone like Toni Morrison might be said to bridge the old world and the new in that sense. But as you say, contemporary writers shy away from the term "greatness." Someone like Charles Frazier, who I think is a fine craftsman but not really a visionary, thus democratizes the notion of "the classics" (see https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/13/books/review/charles-frazier-by-the-book-interview.html).

So there is a strange paradox when we speak of figures like Dickinson in this way, but eschew the same category or concept with contemporary writers. It's as if the writers once considered as canonical can still carry that status into the present (with objections from some camps), but contemporary writers are, by default, disqualified from consideration or from the same kind of aspiration.

This isn't a logical segue, but I'm reminded of an anecdote about Sinclair Lewis. He apparently was bragging, at a Parisian café, around 1923, that he was greater than Flaubert, and a Frenchman shouted, "Sit down, you're just a best seller!" How embarrassing, and perhaps deserved humiliation for such braggadocio. Maybe Lewis was still trying to save face when he turned down the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith in 1926 (claiming he didn't believe in such contests). And maybe he felt vindicated when he won the 1930 Nobel. Lewis was what I might call a visionary -- he had a clear vision of American life that I think is still penetrating and relevant -- but he was a raging sexist and a terrible stylist, in my view. I still can't believe that he won the Nobel. I wrote a dissertation chapter on Arrowsmith because it's perhaps the first American novel to heroize the scientific physician (and interesting because he wrote it collaboratively with a bacteriologist, Paul de Kruif). But I stopped trying to teach it because the dialogue is so terrible and the premise often ridiculous. I don't think Lewis will be remembered as one of the greats, but I am mindful that this is all based on competing definitions, all subjective in their own way.

I don't know...it sounds like you still believe in literary greatness and still find that a motivating mark to aim at? Maybe it's unfair to even ask, given that it's kind of a shameful thing to even admit to aspiring toward these days? Sorry for rambling...

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Dickinson wanted all of her poetry destroyed after her death, so I think her views on ‘greatness’ have to have been pretty complex, in any event.

Joshua’s essay is great. I think on one hand this is the burden that 19th C. romantic ideas about work and creation have left us—the notion that we all have to be so consumed by passion and intensity and produce something utterly individual and original through that passion; on the other hand, we live in a moment where fewer and fewer of us feel like we matter in any way at all—our workplace leaders constantly survey us for our opinions and observations and then largely ignore what we tell them; our democratic institutions constantly tell us that we’re the ones making decisions through voting and civic participation and yet most of what most of us want never seems to happen. We can’t even get simple things through our consumer desires that many people want like “pockets on women’s pants” and so on. The dream of greatness through vocation was one of the primary compensatory fantasies as more structured ways of mattering began to feel closed off…

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Oh, wow, yes, I can see all of this. For some reason, your reply has me thinking of Richard Wilbur: "The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,/ And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul /

Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple/

As false dawn.// Outside the open window/

The morning air is all awash with angels." I wonder if the wish for literary greatness is simply a wish for the expansion of soul, especially considering the way we get so objectified and minimized by our political and economic structures.

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Oh, yeah, I love that. Expansion of soul. There definitely is something to the notion of the artist as vessel for something greater, per the Aeolian harp. And I'm still a sucker for Emerson's idea that the poet is this kind of emancipator for all of us, helping us transcend those squealing pulleys.

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I'll go the bestseller route here and mention Elizabeth Gilbert, who I saw speak this week. She firmly believes that writers are vessels for ideas that are "out there" and want to be brought into form. (Much like souls in Mormon cosmology where those on earth have a duty to "bring down" those "out there.") I find this intriguing and workable, in the sense that perhaps writerly ego (hi, Sinclair Lewis) isn't always very compatible with bringing something greater into form.

Then, as I type that, I have to think of Thomas Mann, who was an amazing egotist if there ever was one, but wrote prose so profoundly beautiful that reading it literally changed my life.

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Well, and as you may have read a few weeks ago, my great-grandfather wrote his entire dissertation on Thomas Mann. If I ever expand some of my genealogical work into a memoir, I will need to travel to Seattle and dig Max Schertel's dissertation out of the UW stacks. But it is written in German, so I guess it won't be as simple as sitting down to read it!

It is still almost incomprehensible to me that the man who devoted his professional life to German literature and specifically to an author as liberal (in some ways) as Thomas Mann could father a son like my grandfather, who was more conservative and more of a religious fundamentalist than perhaps anyone I've ever met. And for me to have grown up feeling the weight of his disapproval, only to discover that his father -- whom I never knew and was never told anything about -- would have been delighted in me as a grandson. But that is rather beside the point of this thread!

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"expansion of the soul" resonates with me so strongly! This idea is at the root of my wish (for myself and others) to pursue things that involve transformation and growth.

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How interesting: "The dream of greatness through vocation was one of the primary compensatory fantasies as more structured ways of mattering began to feel closed off…" I suppose the aspiration to historical greatness is age-old, not merely a nineteenth-century fantasy. But I'm trying to follow your logic here--were structural ways of mattering closed off during the Romantic period? Maybe greatness was a way of eclipsing the class divides in the Gilded Age... But it seems like the invisibility that you're describing in our own time is actually eroding the notion of greatness, not fueling a new fantasy of greatness through vocation. Am I hearing you right?

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I just read an essay by Richard Feynman talking about how teaching is the greatest thing if you’re a creative scientist. He describes the sad state of the guys who were given space and time and money and told to go make something, about how they feel like frauds and get caught in their heads and so on, but how because he was teaching, whenever he had a creative doldrum he’d go teach his students something really basic and elemental to him, and their questions might touch on some aspect that would refresh some curious point he’d long forgotten about, and he’d find his creativity again. It was an argument for not taking research-only positions, always teaching no matter how elevated you become in your career. He’s a good counterpoint to Cather. Like her, a very flawed human being but none the less a decided creative force and a great writer too. The two of them would doubtless disagree, but I think it shows the diversity of personality among human beings.

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Love this example, Amy! I'm wondering now if we might exchange "influence" for "greatness." Feynman and Cather were both very influential in different ways and remain so. How do you think about these things as a poet, yourself?

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I'm not a poet. :) I think I've published one poem in my life. The rest is all fiction and essays. Prosey-prose. But thank you for the compliment. I don't think we can exchange influence for greatness, and I have just the Cather story to back it up: "Coming, Aphrodite!" The two characters, Eden Bower the singer, and Don Hedger the painter, end up arguing about their definitions of success, and both of them achieve success by their own measures: she is a star, her greatness emblazoned over the doors of concert halls, she delights her "public," while he is an "influence," known primarily by other painters, who can appreciate his idiosyncratic experimentation and movement from idea to idea.

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I guess I can't really leave it at that: to me, the whole point of that story is that there are two sides to every artists, like yin and yang, a complementary system in which one needs the other; part of us is dark and brooding, outsider-y and experimental, social games and status symbols repel us, and we travel farther in our imaginations than anyone could in the physical world; the other part of us calls out to the rest of humanity and says, Look!! Listen!! Behold!! Let it be me!! And is willing to give over the whole of ourselves to the feelings of others -- in exchange, we hope, for material benefit and social esteem.

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What a great example -- perfect, in fact. I wish I'd thought of it in the original post! I think these two concepts are confused in our contemporary understanding of greatness, but I quite take your point about the two simultaneously valid definitions. I suppose the Hedger model is in decline, and there was never any doubt in Cather's mind which of those models was superior. But perhaps the point is that one definition ought not try to colonize the other.

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There are poets who find so much joy in teaching. And so many who were and are legendarily great at being teachers. I think of Charles Simic. He got ficpve-star raves as a teacher.

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David Wagoner's "First Class," a one-act play about Theodore Roethke's unrivaled teaching is another nugget.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0N3GhaPP9Q&t=19s

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I'm a huge Roethke fan, I knew Wagoner a little, and I live in Seattle but I didn't know about this play. I need to track down the script.

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Apr 14, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

I’ve been loving reading your pieces. Your autobiographical writing is beautiful. I especially enjoyed the one about church and baseball. I also admire the ability of writers to put themselves out there. I write a lot but I haven’t had the courage to try to publish because people on the internet are so quick to be critical or contrarian. But to get back to the topic…the word “awe” feels misleading. Awe is an inner experience that makes us feel small but in a good way. It gives us perspective on our mortality and reference for the mysteries of life and existence. Overworking is a behavior that is usually tied to feelings of insecurity and striving for external validation. Sometimes this overworking is because we want to feel big and important from acknowledgment and accolades. The state of awe and the behaviors of overworking don’t match. It feels like vocational awe is really pointing to an economy that takes people who once had awe and asks them to engage in endlessly meaningless tasks like hours of checking and responding to emails so they can achieve some external legitimacy. If we truly felt awe, we would be more still and slow down and evaluate the meaning and importance of our tasks.

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Reverence, not reference

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Aw, thanks! I default to lyricism in memoir, perhaps to a fault :). And memoir is not simple or straightforward. I am mindful that some of what I write is awkward or painful for some family members or hometown friends to read, but I do try to choose those stories carefully, and with an eye toward a larger conversation that I think makes some of that discomfort worthwhile. I'll be writing about something similar for Tuesday, with some trepidation.

I take your point about "awe," but I think Ettarh is getting at how abusive workplaces exploit our internalized awe. So I think you're quite right that overwork pushes us a long way from the original pull of a profession. But Ettarh's point is that when we have to use negative thinking or criticism or activism to advocate for our awe, or to try to get it back, we are often shamed for doing so. Or we shame ourselves for tainting the sacred thing with our negative feelings. I think you are a good example, based on our Chronicle interview, of someone who is trying to keep that feeling of awe alive in a profession where you have felt it threatened. I suppose there are some who might abandon the notion of awe altogether and reduce the calling to "just a job." But I don't think Ettarh is necessarily doing that -- she is calling attention to how using words like "calling" and "sacred" can make us feel like unworthy acolytes if we critique our work environments. Maybe I'm only confusing things. Do you think it's helpful to set some limits on awe?

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Ahh, yes. The church vibe in academe is useful. It’s an effective way to get people to fall into line. It’s like the honor one gets for being in the military. I definitely think we should set limits on overworking but awe itself is a feeling. But perhaps I am just being a typical clinical psychologist who separates thoughts, feelings and behaviors! I do agree with Ettarh. I think it’s a brilliant way to call out how institutions exploit people.

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Apr 14, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

Agghh, yes, I think so.... Overwork, for me, has been fear, flailing. Inability to say 'no' because I never knew when any sort of ask/offer would come my way again. Mistaken belief that some of that work mattered in some ego-linked or money/raise manner. Overwork...a socially acceptable preoccupation, fixation, "devotion."

OTOH, I see Ettarh's point. 'Leaders' referring to our workplaces as sites of awe has a latent (or manifest?) function of enabling conformity and quashing action, critiques, etc. How dare I question the Dear Leaders of my 'awe'-provoking in-a-calling 'servantship' college? How dare I question the college, House of Callings and Awe and Vocations? How dare I question the students, as they are "our why"? Keep thinking of Max Weber on capitalism and the Protestant Ethic: "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so," thus building the "tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order."

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Oof -- this one landed hard: "How dare I question the students, as they are "our why"?" Yes, indeed. And, as Kevin McClure said last month, the student experience is elevated well above the employee experience. Students are encouraged to question and critique because of the high price they are paying. If they are the true "employers" of faculty, as some misguided consultants say, then they simply cannot be critiqued.

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At the beginning of my nonprofit career, my entire life was my vocation. I wrote about this in a piece titled when home is a vocation (and doing this on my phone I am too lazy to provide a link). But I think there is something about ego tied up in vocational awe. Now, my daily mantra is simply., “ how can I be of service today?” And maybe due to age or other internal work that I’ve done, I asked this question without sacrificing my own needs. Sometimes to be of service to others, we must first take care of ourselves. That means, as much as I would like to finish a paper on Orpheus, prompted by a friend’s question, it continues to sit in a pile now for a year. Today, there are other things I must attend to.

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This is a compassionate perspective, Jan. Very Buddhist in certain ways? I've always struggled with the Buddhist notion that desire is the root of all suffering. Because desire is also the source of much pleasure. But the notion of checking the ego in this way, or occasionally taking the "I" out of things, is a helpful corrective.

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What an interesting essay and discussion! I feel so lucky to have bumbled into it.

“But why must craft constitute the whole self to be pure?” Captures a lot of how I’m feeling right now--like the act of leaving nullifies everything.

I believe it’s also worth thinking about how this idea affects (or infects) academic scientific culture, because it’s often used to justify low pay and long hours. If being a scientist is a calling rather than a vocation, you should be willing to work late nights in the lab, and accept low salaries because the payoff is glory.

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Apr 14, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

Exactly. Or the payoff is 'knowledge' or 'mentoring' or being a rest stop that facilitates others' glory.

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Ah, so hard to resist that feeling that "leaving nullifies everything." It doesn't, of course, and when I'm feeling that way I usually remind myself of the meme about being compassionate toward ourselves for decisions we made without all the information we have now.

How interesting that scientists are still motivated by glory! Fame, fortune, and the Nobel?

Your last sentence could easily be reworked with Ettarh's idea:

If being an ___ is a calling rather than a vocation, you should be willing to ___, ___, and ___, because the payoff is holiness.

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Writers aren’t really writing for their era — or for anybody they know or may know. They’re writing for people who don’t exist yet, they are attempting — assuming that some mode of literate transmission survives — to convey the truth of themselves and their era for people who will never experience it themselves. Both of these are holy tasks.”

love that

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I think structured ways of mattering were opening up in the great massification and democratization of the 19th Century--but that fueled Romantic envisionings of passionate originality and greatness in part as a desire to matter MORE than just being a citizen, a community member, an equal part of a society moving towards equality. To have a calling--and to fulfill it with distinctive individuality--set you up above that, almost as a preservation of an aristocratic ethos against the crowd. But if you weren't going to be Lord Byron or William Blake, the notion that you had civic duty, that you could steward and maintain a profession's mission, that you could participate in the everyday disposition of decisions in your community or your institutions, all gave people a way to matter--to own a share of the commonweal. As that dwindles in our own moment, I think the flame of "but I might still be great" burns brighter because there isn't that other route to mattering through the basic pursuit of duty, honor and mission for most people, even though we do still invoke that a lot.

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This is excellent discourse, and I'm refraining from simply quoting the whole thing. I agree almost entirely, except that I think "but I might still be great" registers less for most young people than "but I might still be viral." What it says about us that one of our dominant tropes for success is mimicking an infectious disease is, perhaps, a separate thread...

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I'm going to limit myself here, bc I have work to do and a podcast to record and a happy hour to get to on time this afternoon, so I'll just pick up the question "Do you love something so much that you are, like the young Willa Cather, willing to be a failure at it? Do you love that craft or vocation so much that you are willing to allow it to make you unhappy?"

My short answer is FUCK TO THE NO I don't.

So, I was a less-than-happy, occasionally miserable academic. That isn't why I left, however. I got tenure, I hit plenty of the required benchmarks for academic success, but I struggled with working on things that 10 people would read and teaching in a dying field. Teaching basic language classes and navigating the people and the crumbling infrastructure of my university didn't really bring me the joy that I thought would come with the title and the job and whatever I had imagined under "life of the mind."

I do NOT believe that each of us should "follow our passion" so we "never have to work a day in our lives." Miya Tokumitsu does a better job than I in articulating why _Do What You Love_ is a bullshit phrase to parrot to people, especially people who are just embarking on a job or career quest.

What I do believe is that each of us should feel connected to purpose. Maybe that happens at work--as it currently does for me--but perhaps it happens elsewhere in your life. Finding purpose in your existence is a critical element in human resilience and nihilism generally does not create long lives filled with moments of awe and joy.

I also believe that personal growth more often than not involves discomfort. So, if you are experiencing pain or misery because you're in the process of stretching yourself, reaching your intellectual, social, spiritual limbs into new corners of the world, then that is 100% ok. Please continue to do that, because you will come out the other side of that discomfort changed, likely for the better. Then you can hang out in that new place, now that it is comfortable, for a while, before you are ready to grow and stretch and be uncomfortable again.

So, if writing a book or pursuing any craft or big thing worth doing feels like that, like a messy and uncomfortable phase that ends in some sort of transformation, then sign me up. But if you pursue the big thing and never feel the transformation, never get to the internal moment of "well done" or "now I know I can do that, so I'm ready to try it again or improve it" or some such, then I would question what it is you think you're pursuing.

On a personal note, my "big thing worth doing" or BHAG, to use Collins' and Porras' acronym for "big, hairy, audacious goal" is building a sustainable coaching business. It takes a great deal of emotional energy and has taken more learning and internal transformation than I thought I was capable of at this age. But I am a different, wiser, more compassionate person now than I was when I tentatively embarked on this mission 6 years ago. I recognize that this business-building BHAG has provided a wonderfully convenient excuse for not looking at the other BHAG that has been sitting at 15k words in a Dropbox folder for years. Perhaps, when I feel like I've caught up with myself business-wise, the memoir will have its day.

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Apr 14, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

Yes. This reminds me that I have vowed never to discuss a "dream job" again. Everything is an exchange of labor for money. Those exchanges and the money are fundamentally inequitable and require tacit approval of persisting inequities in order to keep occurring. They require the 'Alice in Wonderland' fantasy that my labor matters and that it will net me more money, because my 'goodness' as a person or my 'fitness' in a job will be rewarded by people who control the money.

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Here is that essay by Tokumitsu, in case anyone is interested: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/08/do-what-you-love-work-myth-culture/399599/

Yes, I love this idea of embracing discomfort if you know it leads to growth, but rejecting that kind of pain if it never resolves: "But if you pursue the big thing and never feel the transformation, never get to the internal moment of "well done" or "now I know I can do that, so I'm ready to try it again or improve it" or some such, then I would question what it is you think you're pursuing."

So much wisdom in this comment thread!

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Apr 14, 2023·edited Apr 14, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

Joshua as a teacher of entrepreneurship (and 3x entrepreneur) I'm constantly fighting to get young (and old) entrepreneurs to review, revisit and rethink their definition of success. Certainly the Silicon Valley ethos and myth-makers would have us believe you aren't a real entrepreneur if you don't buy into the ethos of 'the-grind-is-real' or equally inane saying of the week. Of course media's coverage and adulation of mostly-male role models of entrepreneurial success who seem to go through wives, companies and money with nary a care doesn't help mattes. Oops will get off the tirade - my point was by no means are artists, academics and writers are alone in this trap of "vocational awe" but I'd argue its a larger (capitalist?) human condition. Of course artists, academics (certainly school teachers) and writers even when successful (whatever that means) don't always see the sorts of economic rewards that entrepreneurs might so the angst is far greater in the society we will live. This article on the mental health travails of entrepreneurs is a sobering peek behind the curtain. https://www.inc.com/magazine/201309/jessica-bruder/psychological-price-of-entrepreneurship.html

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Right on: "by no means are artists, academics and writers are alone in this trap of "vocational awe" but I'd argue it's a larger (capitalist?) human condition." That article looks amazing, too -- thanks for sharing. This kind of thing comes up in conversations with my wife. She asks if I feel like I don't have enough time for work, because we have set up our lives in such a way that I have fewer working hours than I used to. To her credit, she is asking to see if I might want an after-school strategy for the girls, so I can pack a couple more hours in. But I think when I have been expressing frustration occasionally at my limited time, I have been expressing confusion about whether I really want to be trying to suck every working hour out of the day. I like being there when my girls get off the bus, even if they go eat a snack and ignore me while reading a book. I think they like me being there, too. At the same time, I realize that I'm setting limits on what I can be realistically aspiring toward with the Substack, journalism, book projects. I can't hit a home run on every front. But part of me does have that entrepreneur mentality, which for me was forged during the PhD program, when I worked with brutal efficiency and laser focus. But that was pretty much all I did. I think I cut this anecdote from a previous post because it embarrassed me, but it's germane to your comment: A girlfriend in graduate school said, "Josh, you don't have to be the ubermensch." And I thought to myself, "Oh, but I am -- I have to be." I'm so glad that you're helping students envision a different path!

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This is very tangential to what you have written, but it seems to me that 'greatness' invariably is measured by the support/opinions of other people. Yet the history of ideas is leavened by those who worked anonymously and un-celebrated. Mostly those unafraid of swimming against the mainstream. The need to make the original intelligible is perhaps what Amy touches on in her emphasis (and Feynman's) on teaching where the inspiration has to 'bed-down' to be useful to others. The greatness is unaffected by that, and remains, in a way, primary. Without such affirmations it remains invisible.

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