LeBron, Manziel, Atticus, Shackleton, or?

(not the sequel to Gödel Escher Bach, but I’d read that book too)

Let’s say you’re a rising star, in any field, with “a lot of potential.” Your friends and family will fill your head with visions of you becoming the next Michael Jordan or Bill Gates or Albert Einstein. As you grow up, what paths can you take?


You fulfill all the expectations! You actually are the best!


You flame out. Johnny Manziel was a highly hyped quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, was drafted early, partied a lot, got injured, was a big jerk, played for about two seasons, played in Canada for a couple years, retired.


You just live your life and it’s fine. You become a mid-level Manager of Enterprise B2B SAAS or whatever, have 2.1 kids and a dog and a nice garden. Like Atticus Finch1, you’re upstanding, virtuous, and reliable. You don’t really care that you “had a lot of potential”; it doesn’t really get to you.


You make your life a lot harder. This guy was a successful explorer, tried to cross Antarctica, had maybe the hardest expedition of all time.

A Secret Fifth Thing

You figure out what’s meaningful to you, get your whole self aligned behind it, and go for it. No example is provided; you’ve got to figure it out for yourself.

which way, western man?

I bet if you asked 100 “high potential” kids which of these they want to be, 100 would pick LeBron 2.

The overwhelming majority of people with “high potential”, though, can’t do this. Imagine you grow up in, say, Seattle, and you’re the best basketball player in the entire metro area. You’re the best out of ~4 million! Chances are, nobody you know, even your high school coaches, has seen anyone like you. They imagine you’ll be the next Michael Jordan. But 4 million is still only 1% of the US. If you’re in the top 100 basketball players, you’ll probably make the NBA (~500 players per season), sure. But even most of those 100 won’t become a household name, let alone the next Michael Jordan. And depending on how hard you buy the LeBron story, anything less than “the next Michael Jordan” counts as failure.

So out of the 99-100 who fail at being LeBron, they’re going to be on another path. I respect those who can be Atticus; that’s a pretty good path, if you can shake this bit of identity. Likewise, I appreciate the seekers who can be A Secret Fifth Thing; I don’t really know how this works out but I’m glad that some people do.3 Nobody wants to be Manziel, but some will drift into it. I’m not making any normative claims here like “don’t be Manziel” because that’s about as useless as “be LeBron.”

Finally, there’s the (probably substantial) chunk who choose Shackleton (e.g. a grueling career) or have it chosen for them (e.g. cancer). There’s some upside to it: Shackleton, while he’s sitting in a makeshift hut, half frozen, thousands of miles from civilization, isn’t worried about whether he’s “living up to his potential.” If he can survive, he’s done enough4. I guess this is a thing I’m learning after the last year or so of my life: living life on harder mode can help with existential angst.

(… have I backed myself into the Man’s Search for Meaning view, that suffering can be meaningful? and why does every part of this post rhyme with one or another line of Once in a Lifetime?)

  1. I got this example from ChatGPT. More experimentation with different prompts suggests that maybe ChatGPT just likes to talk about Atticus Finch. ↩︎

  2. Actually, I bet like 80 would pick LeBron and 20 would pick Shackleton because they’re “non-conformist” or whatever. When their boat is crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea, 19 of them would say “shit, I wish I had picked LeBron.” ↩︎

  3. I think the hard thing with A Secret Fifth Thing is “getting your whole self aligned behind a concept of meaning.” One failure case I think of here is The Dan Plan: a guy who said “I’ve never played golf, but I’m just gonna decide that golf is meaningful to me now, and make it onto the PGA tour.” He had a decent run but didn’t really even get close. ↩︎

  4. ok this maybe doesn’t seem to be true of Shackleton himself, he’s a bit driven. but maybe instead assume you’re one of Shackleton’s men. ↩︎

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