Teddy Roosevelt was a severe asthmatic as a child. His attacks were so severe at night that they would blend with his dreams and cause near death visions. At some point in his childhood, he famously embraced "the strenuous life" and started by remaking his body. He developed an iron willpower, learned to box and lift weights. Throughout his life as a cowboy, rough rider, and President, he was renowned for his boundless energy and courage.
He seems to have inspired "Chuck Norris" stories avant-la-lettre: in one, he was walking up to give a speech when he was shot by a would-be assassin. The bullet penetrated the bible he had in his front pocket and lodged into his chest. He stood up, gave a two hour speech, and then went to the hospital. Some versions of the story have him starting the speech holding up the bloody bible and announcing, "You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose!"
John F. Kennedy was sick throughout high school, with a "blood illness." He was originally enrolled at Princeton and had to drop out due to his sickness; his father took him to Europe for a year to heal and then wrote the Harvard admissions to get him enrolled there. Young pictures of him look sickly.
As a senator, and later as president, JFK was famous for his vigor (vigah?). He discussed physical fitness in numerous speeches; critics, like Ayn Rand, did not deny his vigor but instead tried to use it against him, as evidence of his thirst for power. He exercise frequently, to clear his mind, during the Cuban missile crisis. Stories of his sickly childhood only emerged later.
Augustus Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire, and a leader so influential that his contemporaries practically forgot that they had grown up in a republic, was also sickly in his youth. He was an unimpressive soldier, suffered from typhoid fever, and preferred writing poetry and reading plays. The assassination of his adoptive father, Julius, seemed to galvanize him and he won a series of impressive victories over his rival, Marc Antony.
Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, whose influence was everywhere in the early Roman Empire, from plays, to business, to governing Rome, to tutoring Emperors, to Stoic philosophy, suffered from asthma and other illnesses his whole life. As he writes, "If you meet sickness in a sensible manner, do you really think you are achieving nothing? War and the battlefront are not the only spheres in which proof is to be had of a spirited and fearless character … [make] the fight with illness a good one."
"I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."
- Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln's struggles with "melancholy" are well documented by his contemporaries. He told an early colleague, who found him funny and sociable, that whenever he was alone, his "hypos" would overcome him to such an extent that he never dared carry a pocketknife, out of fear that he would kill himself.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president and son of John Adams, the second president, discussed his depression at length in his diaries. He said his parents had put unreasonable expectations on him. Many of John Adam's contemporaries, particularly his friends from school, describe him in ways that are consistent with clinical depression. Health and personality in those days were thought to be linked to various bodily fluids; his friend described how his studies "corrupted" his "blood and juices."
It is impossible to diagnose the presidents with any real validity, but various historians suspect between ten and fifteen presidents suffered from depression at significant points in their lives. That is a whopping 20 to 35%, and includes Jefferson, Madison, Wilson, Coolidge, and Eisenhower.
All too many teenagers view depression as a sign of weakness. They would do well to notice that many of our greatest leaders struggled with depression, and perhaps, as is thought about Lincoln, look at it as a potential source of wisdom.
"Love is the burning point of life, and since all life is sorrowful, so is love."
Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, traced the history of love through myths and stories from cultures around the world and throughout history. He came up with a shocking thesis: romantic love, as we understand it today, was invented in the 12th century, by the Troubadours in France.
The ancient conceptions of love are familiar: eros is the physical love that underlies romantic love, and cultures around the world celebrated it or sanctioned it in various ways. Agape is the moral form of love, in which you love your neighbor and help people. But the modern form of romantic love did not exist in ancient times.
Marriage, of course, had existed, but it was generally arranged. Various societies had various degrees of formality about how they arranged their marriages, but the marriage was a product of the society's wishes. Campbell emphasizes that many of these arranged marriages had loyalty and fulfillment, but they were different.
The Troubadours celebrated individual choice, that people were free to fall in love with who they wanted. The love stories that the Troubadours told feature lovers struck like lightning with passion, and choosing each other despite the disapproval of their parents, even to the point of accepting death.
Campbell points out an important theme in most of these stories of romantic love: rebellion. Romantic love was a rebellion against the established order. The word, amor, used to designate this love is an inverse of Roma, or Rome: all that represented authority.
Happy Valentine's Day, rebels.
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
- Walt Whitman
In 1815, after escaping exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon was able to put together an army by walking from village to village in southern France and convincing the farmers to join him in retaking the throne. The King, in Paris, heard of his return and dispatched a regiment to kill him.
When the regiment arrived, Napoleon rode out alone before them, within firing range, and delivered a short speech of such power and charisma that the soldiers turned on their commanders, shouting, "Vive l'Empereur!" They overthrew the King soon after. Certain historians wax poetic about Napoleon's unequalled public speaking prowess.
Earlier in his career, he had attempted to address a political audience, and collapsed from the fear of public speaking. This was not the only contradiction in his personality: he would often march energetically with his troops on a campaign, shouting encouragement and endearing himself to his men. Other times, he would be listless and sullen and could barely interact with people.
A former secret service agent published a tell-all about his years in the Clinton White House. His "revelation" was that Bill Clinton was not the gregarious, charming, outgoing person he appeared to be; he was often listless and sullen, and would stare off into space.
We have a desire to "diagnose" the characteristics of leaders and then hopefully instill those traits in ourselves or our students. But most of the remarkable leaders in history were hard to pin down: they exhibited a diversity of personality.
Certain psychologists believe that the human brain evolved from various subselves: one for interacting with friends, one for interacting with competitors, one for dealing with our children, one for winning status, and another for dealing with romantic partners. Assigning a single number to assess ourselves on a trait, like "extraversion," is nonsense.
What is becoming scary is that certain half-baked theories of success ("leaders are extraverted") could easily infect our education system. Shouldn't we encourage our students to see themselves more accurately, as Walt Whitman said, "containing multitudes?"
"Learn to fail with pride — and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part."
- Nassim Taleb
A friend works in a school with two principals; apparently, the two get along famously and the school is extremely well run. The friend speculated that all schools should have dual principals. I asked, "What if they did not get along? What if one or both were incompetent?"
Dual principals is an excellent illustration of what economists call "high variance structures." If it works out well, dual principals could be better than one principal. But if it turns out poorly, the school will be much worse off.
In the private sector, good ideas are automatically rewarded. If a dual-CEO company worked out well, the company would reap the benefits. If it failed, the company would suffer. But in the public sector, crappy ideas endure. Failures do not automatically disappear, especially if they are politically popular.
Attach the term "creative" to anything in education, and it will be accepted. "Creative" math sounds excellent, why not spread it to the entire curriculum? Especially if "studies" show that it has better results? Optimistic education reformers will often picture young, charismatic educators implementing their reforms.
A good heuristic for education reformers would also to imagine Milton (pictured above) implementing your idea. Would it be a bit better than the status quo? Then do it. But if it would be much worse, avoid it.
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.