A CLOSE FRIEND of mine is what’s commonly known as a complete reprobate. He drinks himself into oblivion, he’s been arrested multiple times, is wildly promiscuous, frequents casinos (which he is then banned from), and never backs down from a fight. Not even against bouncers.
To most people, someone like this would sound insane.
But despite all of these flaws, he has more boldness than any guy I’ve met. And I admire him for it.
Most people would probably find an example of admiration like this at best amusing, or at worst, an indication of my stupidity – but they’d be missing the point, and misunderstanding admiration itself.
When you ask people who they admire, they usually offer up some braindead list of celebrities, historical figures, or politicians whom they claim to wish to emulate the virtues of. But when they’re pressed on what it is that they admire about these people it’s clear that they have no idea what they’re babbling about.
“I admire Barack Obama because he’s a cool guy and tells it how it is.”
“I admire Helen Keller because she’s defiant in the face of her disability.”
“I admire Leo Tolstoy because he wrote beautifully and defended his convictions.”
On the surface, these seem no different from my admiration of my friends boldness. But here’s the difference:
I’ve known my friend for over 10 years, spoken to him almost daily, spent hours, upon hours of time with him, and his life situation is extremely similar to my own. They’ve probably never met Barack, unlikely to have met Helen, and sure as shit haven’t met Leo.
Even if it’s an admiration that extends over hundreds of hours of video, or thousands of pages of writing, or even, in the case of Leo, his wife’s diaries – they’ve never met them. They’ve only met the idea of them.
Whilst the two statements might seem similar on the surface, they aren’t. One is superficial, the other is born out of tangible experience. It can be seen, interacted with, and understood. And that is the key to admiration.
If it’s superficial, it was never real in the first place.
THE SUPERFICIALITY OF ADMIRATION
When I was younger, I admired Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yeah, cliche, I know, but bear with me.
I was one of those 18-year-olds who watched Pumping Iron and immediately went and got himself a set of weights. A few years later, I was hitting the gym to the point where I’d get withdrawal symptoms if I didn’t, I’d put on 10kg of muscle mass, and had read the Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding, cover to cover, multiple times (alongside countless other lifting books).
One simple act of admiration had made me singleminded, obsessive, and for the first time in my life, focused.
But despite admiring Schwarzenegger. And despite the impact he had on me. He was a useless, superficial role model.
Everyone knows his story – poor kid in Austria, wants to be a bodybuilder and movie star, hits the weights, wins all the competitions, travels to America, wins more competitions, conquers Hollywood, winds up in politics,
balls deep in the family maid.
He’s the ultimate ‘American dream’ story, wrapped up in one big celebrity bow. But then there’s that other detail:
He’s a complete anomaly.
What’s most admirable about him is how remarkable he is. Most bodybuilders don’t have a lick of charisma, yet he’s oozing with it. Most people struggle to build decent physiques, but he pretty much had a perfect one before he’d even started. The vast majority of people who dream of making it in America never do, whilst he conquered all of America and global pop culture.
(Even The Rock hasn’t managed to do this as well. Don’t believe me? Name one of his characters… I’ll wait).
I mean, shit, Arnold’s so famous, his voice is famous. That’s a club of him, Morgan Freeman, and the guy who voiced Darth Vader and Mufasa.
Arnold doesn’t make sense. He shouldn’t make sense. And that’s why, as someone to admire, he completely and utterly sucks. Because his life is so astronomically different from yours, mine, and everyone else’s – you can only really relate to him on the most obvious, superficial level: get bigger.
And even though Arnold is one of the celebrities of celebrities, this example extends to all of them.
When we admire celebrities, we admire what is most superficially admirable about them. We see them in the light of their strengths because it is those strengths that made them celebrities in the first place. They have a great sense of humor, they’re intelligent, or they’re just great at talking to people like Joe Rogan.
But when it comes to genuine admiration, we have next to no idea who they are, and their lives are almost always nothing like ours.
In other words, we’re admiring something we can’t really see. We’re admiring something we don’t really understand. And we’re admiring something we don’t truly feel.
Because we can’t relate to their life, it’s difficult to truly admire what their strengths are born out of. Our admiration is shallow and consists of nothing tangible.
THE MUNDANE REALITY OF ADMIRATION
The people closest to you are the ones whose lives are most in common with your own. So despite the fact they may not be on television, or in every watch next suggestion on Youtube, they are a far, far greater focus point for admiration than anyone else.
Because their lives are similar to your own, the strengths they present in response to the similar challenges of life are far easier to see, far easier to understand, and when it comes to admiration, far easier to feel.
Which is basically rule one of admiration: before you can genuinely admire, you have to be able to relate.
Which in plain English means you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes.
Admiration isn’t as glossy as we think it is, in reality, it exists in the mundane, grey monotony of our everyday lives. People suffering through the same issues and problems, but with different and unique solutions. Procrastination, fear of failure, social anxiety, rejection, sexual shame – these are all problems everyone you know faces, every single day. But they all do it in different ways.
Some better than others.
When I was younger I’d struggle with asserting my boundaries. I’d always fantasize about being some generic form of tough guy who had no problem doing this, and as a result, would idolize anyone I saw in popular culture who mirrored this shallow solution.
I read self-help books, biographies, and watched every video I could get my hands on – but in the end, it was someone right in front of me that helped me fix this. Someone who was more ferocious, boundaried and confident that anyone I knew.
And I never noticed them.
I’d been so focused on the far-flung images of the people I wanted to be, that I hadn’t noticed what was right in front of my eyes, existing in a way I could completely relate to.
We all instinctively know what we admire in others. We see it and we feel it. But where we’d like to find extreme examples of this in action, it’s actually the most mundane and ordinary examples which affect us and influence us the most.
If you know someone who succeeds where you fail, who is strong where you are weak – you can watch how they do it, you can ask them how they do it, you can see what they change in their life to accommodate that strength, you can see how it interacts with their priorities, their beliefs, and their choices.
You can gain a deeper understanding of where you’re going wrong, what mistakes you’re making, and what judgments you’re making about yourself that are fundamentally incorrect and self-limiting. In my case, that was learning that people who assert boundaries well aren’t fearless, they just have solid habits.
These are small details that add up to big, real, practical changes.
In other words, you have everything you need to take that strength, and start building it into yours.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR
As I came to understand this, I came to understand two things about admiration.
First, what I admired about people was typically something that subtly appeared in their lives, and, even in the case of ferociously asserting boundaries, wasn’t their defining trait. It just happened to be something they did well.
You had to pay attention to see it.
This was anything from one friend’s quiet, comfortable confidence with his sexual desire, to my father persevering through illness, to another friend’s seemingly effortless ability to live rightly – to go to bed on time, get his work done, and hold realistic ambitions. Something I struggle with to this day.
All of this was there, but if you didn’t look, if you didn’t pay attention – you’d never see it.
Second, I came to understand something a little more unsettling:
What you dislike about others is almost always something you’re not seeing in yourself.
You just aren’t aware of it.
When we admire others we always see a reflection of what we lack. But when we condemn others, we always approach that condemnation as if it’s something we’d never do. But if we look closely, it almost always is.
We condemn people who are sexually promiscuous when we’re not, only to act in the same way when we get the opportunity. We condemn people who are ill-focused and poorly disciplined, whilst simultaneously pursuing more goals than we could ever hope to achieve. We condemn people for their ignorance and bigotry, racism, and sexism, only to generalize them to a group that strips them of any humanity. We look at others we find selfish, self-serving, and narcissistic, whilst simultaneously entertaining fantasies where the world is a movie and we’re the main character.
What we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves is what we so easily see in other people.
Because it’s easier to condemn them than it is to confront ourselves.
What happens when you begin to realize this is that your relationship with condemnation changes. Just as a close attention to someone you admire exposes new possibilities within yourself, close attention to the people you judge actually reveals ways in which you’re limiting yourself, or just being a dick.
Understanding the flaws of others in more detail helps you understand the flaws in yourself. So next time you’re throwing some judgments someone’s way, ask yourself this:
“If I really look at my life, is this true of me?”
You might just realize it’s not them you hated after all. It was always you.
WHO DO YOU ADMIRE?
Admiration and condemnation are offshoots of empathy. The more we can empathize with ourselves and others, the deeper our admiration grows. The less we can, the more our condemnation grows. Not just of others, but of ourselves.
The best teacher is whatever you can experience most deeply. Because our admiration will drive us to emulate the virtues of others, it’s a better use of our time to direct our attention to the people around us, no matter how ordinary they may be, as their virtues are the only ones we’ll ever have a chance at truly understanding.
Instead of being built by pursuing vague, far off, idealized people – you’re built by the ordinary people around you. Maybe it’s your mother, maybe it’s your father, friend, or teacher. Maybe it’s a sibling, a boss, a rival, or a partner. Maybe you don’t even know. Because you haven’t been letting yourself see.
But they’re there. And they all have virtues worth paying attention to, and flaws that are mirrors of your own. You just have to look, and figure out just who it is that you really admire.
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