Goethe: “When we are called to learn something great, we at once take refuge in our native poverty and yet have still learnt something.”

When we are called to learn something great, we at once take refuge in our native poverty and yet have still learnt something.

– Goethe (from Penguin’s “Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings”)

I’m ambivalent about corny quotes promoting the value of education. On the one hand, they suck. They’re not the same as making music with a tinny piano or skiing downhill at terrifying speeds. Nor do they give you knowledge of facts or approaches which could shut down people who are all talk and advance a debate or an inquiry.

On the other hand, these quotes are very necessary. You’ll be in a classroom, witnessing attention wander toward oblivion. You’ve got to say something, and you can’t just shout “Wake up!” unless you want to destroy any credibility you have with people. (I guess you could do this if you wanted to be a coach, but that says a lot about coaching in America, none of it good).

So this quote could go two ways: 1) we retreat into our “native poverty” when confronted with greatness, somehow staying immune to it. In other words, we stay losers and learn that much about ourselves. 2) when we try to learn something great, we can only begin from our “native poverty.”

Those two issues, in turn, bring about at least two others. First, for myself, there’s how I act, that if I try to learn about things pronounced great, I show a pronounced tendency to return to my “native poverty” and write utter crap (that reminds me, I have to revise everything on this blog sooner rather than later). Second, there’s our extremely online social media age, where it feels like everyone (except me) is photogenic, telegenic, excellent at public speaking, interviews, self-presentation, and responding to others. Their “native poverty” cannot be fairly called that—they have a skill for self-expression I want. The greatness they seek, to be heard, authentic, inspiring, and eloquent, is not a false greatness, but could be incomplete in some cases. Saying the right thing or promoting thoughtfulness are not the same as preparedness, polish, and confidence.

Greatness may have to challenge your “native poverty” without breaking you. “To learn something great,” then, is about opportunities revealing themselves. It’s not as simple as telling yourself to “take them” or “make something of this thing called an opportunity.” In some unspecified way, they have to speak to you, and then you speak them.

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