Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the greatest composers the world has ever known. But it wasn’t always so clear that he would have left such an impactful legacy.
Mozart was a child prodigy in his own right. His father, Leopold, himself a talented musician and composer, noticed this when Mozart was four. He had the uncanny ability to sit still and he loved to practice. When he turned five, Mozart could compose his own pieces.
As Mozart grew older, he would follow his father to perform in front of royalty across Europe. He would win applause no matter which capital he set foot in, and he generated a nice income for his family. It was a comfortable life, and Mozart was a success by any standard.
Yet as Mozart grew into his teenage years, he felt confused. Playing for a royal audience meant that he never could stray from the more conventional pieces. There was yet another question that made him uneasy — was it music that he enjoyed, or was it fame and attention?
An answer would appear when he was twenty-one. After the passing of his mother, Mozart finally understood why he had spent all this time pleasing the nobility, a task which he considered beneath his position. It wasn’t fame or riches that he craved; it was his father’s love and attention that he had desired all this while.
And so realising that his father was holding him back from composing — the one thing he loved — Mozart never returned to Salzburg, where he was born and raised.
Only then did his most famous compositions start pouring out of him.
Avoiding The False Path
Mozart’s search for his mission is probably not unfamiliar to us.
We hear of people having mid-life crises and struggling with their identity. A career that sounded promising in our 20s becomes soul-draining some 10 years later. It happens often.
Robert Greene calls this the false path. He explains in Mastery:
“A false path in life is generally something we are attracted to for the wrong reasons–money, fame, attention, and so on. […] Because the field we choose does not correspond with our deepest inclinations, we rarely find the
fulfillmentthat we crave. Our work suffers for this, and the attention we may have gotten in the beginning starts to fade–a painful process.”
At that point, Greene explains, our only recourse is to actively rebel against the forces that have pushed us away from our true path. Like how Mozart had to leave his father, painful steps are required at this point.
This leaves me wondering how we are drawn to this false path in the first place. If we can figure that out, we’ll save ourselves a lot of pain.
Knowing What We Want
The French philosopher Rene Girard had a theory that all our desires were mimetic. People have no idea what they want or what they value, and so are drawn to what other people want.
I’m not sure how true this is, but looking around, it’s difficult to say that Girard was completely off. At each stage of our lives, there’s something we ought to do. Nobody tells us this — and nobody has to — because we keep looking around. We know what John has done, what Jane is doing, and that tells us what we should be doing.
Even the contrarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel was prone to this:
“I was super tracked. In high school, I knew I was going to Stanford, and then Stanford law, and I ended up at a top tier law firm in Manhattan. It was a place where from the outside, everybody wanted to get in, from the inside, everybody wanted to get out. [..] How did I end up like that; why had I not thought about that more? I had taken too many of these shortcuts valuing what was prestigious, what was conventional, over what I really wanted to do.
Greene would have described Thiel’s actions as treading a false path. Unlike Mozart however, Thiel’s motivations probably resonate a lot more with us. It’s easy to do what your peer group is doing. Even easier, if you’re as competitive as Thiel was.
But Thiel has since come up with ways to focus on the signal and block out the noise. One of the questions he asks frequently is “what important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Another one of his quips is to be less competitive because
Such sentiments have become gospel in certain circles, and yet the message doesn’t seem to get old. It’s particularly striking how Thiel expressed this idea in his recent interview with Dave Rubin:
“This is more of a religious cut on [not to be competitive]. I’m always struck by how in the ten commandments, the first and last in some sense are the important ones. The first one is you should only look to God, there’s only one God, you should worship him. And then the last one is you shouldn’t covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
I think that captures it all. You can look up for inspiration. You can look down and focus around on what you’re doing.
What you should not be doing is to look around.