If I had a message for my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: Success … . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.*
True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. […] The choice between good and evil, or right and wrong, is no choice at all. True choice is dilemma. It occurs in two situations. A choice between two irreconcilable goods, or between the lesser of two evils.**
We all want to succeed at something, but this is different to being a success. The former is about doing certain things really well, the latter about how we are perceived by others. It could be argued that the first fosters a growth mindset whilst the latter is in danger of developing a fixed mindset, protective of the perceived success.
Robert McKee helps us to see that this isn’t simply a choice between what is good and bad, a good story needing to reflect the complexity of life. David Brooks would call this dilemma a vampire problem.
If you could take the bite and become immortal, super-powered, strong and more, but couldn’t go back, would you take the bite? He admits, life is full of vampire problems.
In another place McKee writes,
Thou shalt create complex characters rather than merely complicated story.^
What I take from this for our life-dilemmas is, we need to choose developing our character over telling a fantastical story.
One of the things I encourage the people I work with to do is identify the things that really energise them and the things that really de-energise them – forget the things in-between. This is about noticing what our bodies are noticing rather than what we are thinking about; we miss our energies at our peril:
The ancient myths were designed to harmonise the mind and the body, The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want.^^
From the things captured on two lists, enriching and enervating environments can be identified allowing us to make more of the former happen and avoidance or management of the latter.
When these have been identified, we can use the acrostic SIGN to check whether we’re noticing the right things:
Successful: are you really good at doing this?
Intuitive: is it natural for you to do this, does it flow from you?
Growth: are you being developed in the process, both in character and personality?
Need: does this feed your hunger so you don’t binge on junk?*^
When you provide many examples of your enriching environments then these are a SIGN you’re becoming a complex character.
(*Thomas Merton, quoted in Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond.)
(**From Robert McKee‘s newsletter: The Beauty of Character Dilemma.)
(^From Robert McKee‘s newsletter: Building a Character.)
(^^Joseph Campbell from Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers’ The Power of Myth.)
(*^It’s the reverse for the things that de-energise you: you get by but you’re not successful, these things feel unnatural, you don’t grow as a result, and they don’t feed you.)