Trailblazing is no fun

I always think about things in a historical perspective. I love learning about history, and it often stands out to me how often good ideas are not appreciated in their time. I apply that to today and wonder what ideas are going to have to wait to catch on, and who is going to be celebrated by future generations while they are denigrated in the present. Popularity is really a poor measure of the worth of an idea, especially when you realize how much hate certain ideas get when they are first introduced.

One of the things that makes me angriest is the habit people have of automatically reinforcing the status quo by denying problems that exist and progress that could be made. People often seem to have an almost Leibnizian view that nothing could really be that bad. Or, rather, nothing they participate in could really be that bad! After all, I’ve seen person after person detest a certain outspoken public figure, thinking that that certain person is “what is wrong with the world,” so they will admit that problems, such as those which the figure symbolizes, can exist. But that figure, such as a politician, naturally has views that oppose their own. The views that they themselves have cannot, apparently, ever be in need of improvement. It’s other people who are parts of other groups who have the problematic views that need to be changed.

This taps into a larger problem of the human condition: automatically rejecting any evidence that contradicts your worldview. People like to protect and insulate their ideas so they don’t have to reconsider them and experience the pain of cognitive dissonance. This is why people fail at being empathetic so often, I think: they’ve built up their worldview around their personal experience and what has worked for them, so if someone with a different experience speaks up and points out that the worldview in question is not all-encompassing, i.e. it doesn’t work and account for every situation, the person gets defensive and shifts the blame to some failure on the other person’s part. (Let’s say some advice works for one person but not in the experience of another. The person for whom it doesn’t work gets blamed for obviously doing something wrong, when maybe the advice itself is bad and ineffectual.)

That brings me to my main point: trailblazing is no fun, because people often don’t like new ideas that contradict their worldviews. A trailblazer must often sacrifice popularity and approval in their lifetime, because new and radical ideas are often not accepted. Maybe they will be mentioned as a forerunner in a future history textbook, and their work and ideas will be seen as beneficial and astute. But what comfort is that in someone’s lifetime, especially since they do not know for sure how they will be remembered or what achievements their efforts will produce? People of the past who are famous now for striking out on their own and raising their voices for a good cause were probably very lonely in their lifetimes. They probably had a lot of self doubt.

I say that “trailblazing is no fun” not because I think the intent of trailblazers is to waltz through life and simply be fun seekers (or that every trailblazer has the intent of being a “trailblazer”); rather, I am trying to recognise the steep personal cost of being bold and revolutionary. Some people have a thicker skin than others. For some people, it is less of a problem to not be universally adored because they don’t see others’ approval as a measurement of personal worth (which I think is healthy). However, I just wonder about the people with big, new, beneficial ideas who also struggle with things like people pleasing: how do they cope? How do they feel? How do they balance the faith they have in their ideas with the inevitable rejection they must experience?

I imagine it must wear on a person to be constantly criticised. It must wear on a person to be constantly made to feel like their ideas are worthless and wrong, or even harmful. It must be discouraging to be made into an oversimplified caricature for an opposing side and meant to represent Everything Wrong. Imagine, on a very small scale, what that would be like: imagine talking to just one person who only repeated back distortions of what you actually said or just kept asking “What?” or saying, “You’re wrong and worthless and bad.” Now multiply that by thousands, or millions, or billions. How would you handle it?

I imagine being a trailblazer requires a thick skin and a focus on the group of people you are helping, not on your own feelings. But that must be exhausting to ignore your feelings. Even if you don’t acknowledge them, you’re still going to have emotions. I think it would affect even the most selfless person who is focusing on other people 100% of the time. I think we are all at the mercy of our often irrational emotions, no matter how much we try to put them aside.

People forget this often, I think. They treat other people as unfeeling machines who only talk and never absorb criticism—they can become inhuman in their eyes, not prone to the same self doubt and hurt feelings that we all experience. This is a byproduct of conflating a person with ideas, I think. People disagree with an idea, but instead of addressing the idea, they attack the person espousing it (a clear example of this is using ad hominem attacks or name-calling in a debate). A person becomes a metonymy for an idea. Ideas don’t have feelings—they’re tough and durable—but humans do, and the proverbial messenger often gets shot.

I see in these issues the best and worst of humanity at odds with each other: the passion for inciting positive change and helping others vs. ignorance, knee-jerk negative reactions, and cruelty. It can be aggravating to watch the constant battle between these sides.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think people cope with the personal cost of trailblazing?
  2. Are you a trailblazer? What is it like?
  3. What about human nature do you think makes progress difficult?