Human Nature

The Philosophy of Remarkable Minds

Each of us has the capacity to face difficult work. In many ways, this defines life. The struggle to create something of our own is where we find meaning.

Our modern era of comfort and convenience can be a double-edged sword. It’s allowed us to eliminate the daily struggle for survival and afforded us the privilege of having this discussion. But when taken to an extreme, it leads to a deep anxiety and restlessness. Emptiness can be a fiercer foe than hardship.

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.
— Sebastian Junger

It’s easy to sit by as a passive consumer and allow someone else to assume the risk. On a surface level, it might even appear that you’re reaping all the benefits. But if you fail to establish a creative outlet where you can build something of your own, you sacrifice your primary source of meaning along with it.

It’s through the work you put out into the world and the way you live that you instill your life with a sense of meaning. By creating more and consuming less you claim a larger part of yourself.

Those who have lived remarkable lives hold this philosophy in constant focus.

Into the Venezuelan Jungle

When Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769 to a family of wealthy Prussian aristocrats, by all standards of the day, he had it made. His father was an army officer and advisor to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, and his mother was the daughter of a rich manufacturer. If he wanted a comfortable existence, all he had to do was sit back and stay the course.

But despite these advantages, he was anxious and unhappy for most of his early years. His adventurous spirit was never satisfied by the confines of a classroom or the promise of a lucrative career as a civil servant. His dream was to explore the natural world.

As a child, Humboldt was fascinated with the journals of Captain James Cook and his accounts of distant countries and cultures. Humboldt wandered the Berlin countryside to recreate adventures of his own, stuffing his pockets full of plants, rocks, and insects, earning the nickname ‘the little apothecary.’

But after his father died at the age of nine, his financial dependence on his emotionally distant mother allowed her to dictate much of the early, unfulfilling course of his life. Despite his objections, she demanded that he work his way up the ranks of the Prussian administration.

Humboldt found creative ways to channel his deep interest in science, geology, and languages at different universities and academies along the way. He poured over the work of various artists, botanists, explorers, and thinkers. And while each provided inspiration, it was not enough to fill the void he faced for the first twenty-seven years of his life.

Humboldt was torn between the expectations of his family and his insatiable desire to set sail, experience the world firsthand, and contribute something of his own to the scientific community. He lacked an outlet to discover and create in a way that resonated with him. Without this, an emptiness continued to build.

It was only after his mother’s death in 1796 that he felt in control of his own destiny. Longing to escape his tiny corner of the world, he began planning a voyage to South America.

At age thirty, Humboldt set off on the expedition which altered the course of his life. He would explore treacherous landscapes that no scientist had set foot in before. The driving force was his desire to piecing together a more cohesive understanding of the natural world. Most scientists of his day were focused on isolated disciplines. Humboldt was interested in bridging the divide and the interconnected whole.

After arriving in Venezuela, Humboldt trekked for two months across the tropical grasslands of Los Llanos, facing temperatures near 120 degrees Fahrenheit. He followed this with seventy-five days of grueling river travel down the Orinoco, covering 1400 miles to reach the Casiquiare canal–a natural tributary between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Along the way, he faced torrential rains, incessant mosquitos, the occasional jaguar, and bouts with fevers and dysentery.

This would seem disheartening to most, but Humboldt came alive with boundless energy and enthusiasm during these explorations. No matter the conditions, he insisted on measuring the height of mountains, determining longitude and latitude, taking temperatures of the air and water, making astronomical observations, collecting new species of plants, and documenting it all with detailed notes. Each new environment brought him closer to understanding how the natural world fit together.

The pinnacle of his experience in South America came during a 2,500-mile journey from Cartagena to Lima to explore the Andean Mountains. During this trip, he attempted to summit Chimborazo, an inactive volcano standing at 21,000 feet.

At 15,600 feet, the porters refused to go on. But Humboldt continued his ascent, fighting through freezing conditions, deep fields of snow, and altitude sickness. Without fail, every few hundred feet he stopped and fumbled with freezing hands to set up his instruments to measure temperature, humidity, altitude, and boiling points. He reached 19,286 feet–a world record at the time–before he was forced to turn around due to impassable conditions.

This experience inspired Humboldt to sketch ‘Naturgemälde,’ a depiction of Chimborazo’s cross sections with the distribution of vegetation, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure according to altitude. Humboldt showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. And he presented it in an unprecedented infographic style, allowing those without a scientific background to understand the concept.

Naturgemälde – Alexander von Humboldt’s first depiction of nature as an interconnected whole

Naturgemälde – Alexander von Humboldt’s first depiction of nature as an interconnected whole

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt’s exploration of South America inspired him to write thousands of letters, essays, publications, and lectures. By making connections and framing nature as a unified whole, his work revolutionized the way we view the natural world. As an interesting aside, he was also the first to observe and describe human-induced climate change.

Humboldt inspired generations of scientists and writers including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. But his greatest contribution was making science more accessible and exciting to a broader audience.

In Berlin, his series of free lectures packed music and university halls with royal family, students, servants, women, and children. He took his audience on a journey that ignited their imagination–combining exact observation with painterly descriptions. He brought distant landscapes to life through poetry, geology, and astronomy, bridging the divide between art and science.

Humboldt continued exploration into his sixties with a 10,000 mile, six-month journey through Russia. He was invigorated by each expedition, showing the same youthful energy and endurance that he had thirty years earlier. He shared his learnings in publications and letters up until his final moments when he died in 1859 at the age of eighty-nine.

The Struggle to Create

Humboldt could have settled into his early existence, lived a comfortable life, and allowed others to assume the risk in their own research and exploration. But this shallow life wasn’t enough for him. Instead, he set out with an insatiable curiosity to better understand the natural world and contribute what he learned along the way.

His adventures were his outlet for creativity, discovery, and meaning. There’s nothing easy about a 2,500-mile trek through the Andes. But the struggle to study and create something that resonated with him at a deeper level brought him to life. Without this, he would have never found his own sense of authenticity and fulfillment.

Creativity is about finding something worth struggling for.

We live in a unique time. Most of us, like Humboldt, could coast through life without facing any significant hardship if we so chose. That’s a wonderful thing. But it collapses into its opposite when we allow our entire lives to be dictated by comfort and immediate gratification. We must not forget the importance of meaning, which is found through the struggle to create something of our own.

Spending the evening watching four episodes of your favorite show on Netflix or scrolling through Instagram might be the path of least resistance, but it’s mostly empty. There’s little opportunity to create meaning of your own. More often than not it’s a distraction that pulls you away from the things that actually matter.

Your unique identifiers are the work you put out into the world and the way you live your life. These are what add depth to your voice. Not the things you consume–fashion, film, food, music, research, sports, technology.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t appreciate other people’s original work. But you should use it as inspiration. It should serve as a catalyst for you to create more and find alignment in your own sense of authenticity. It’s the height of selfishness to expect other people to create meaningful work for your personal benefit without contributing anything of your own.

Creating begins with making yourself an essential part of the process. Not standing by as a passive consumer and allowing someone else to take the risk.

But don’t let anyone fool you, creating is challenging, uncomfortable, and a slow grind. There’s no way around it. That’s why most people fail to sustain the habit. You have to trust your capacity to suffer. But it’s where all the upside is found.

Endurance, Imagination, and Depth

When you prioritize creating something of your own, you give yourself more opportunities for peak experiences and claim a larger part of yourself–just as Humboldt did at the age of twenty-seven when he shifted the course of his life. This is infinitely more satisfying than the temporary highs of a consumer.

By creating more and consuming less, you add an unusual depth to your voice that draws people in. Your creative outlet is where you are able to channel the questions and struggles you’ve faced into something that offers profound insight. And that’s what life is all about.

Whether you forgo a life of privilege to trek through the Venezuelan jungle or you set aside Instagram so you can focus on your art, science, startup, or relationship with the person right in front of you, what matters is that you provide yourself an opportunity to create.

Those who make a measurable difference in the world are inspired to contribute something of their own. Instead of taking the easy route–opting for comfort and immediate gratification–they push themselves further into the unknown.

Human nature has given us remarkable endurance to face difficult work and the imagination to build something from nothing. It’s through this struggle to create that we instill our lives with a sense of meaning.

To find your sense of authenticity and fulfillment, you must fight to create more.

 

*If you want to learn more about Alexander von Humboldt, check out The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. It’s a tremendous read and the source of many details in this article.