THE FIRST TRANSFORMATION
From early in his life, Charles Darwin (1809–82) felt the presence of his father bearing down on him. The father was a successful and wealthy country doctor who had high hopes for his two sons. But Charles, the youngest, seemed to be the one who was less likely to meet his expectations. He was not good at Greek and Latin, or algebra, or really anything in school. It wasn’t that he lacked ambition. It was just that learning about the world through books did not interest him. He loved the outdoors—hunting, scouring the countryside for rare breeds of beetles, collecting flower and mineral specimens. He could spend hours observing the behavior of birds and taking elaborate notes on their various differences. He had an eye for such things. But these hobbies did not add up to a career, and as he got older he could sense his father’s growing impatience. One day, his father rebuked him with words Charles would never forget: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”
When Charles turned fifteen, his father decided to become more actively involved in his life. He sent him off to medical school in Edinburgh, but Charles could not stand the sight of blood and so had to drop out. Determined to find some career for him, the father then secured for his son a future position in the church as a country parson. For this Charles would be well paid, and he would have plenty of spare time to pursue his mania for collecting specimens. The only requirement for such a position was a degree from an eminent university, and so Charles was enrolled at Cambridge. Once again, he had to confront his disinterest in formal schooling. He tried his best. He developed an interest in botany and became good friends with his instructor, Professor Henslow. He worked as hard as he could, and to his father’s relief he managed, barely, to earn his Bachelor of Arts in May 1831.
Hoping that his schooling was forever over, Charles left on a tour of the English countryside where he could indulge in all of his passions for the outdoors and forget about the future, for the time being.
When he returned home in late August, he was surprised to see a letter waiting for him from Professor Henslow. The professor was recommending Charles for a position as an unpaid naturalist on the HMS Beagle, which was to leave in a few months on a several-year journey around the globe, surveying various coastlines. As part of his job, Charles would be in charge of collecting life and mineral specimens along the way and sending them back to England for examination. Evidently, Henslow had been impressed by the young man’s remarkable skill in collecting and identifying plant specimens.
This offer confused Charles. He had never thought of traveling that far, let alone pursuing a career as a naturalist. Before he really had time to consider it, his father weighed in—he was dead set against his accepting the offer. Charles had never been to sea and would not take to it well. He was not a trained scientist, and lacked the discipline. Moreover, taking several years on this voyage would jeopardize the position his father had secured for him in the church.
His father was so forceful and persuasive that Charles could not help but agree, and he decided to turn the offer down. But over the next few days he thought about this voyage and what it could be like. And the more he imagined it, the more it appealed to him. Perhaps it was the lure of adventure after leading such a sheltered childhood, or the chance to explore a possible career as a naturalist, seeing along the way almost every possible life form the planet could offer. Or maybe he needed to get away from his overbearing father and find his own way. Whatever the reason, he soon decided that he had changed his mind and wanted to accept the offer. Recruiting an uncle to his cause, he managed to get his father to give his very reluctant consent. On the eve of the ship’s departure, Charles wrote to the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy: “My second life will then commence, and it shall be as a birthday for the rest of my life.”
The ship set sail in December of that year and almost instantly young Darwin regretted his decision. The boat was rather small and strongly buffeted by the waves. He was continually seasick and could not hold his food. His heart ached at the thought that he would not see his family for so long, and that he would have to spend so many years cooped up with all of these strangers. He developed heart palpitations and felt like he was dangerously ill. The sailors sensed his lack of seaworthiness and eyed him strangely. Captain FitzRoy proved to be a man of wildly swinging moods, suddenly turning furious over the most seemingly trivial events. He was also a religious fanatic who believed in the literal truth of the Bible; it was Darwin’s duty, FitzRoy told him, to find in South America evidence of the Flood and the creation of life as described in Genesis. Darwin felt like a fool for going against his father, and his sense of loneliness was crushing. How could he endure this cramped existence for months on end, living in close quarters with a captain who seemed half-insane?
A few weeks into the journey, feeling somewhat desperate, he decided upon a strategy. Whenever he experienced such inner turmoil at home, what always calmed him down was to head outdoors and observe the life around him. In that way he could forget himself. This now was his world. He would observe life on board this ship, the characters of the various sailors and the captain himself, as if he were taking note of the markings of butterflies. For instance, he noticed that no one grumbled about the food or the weather or the tasks at hand. They valued stoicism. He would try to adopt such an attitude. It seemed that FitzRoy was slightly insecure and needed constant validation about his authority and high position within the navy. Darwin would supply that to no end. Slowly, he began to fit into the daily scheme of life. He even picked up some of the mannerisms of the sailors. All of this distracted him from his loneliness.
Several months later the Beagle arrived in Brazil, and now Darwin understood why he had wanted so badly to go on this voyage. He was completely mesmerized by the intense variety of the vegetation and wildlife—this was a naturalist’s paradise. It was not like anything he had observed or collected in England. One day on a walk through a forest, he stood to the side and witnessed the most bizarre and cruel spectacle he had ever seen: a march of tiny black ants, their columns over a hundred yards long, devouring every living thing in their path. Everywhere he turned he saw some example of the fierce struggle for survival in forests with overabundant life. In attending to his work, he quickly realized that he also faced a problem: All of the birds, the butterflies, the crabs, and the spiders he caught were so unusual. Part of his job was to choose judiciously what to send back, but how could he possibly distinguish what was worth collecting?
He would have to expand his knowledge. Not only would he have to spend endless hours studying everything in his sight on his walks, and take copious notes, but he would have to find a way to organize all of this information, catalog all of these specimens, bring some order to his observations. It would be a herculean task, but unlike schoolwork, it excited him. These were living creatures, not vague notions in books.
As the ship headed south along the coast, Darwin realized that there were interior parts of South America that no naturalist had yet explored. Determined to see every form of life that he could possibly find, he began
STRATEGIES FOR FINDING YOUR LIFE’S TASK
The misery that oppresses you lies not in your profession but in yourself! What man in the world would not find his situation intolerable if he chooses a craft, an art, indeed any form of life, without experiencing an inner calling? Whoever is born with a talent, or to a talent, must surely find in that the most pleasing of occupations! Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive—pleasure, love—can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!
—JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
It might seem that connecting to something as personal as your inclinations and Life’s Task would be relatively simple and natural, once you recognize their importance. But in fact it is the opposite. It requires a good deal of planning and strategizing to do it properly, since so many obstacles will present themselves. The following five strategies, illustrated by stories of Masters, are designed to deal with the main obstacles in your path over time—the voices of others infecting you, fighting over limited resources, choosing false paths, getting stuck in the past, and losing your way. Pay attention to all of them because you will almost inevitably encounter each one in some form.
1. Return to your origins—The primal inclination strategy
For Masters, their inclination often presents itself to them with remarkable clarity in childhood. Sometimes it comes in the form of a simple object that triggers a deep response. When Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was five, his father gave him a compass as a present. Instantly, the boy was transfixed by the needle, which changed direction as he moved the compass about. The idea that there was some kind of magnetic force that operated on this needle, invisible to the eyes, touched him to the core. What if there were other forces in the world equally invisible yet equally powerful—ones that were undiscovered or not understood? For the rest of his life all of his interests and ideas would revolve around this simple question of hidden forces and fields, and he would often think back to the compass that had sparked the initial fascination.
When Marie Curie (1867–1934), the future discoverer of radium, was four years old she wandered into her father’s study and stood transfixed before a glass case that contained all kinds of laboratory instruments for chemistry and physics experiments. She would return to that room again and again to stare at the instruments, imagining all sorts of experiments she could conduct with these tubes and measuring devices. Years later, when she entered a real laboratory for the first time and did some experiments herself, she reconnected immediately with her childhood obsession; she knew she had found her vocation.
When the future film director Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007) was nine years old his parents gave his brother for Christmas a cinematograph—a moving picture machine with strips of film that projected simple scenes. He had to have it for himself. He traded his own toys to get it and once it was in his possession, he hurried into a large closet and watched the flickering images it projected on the wall. It seemed like something had magically come to life each time he turned it on. To produce such magic would become his lifelong obsession.
Sometimes this inclination becomes clear through a particular activity that brings with it a feeling of heightened power. As a child, Martha Graham (1894–1991) felt intensely frustrated by her inability to make others understand her in a deep way; words seemed inadequate. Then one day, she saw her first dance performance. The lead dancer had a way of expressing certain emotions through movement; it was visceral, not verbal. She started dance lessons soon thereafter and immediately understood her vocation. Only when dancing could she feel alive and expressive. Years later she would go on to invent a whole new form of dance and revolutionize the genre.
Sometimes it is not an object or activity but rather something in culture that sparks a deep connection. The contemporary anthropologist-linguist Daniel Everett (b. 1951) grew up on the California-Mexico border, in a cowboy town. From a very early age, he found himself drawn to the Mexican culture around him. Everything about it fascinated him—the sound of the words spoken by the migrant workers, the food, the manners that were so different from the Anglo world. He immersed himself as much as he could in their language and culture. This would transform into a lifelong interest in the Other—the diversity of cultures on the planet and what that means about our evolution.
And sometimes one’s true inclinations can be revealed through an encounter with an actual Master. As a young boy growing up in North Carolina, John Coltrane (1926–67) felt different and strange. He was much more serious than his schoolmates; he experienced emotional and spiritual longings he did not know how to verbalize. He drifted into music more as a hobby, taking up the saxophone and playing in his high school band. Then a few years later he saw the great jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker perform live, and the sounds Parker produced touched Coltrane to the core. Something primal and personal came through Parker’s saxophone, a voice from deep within. Coltrane suddenly saw the means for expressing his uniqueness and giving a voice to his own spiritual longings. He began to practice the instrument with such intensity that within a decade he transformed himself into perhaps the greatest jazz artist of his era.
You must understand the following: In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious. For Einstein, it was not physics but a fascination with invisible forces that governed the universe; for Bergman, it was not film but the sensation of creating and animating life; for Coltrane, it was not music but giving voice to powerful emotions. These childhood attractions are hard to put into words and are more like sensations—that of deep wonder, sensual pleasure, power, and heightened awareness. The importance of recognizing these preverbal inclinations is that they are clear indications of an attraction that is not infected by the desires of other people. They are not something embedded in you by your parents, which come with a more superficial connection, something more
Greene, Robert. Mastery. Penguin Books, 11/2012. VitalBook file.
Greene, Robert. Mastery. Penguin Books, 11/2012. VitalBook file.