It’s easy to feel like obscurity makes effort meaningless. But do we have to see it that way, and isn’t there maybe a more positive way to look at this, which is more motivational and productive?
Instead of being a failing, it’s pre-success. There’s nothing to lose by being nobody and trying your best, or even your second best, or hardly trying at all. To most people, you are a benign ambiguous stranger, any of your efforts are measured against a goalpost of minimal expectations. To everyone you meet you start as a blank slate. There is nothing to lose, and everything yet to prove.
Your failings are smaller because you are nobody. No one is being influenced by your decisions. They don’t ripple out into the wider culture, they barely make a dent. Your fuck-ups aren’t debated, they disappear like mist.
Your successes are smaller but they are full of integrity. Your efforts as a nobody are more sincere because they are not reflected back to you. You make the right choices not from reputational maintenance, but from humble self-improvement and determination. You live by your values not because anyone asked you to, but because it’s a choice, completely un-endorsed and un-noticed by the wider world.
This week I drove my car to work 3 days out of 5; and cycled the other 2. When I cycle, my office applauds me, when I drive, it’s business as usual. Each morning I know I should cycle, but ultimately, my tiny individual contributions are meaningless. Yes this means I can’t end climate change or car-commuting on my own, but it also means my almost-nanoscopic efforts to travel green are more meaningful, because they lack so much external meaning. Instead, I cycle purely to show what green-transport means to me, and why I support city cycling. The impact on my mental health, my self-image and my admiring co-workers is way more important than the negligible actual effect on the environment.
Your future is a blank canvas for better days to come. For the average working-class person, work and holidays is the expected aim. If you shoot any higher, you’re smashing expectations and breaking out of the mould. There’s everything to play for, and almost nothing to lose.
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