Neil deGrasse Tyson Offers Advice on How to Be Yourself and Achieve Your Own Greatness

What­ev­er else it is—mordant self-mock­ery, sum­ma­tion of a life’s work in thought—Friedrich Nietzsche’s last pub­lished book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, is a pro­found­ly Roman­tic text, oper­at­ing on the premise that an indi­vid­ual who suf­fers for phi­los­o­phy, for art, for truth, is hero­ic, even (or espe­cial­ly) when anti-hero­ic, brood­ing, Byron­ic. Niet­zsche states one of the pur­pos­es of his strange lit­tle book as an impre­ca­tion: Hear me! For I am such and such. Above all, do not mis­take me for some­one else!

Over a cen­tu­ry after this work’s pub­li­ca­tion, a cry of pop cul­ture with its love of sim­u­lacra might be: Please mis­take me for some­one else, espe­cial­ly some­one wealthy and famous and pret­ti­er than I am! Maybe this ethos reached its zenith with Facebook’s celebri­ty look-alike day, which inspired a site called to use face recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy for users who didn’t look enough like any­one famous to fig­ure out for them­selves who they want­ed to be. Sil­ly harm­less trend, yes, but a lit­tle sad too, since it shows how many peo­ple suf­fer from a sense that their iden­ti­ties are dwarfed into insignif­i­cance by a famous stranger who slight­ly resem­bles them. (Anoth­er, more humor­ous meme, goes some­thing like “Always be your­self, unless you can be Bat­man. Always be Bat­man”).

I offer these pop-soci­o­log­i­cal rumi­na­tions as con­text for the great Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response above to a ques­tion he receives quite a bit: “What can I do to be you?” On the one hand, it must be very flat­ter­ing to be asked this ques­tion, even though Tyson seems a pret­ty mod­est per­son. On the oth­er hand, the ques­tion is pathet­ic, I believe, for the rea­sons I sketched out above. Why be Neil deGrasse Tyson when you can be your­self? Unless you don’t believe you’re worth becom­ing. Tyson’s answer is also Roman­tic; he says, “I think the great­est of peo­ple in soci­ety carve nich­es that rep­re­sent a unique expres­sion of their com­bi­na­tion of tal­ents.” For Tyson that has meant tak­ing a set of aca­d­e­m­ic and career accom­plish­ments and using them as a plat­form for express­ing a com­bi­na­tion of tal­ents that only he has, which is to say that no one can be Neil deGrasse Tyson but Neil deGrasse Tyson. He uses the exam­ple of Michael Jor­dan, who honed his supe­ri­or tal­ent from nat­ur­al abil­i­ties, for sure, but who also cre­at­ed his own cat­e­go­ry through a tal­ent for being him­self, a com­bi­na­tion of per­son­al style, win­ning per­son­al­i­ty, lead­er­ship qual­i­ties, etc.

So what are we to con­clude from this?  Always be your­self, unless you can be Michael Jor­dan? Well, I think the gist of Tyson’s short talk is that there is no default or tem­plate for what you can become, or as he puts it, “what I do day-to-day is not the ful­fill­ment of some pre-exist­ing job descrip­tion.” And while “just be your­self” may sound like trite advice to peo­ple strug­gling to find an iden­ti­ty, Tyson sets it out as a task, not a fait accom­pli. “The task,” he says, “is to find the unique com­bi­na­tion of facts that apply to you. Then peo­ple will beat a path to your door.” It’s not a task to take on light­ly, or in Niet­zsche’s hyper­bol­ic words, it is “the heav­i­est demand ever put on mankind.”

The video above is an excerpt from a longer inter­view Neil deGrasse Tyson did for Big Think. The full inter­view is avail­able here.

Josh Jones is a writer and schol­ar cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion on land, lit­er­a­ture, and labor.

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