Have I missed much by spending my life with barely literate people? I need intellectual isolation to work out my ideas. I get my stimulation from both the world of books and the book of the world. I cannot see how living with educated, articulate people, skilled in argument, would have helped me develop my ideas.
— Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront
A friend of my stepson’s once came by the house to visit him while I was out. He knew me from a job where we briefly worked together, but only as an acquaintance. I laughed to hear that he was gobsmacked upon seeing all my books, especially as he’s a fairly serious reader himself. He told my stepson that I was an enigma. “What’s he doing here?” he asked, meaning, here in a small town, living a nondescript life. Apparently I should be someone important in a big city if I read this much. I recently heard that he’d taken to calling me the “Wizard” and the “Pagemaster,” in reference to some ’90s movie starring Macaulay Culkin, and telling people that I live in a library (I haven’t seen the film, but still, I think that might just be my favorite compliment of all time).
That’s the benefit of low expectations, of course. If people don’t see you as much more than a truck driver or a janitor, they’re overly impressed by any ways in which you defy the stereotype. The flipside to that, though, is wondering why you should be content to exist below your potential. It’s a reflexive assumption that any talents or interests one might have should be maximized and monetized. I, in turn, have said repeatedly, ever since I started writing, that this is just another one of the many ways in which we surrender our agency and let the conventional wisdom do our thinking for us. Had I taken the path of least resistance and “risen” to my potential as defined by parents, teachers, and aptitude tests, I would have probably been just another unhappy face in the crowd of failed writers, like a couple academic friends of mine. By remaining undeveloped, unpolished and unfinished, I’ve preserved the freedom and space to grow at my own pace for my own reasons, and that has been far more satisfying than reaching for the stars would have been.
No man is an intellectual island, obviously. I’ve benefitted greatly from having a few highly-educated friends and pen pals, and the Internet provides constant exposure to smarter thinkers and better writers. Still, there is something about living an ordinary life among regular folks that serves as the necessary ballast to keep from floating off into the cerebral clouds where so many ambitious, educated people get lost.