**If you haven’t read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand yet, you should read it before reading this post.
This post is meant to describe how I apply some of the principles from The Fountainhead into my daily life. Not many fiction books are as applicable to reality as this one. Of all the books I’ve read (fiction and non-fiction) this one offers the best explanation of personal psychology.
Rand does this with the use of many characters, but I’m going to focus on two particular ones.
Howard Roark is an architect who was kicked out of college for designing buildings that don’t follow the traditional style. He is the ideal man. His natural state is one of joy and possibility, and he doesn’t really suffer because he believes it to be useless. He views the world around him as something malleable, waiting for him use it to create buildings, and for this reason he loves his work.
He derives his sense of ‘self’ from one thing and one thing only: himself. He is an individual who values his own life above everything else. Love, joy, laughter, creativity, and his work are all parts of this life that he values. He does not spend time thinking about what people think of him. He lives, acts, and exists so that he can achieve his goals. The following quote depicts his attitude:
“…But you see, I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards.”
Peter Keating is very different from Roark. Keating derives his sense of value exclusively from his perception of how others perceive him. Anything he says is meant to elicit a certain picture of himself in another person’s mind. He is also an architect, but he sees architecture as a minor detail in his work which mainly consists of manipulating the perception of others to achieve a higher status.
Keating is a true second-hander. All of his values are held second-hand. He has no true private desires, and he does nothing for the purpose of his own satisfaction or achievement of his own goals. He lives his life with a vague sense of dread which is temporarily masked by guilty pleasure every time receives some sort of external validation. The following quote depicts the way Keating operates:
“Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: ‘This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me’. Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.”
The dichotomy between these two characters highlights a struggle that I (and many others) have faced for my entire life, whether I knew it consciously or not. This struggle can be named many things. Put simply, it is the struggle to not care what other people think about you.
I picture a spectrum.
On one end is Roark who holds his values objectively and genuinely doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of others. Anything he does, he does it simply because it helps him achieve his goals. On the other end of the spectrum is Keating who holds values exclusively based on what others think of him. He does what he does because of how he believes it will make him appear in the eyes of the people around him.
The origin of Roark’s actions is purely internal, and the origin of Keating’s is purely external.
Every single thought I hold or action I take can be placed somewhere along this spectrum. When I picked Aerospace Engineering as a major in college, I did it from the Keating end of the spectrum. The primary reason was so that I would appear to be an Aerospace Engineer in the eyes of those around me. I didn’t want to solve big challenges in the design of airplanes, I wanted to be seen to do so. It felt wrong, but I didn’t understand why at the time. It felt empty and light, as all other actions of this nature will. It felt as if the decision itself was nothing but a bubble of air in my gut enveloped by a thin, fragile shell.
When I dropped out of school and bought an RV to tour the country and share my vision of education, it felt right. I did it purely because I wanted to do it. In fact, most of the people I knew told me not to. I didn’t care. The decision felt solid in my core. It felt as if the decision itself was a heavy, meaningful ball of conviction sitting snugly in my heart. I was nervous, but it wasn’t a nervousness that made me second-guess myself. It was a nervousness that felt more like excitement of the inevitable unknown.
The reality of my life is far from the ideal life of Howard Roark. Rather than accepting that as defeat, or deceiving myself into thinking I never act like Keating, I view this spectrum as a compass to guide me towards understanding my own thoughts and actions more clearly.
I view my actions through the lens of this spectrum because it’s helpful to me. I’m not always on the Roark side. I may never be fully there. I still find myself acting like Keating sometimes, and I’m sure that will always be a part of me. But I’m OK with that since I’m constantly getting better at identifying it and adjusting.
My goal is not to emulate Howard Roark. It’s to emulate my ideal version of myself. This spectrum just gives me clear reference points as I move along in the process.