Redefining Politics for a Better World

Redefining Politics for a Better World

Today, as many people do, I think politics is sickening. It exhausts me, depletes me of energy, and makes me lose patience. The irrationality, pettiness, and vapidity of politics repulses me at the highest level. Yet I’m a deeply political person. Not a single day passes when I don’t think about politics and its implications—something I do not mind at all.

How can that be?

La politique; le politique

My being political despite my disdain for politics comes from a careful distinction. I trace the line between the political game and political philosophy—a line so often blurred these days in the English-speaking world. But French, my mother tongue, has a beautiful way of expressing this nuance.

In French, “la politique” is a feminine noun, and it stands for the game politicians play to obtain and retain power. But “le politique,” which is masculine, stands for the realm of political ideas and philosophy. In other words, engaging with “la politique” is completely different from engaging with “le politique.”

La politique” is emotional; “le politique” is logical.

La politique” is social; “le politique” is intellectual.

La politique” is an art; “le politique” is a science.

La politique” is power; “le politique” is influence.

La politique” is people; “le politique” is ideas.

La politique” is entertainment; “le politique” is wisdom.

La politique” is illusion; “le politique” is reality.

I am not interested in “la politique” as much as I am in “le politique.” Although, as long as we live in a democratic society, we will need “la politique,” we undoubtedly need more “le politique” in the equation.

In fact, without a return to “le politique,” democracy will collapse, as Plato predicted (“The tyrant comes about by presenting himself as a champion of the people against the class of the few people who are wealthy (565d-566a).

The Vapidity of Politics

When we look at modern politics, we see very little “le politique” in politicians’ discourse. Policies are never argued on the basis of their morality or philosophical soundness.

For instance, listen to Canadian Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance defend the Canadian government’s spending and deficits, and you will hear nothing but platitudes about “being there for Canadians when they need it” with no mention of whether their policies are economically sound on the long run.

The same goes for Joe Biden, who decided to forgive $10,000 to $20,000 of student loans for Americans making below $125,000 and who received Pell Grants. No one could articulate a coherent, intellectually sound justification about the fairness (and even efficacy) of the plan—especially the economic implications.

This is not an exclusively liberal problem, though. Donald Trump’s presidency was the quintessential embodiment of “la politique”—lots of theater and little substance. While he did have deeper thinkers than himself surrounding him, these “adults in the room” were often single-minded ideologues, who prefer being right than doing right.

The White House

Meanwhile, in Canada, the last two Conservative leaders have done a comically poor job of bringing “le politique” back to the stage—a shame, frankly, given that their predecessor, Stephen Harper, actually embodied “le politique” and that Trudeau had little to show in that department.

The Conservative Party of Canada, however, seems to have learned its lesson; it recently elected as its leader Pierre Poilievre, who, despite attacking Trudeau and other conservative candidates, ran on a campaign based on philosophy and ideas.

An Ethics of Politics

To be fair, the public isn’t asking for “le politique.” If anything, it wants the politics of spectacle. Some friends of mine admitted to wishing for Trump to come back in 2024 for the sheer theater of it. (I think they underestimate the danger of a civil war). Some also find Canadian politics much more interesting now that Poilievre is in the center (I do, too).

Crowd of people

However, the fact that the public isn’t asking for “le politique” does not mean our politicians shouldn’t bring it forward. The political arena may be a reflection of the public consciousness, but politicians can and should shape the public consciousness—through “le politique.” The problem with democracy, as Plato knew, is that

The democratic individual comes to pursue all sorts of bodily desires excessively (558d-559d) and allows his appetitive part to rule his soul. He comes about when his bad education allows him to transition from desiring money to desiring bodily and material goods (559d-e). The democratic individual has no shame and no self-discipline (560d)… Tyranny arises out of democracy when the desire for freedom to do what one wants becomes extreme (562b-c).

Plato: The Republic

Catering to the democratic individual, though a lofty ideal, is the demise of our society; it brings political discourse down to the common denominator and strips it of its substance. Some may argue that “le politique” is an elitist ideal out of touch with the common people, but that could not be further from the truth.

Plato was no fan of democracy.

Le politique,” in fact, is the most democratic ideal possible because it makes democracy possible. “An educated citizenry,” Jefferson said, “is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” But to analyze information and make good judgments from them, education is needed—especially political education, “le politique.”

Instead of bringing politics down to the level of the people, we need to bring the people up to the level of politics—”le politique,” though, not “la politique.” We need politicians who lead by example with “le politique” and who show the people we can have healthy, intellectual debate over the best way of governing our country.

Unfortunately, the last time a major Canadian party elected intellectuals as leaders, as in the cases of Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion, things did not exactly go well. Under Ignatieff’s leadership, the Liberals did worse than Canada’s third party, the NDP. After Dion replaced him, discord broke inside the party, and Dion was forced out.

Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion, both intellectuals who did not fair well as leaders of Liberal Party of Canada

There used to be a time, however, when politics were more intellectual. Canada’s most influential and popular prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, is the best example. Though his legacy is mixed, especially in Alberta and Quebec, where he was seen as a threat to local identity and sovereignty, Pierre Trudeau was a man of ideas.

In the United States, Barrack Obama’s election was significant not only because he was the first African-American president, but also because he represented a return to a more intellectual type of leader. George W. Bush certainly wasn’t an intellectual (his father was a bit more intellectually minded), and while Clinton and Reagan were intelligent men, charming men, it’s fair to say that even Clinton is no Obama as far as intellect goes.

Rise and Fall Through Politics

The current state of politics may be depressing, but what of the past? While there is little value in glorifying the past, especially as we seek to move away from the horrible things we’ve committed, we must acknowledge that the politicians of our past embodied “le politique.” They were more than intellectuals; they were actual philosophers.

For example, the United States’ founding fathers were men of letters and ideas. They not only built the United States based on “le politique,” they also cautioned against the dangers of “la politique” through the U.S. constitution. Deeply intellectual and rational, America’s founding fathers had studied history and the rise and fall of civilizations; the past informed their outlook on both the present and future.

The ideals of the United States’ founding fathers have long been forgotten.

Unfortunately, America’s founding fathers have long been forgotten. They have been forgotten not as people but as ideas. Americans still admire their founding fathers, using them in “la politique,” but they have never been so far from embodying their values—”le politique“. Washington and Jefferson would likely shake their head seeing Trump.

What if we could combine today’s ideals for justice and fairness to our past intellectual tradition? Politics, and as a result our world, would get a lot better very fast.

Ultimately, “la politique,” the petty political games, the nonsense, and the irrationality of politics, is threatening democracy and our way of life. Unless we wish for Plato’s foresight to come true and see our system collapse and turn into tyranny, we must bring back “le politique” into our discourse. It certainly won’t be easy, it may well feel like swimming against the current, but we have no choice.

The first step to fixing our system, though, is to recognize this distinction between “le” and “lapolitique and to make it a conscious thought in every conversation we have. When we ignore “le politique,” we give in to “la politique” and allow ourselves and others to become cynical. And that is why things have gone so wrong—because too many people disengage from politics because “la politique” is all they know.

Let’s redefine politique.

Let’s bring “le politique” back.

What Does One Have to Do?

What Does One Have to Do?

To grow tall, one must grow deep.

To grow deep, one must break through.

To break through, one must break down.

To break down, one must break in.

Last night, I broke in—broke into the house of my tired mind

Only to find pieces—pieces of the puzzle of mine.

But after assembling them, I saw it—

I saw the wounds, crystal clear.

The failures. The mistakes. The rejections and losses.

It all became obvious,

Obvious as it had never been.

It was shame that was staring at me.

But what does it have to do with shame?

What does it mean to be ashamed?

The more I think, the more I realize

The sheer absurdity of shame.

We shame ourselves for getting it wrong,

When we shouldn’t be getting it right.

We shame ourselves for not succeeding

The first time.  

We shame ourselves for imperfections.

We shame ourselves for what’s normal.

We shame ourselves for being human,

For doing what is right.

So, what does one have to do?

To reach the highest heights

Yes, what does one have to do?

To conquer mountains of success.

We spend our lives wondering how,

How we can be our better Self.

But sometimes the beauty of it all

Is there is nothing left to do.

So what does one have to do?

Perhaps that is the wrong question.

What shouldn’t one do? What should one be?

Perhaps that is the key to success.

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Cities Named Icarus

Cities Named Icarus

Cities of towers

Erect from the will of men,

Their wildest dreams, their fantasies;

And they rise, and they rise,

To the sky, to the sun.

 

Cities of towers

Should not be taken too lightly;

They bear the meaning we manufacture,

Resemble ourselves, our ideals,

Our mistakes, even.

 

Cities of towers

Can catch up with their creators,

When it comes to running against the clock;

These long-legged buildings

Run and run and run.

 

Cities of towers

Are not as alive as we think they are.

They slowly rot and die with us.

 

Cities of towers,

Like the fruits they harvest,

Are built

            To fall.

 

Cities of towers,

Like the monsters they create,

Are built

              To fall.

 

Cities of towers,

Like anything ephemeral,

Are built

             To fall.

 

But cities of towers,

Like a public, enduring myth,

Are beau—

                tiful.

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This Poem is Dedicated

This Poem is Dedicated

To those who speak the truths we hate,

To those who don’t pull the alarm
                
                For a word, a controversial phrase.


To those who love our language,

To those who don’t make it an arm
		
                 Against debate and more.


To those who don’t turn blue, enraged,

To those who don’t dismiss the warmth
		
                 Of a word, a controversial phrase.


To those who stand strong, united,

To those who don’t act as gendarmes
		 
                 Against debate and more.


To those who cannot be blinded

By Shock Politics, bitter charm,

                 By a word, a controversial phrase. 

		
To those who never stop singing,

To those who set up a choir,

When their orchestra is dying,
	
                With a controversial phrase, a word.

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The Pacific Ocean Parade (a short story)

A small Midwestern town’s mall stands for a lot more than stores gathered under one roof. It’s even truer for you, who left this place several years ago, than it is for those who chose to stay. The mall’s the place you can go to when you’re back, once in a while, but not too often, and decide to listen to your innate voyeur. The mall’s the best place to contemplate the forever-gone reality of your childhood, the desolate world you’ve abandoned.

The only constant in life is change, you think, as you realize the mall’s eternal omnipotence. It may be a dying institution because of Amazon et al., but small-town people need the mall. It’s entrenched in their collective consciousness like the subway’s entrenched in the minds of city people. The kids live, love, and hate in the mall—they all do, without a solitary exception. Even you, the book-savvy intellectual, whose existence is predicated on rejecting your birthplace and all its problematic problems, couldn’t escape it.

And whether you like it or not, you still can’t. After all, here you are again.

If you dig up the bitter memories of your soul, you know there’s a legitimate reason for the mall’s survival. You know it matters. You saw too many things within the confines of its walls: you saw Rebecca holding hands with your crush, Tyler; you saw Jenny, that b****, with her hair dyed too dark; you saw Jeremy, the bully, walking with crutches at last; you saw the boy who was pretty, the boy whose name you did not know and never asked out—your only real regret, it turns out. You saw these things you wish you didn’t see but had to somehow—everything you disliked, wanted to destroy, and let sink into oblivion. You saw your social life, and the childhood you might have had, passing you by as you passively sat around. It shaped who you are now.

And now you’re nostalgic—nostalgic and sitting on a seat you despise. You’re sitting on a bench that belongs to the food court, which fills one-fourth of the mall’s space, surrounded by tables and chairs and garbage cans. You bought into what you call a “capitalist farce” for the first time in your adult life. You sat on the bench, leaving your theoretical bullshit aside, to contemplate the real, the concrete, the undeniable. You really are nostalgic. Do you feel humbled?

Still, you’re here only physically. You’re never back from California, are you? You’ve never been, and never will. Since the day you moved to the golden state, everything else turned to bronze. Now you look at the country with San Francisco as the only reference. Nothing has changed in the mall, really, you think, again. Nothing but a few stores which opened and closed—the rise of the powerful, the downfall of the bankrupt. But then, without notice, you realize what’s changed radically, what’s been at the back of your mind although you were oblivious to it. You call yourself stupid because it now strikes you as so evident. The kids don’t look the same anymore—that’s what it is. The Rebeccas, the Tylers, the Jennys, the Jeremys, the pretty little strangers, they’re gone. They’re all gone, with your childhood and the old world. Now you see a brand-new kind of human, one that looks uncannily familiar. 

The boys, with their long curly hair, wear hats and t-shirts all branded the same. Logos populate their expensive clothes, drawing from the environment of a place you so well know. They’re waves and skates and mountains, and they give the boys fresh, clean looks. The girls, dressed in bikinis under white tank tops, share about the same sassy demeanor. They give you that look you’ve seen a thousand times before. These kids aren’t yours, nor are they the ones you knew growing up. But you know them still—you know them all too well. You’ve seen their brothers and sisters, wandering in the streets of your neighborhood; you’ve seen their clothes, hung in the vitrines of Oakland boutiques; you’ve heard their language, inflected as that of celebrities on TV shows; and, more importantly, you’ve faced their mortal silence when you tried to teach them freshman-year political theory.

The kids parade through the mall with a can of soda in their hands. As soon as they can, they take their longboard from under their arms. They carry with them broad, arrogant smiles, along with the conviction that their future is certain. They skate down the alley daringly, under the shopkeeper’s unimpressed looks. They dodge skillfully and stylishly the baby-boomer, reactionary judgments. The kids have no time for this bullshit. They’re too busy looking westbound, gazing toward the Pacific Ocean. The sun is warmer in California, their smile reveals—like yours did years ago. You put down your burger for a second. You think. Your nostalgia turns into embarrassment. California got you, and now it got your hometown, too.

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The Most Beautiful Day of My Life: A Long Island Ballade That Almost Didn’t Happen

The Most Beautiful Day of My Life: A Long Island Ballade That Almost Didn’t Happen

What is the most beautiful day of your life?

Before last year, I had never answered this question. I could not have told you what the most beautiful day of my life was. I didn’t have one. I had experienced some wonderful days. I had lived some incredible adventures in many parts of the world. But I had never lived through a day that qualified as “the most beautiful day of my life.” Perhaps the concept is similar to love: You don’t know what it is until you’ve found it… And even one you did, it’s hard to compare it with other experiences.

Perhaps, too, I had been a slave to expectations. Surely to qualify as the most beautiful day of someone’s life, that day must have been amazing. But, as it turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I lived the first 24 years of my life without a “happiest day,” and I didn’t feel I was missing out. But there came a day, a day when New York City was calm and cold, with a clear sky and soft weather, that I’ve come to regard as the most beautiful day of my life. That day was February 15, 2020, it was a Saturday, and I’ve never been able to forget how peaceful and fulfilling it was. And this is why I am writing about it. I love this story because it mirrors exactly who I am—a man from a small town who loves large cities, a North American at heart but a European in spirit.

This story says it all, or almost.

It’s important to note this day came close to never happening. It came close to being a bitter day, which would have faded away from my memory. However, that day didn’t turn out to be this way because I followed my instinct. Had I not followed my intuition, I never would have been able to say, “I can tell you about the most beautiful day of my life.”

Today, I want to tell you about the most beautiful day of my life… and what made it come close to never happening.

From Williamsport, PA to the United Nations

It was February 2020. I came to New York City a day before “the day.” I was volunteering as a French interpreter at the United Nations, so I rented a small car in Williamsport, PA, where I was a Fulbright fellow, and drove to NYC listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Accompanying me to the UN were two French colleagues from the Fulbright program. They were both from other colleges in the state of Pennsylvania.

On conference day, my Fulbright colleagues and I met Robert, a young European man who worked for a German non-profit. One of them made plans to go to the Museum of Modern Arts with him and get dinner after. At first, I thought there may be some romance happening, but as I would later learn, Robert was rather trying to get with someone from another non-profit, also involved with the UN. (This does not disprove the hypothesis that my colleague was hitting on Robert. Who knows?)

Perhaps out of courtesy, my Fulbright colleague invited me to join her and Robert. The two of them were going to a small burger venue hidden inside a mysterious hotel in Midtown Manhattan. I had not talked too much to Robert and didn’t know my colleague very well either, but I happily accepted the invitation. After all, I love burgers and European minds. So I soon I found myself at dinner with my colleague, Robert, and Robert’s friend, Wesley, a recent M.A. graduate from Kenya who had studied at an Australian university.

Robert and Wesley fascinated me. I had always been a political science nerd with an interest in international relations (if you are an IR nerd reading this, do note that I am a stubborn realist), so their work in the non-profit sector made an impression on me. We talked about our work, our home countries, the United States, and what we wanted to see in New York City. At the table were four foreigners in one of the world’s most exciting cities—not an uncommon scene for the Big Apple.

I cannot recall who it was, but someone suggested we meet the next day to explore Brooklyn. We had some common ground: we liked coffee, we liked long walks, and we wanted to explore the city. What else could foreigners brought together by a global convention do in a big city on a Saturday except run out the day by taking it easy and exploring? (Fine, they could do many things, but that’s what we wanted to do.) My Fulbright colleague couldn’t make it, but Robert, Wesley, and I decided to meet still. We made plans to get coffee in Brooklyn—where I was staying—and go to Coney Island with the car I had rented.

The Beauty of Simplicity

The most striking thing about that day was its sheer simplicity. That day was simple, uncomplicated, and beautiful. Robert, Wesley, and I met at a café near the Brooklyn Bridge, we sipped our espresso drinks, and walked around the area. We strolled through the neighborhood, snapped pictures by the Brooklyn Bridge, and goofed around. We had no plan, no agenda, no intentions to structure our time—and it was perfect as it was. We enjoyed a minute at a time. 

Brooklyn – DUMBO

After strolling around in Brooklyn for a few hours, we returned to my car to leave for Coney Island. As I plugged my phone to the audio system, a call came in. It was from an acquaintance I was supposed to meet that day. My heart sank. I had “forgotten” we were supposed to meet. And, by that time, I was already glad I had done so. The acquaintance wanted me to help with a project, but I had my reasons for not wanting to meet.

I was supposed to meet with that acquaintance two days prior, when I arrived in New York City. He had known I was coming to town the day before, and I had asked to meet with him then. I was going to meet with him at his office in Downtown Manhattan. However, he had somehow forgotten about it and had left to go to God knows where in Pennsylvania, where I was living, to do God knows what. (If my memory isn’t falling me, he went to the casino with his dog. I know…) Even though I hadn’t known him for long, I could already see a pattern of being self-centered and unreliable. So I, too, “forgot” about his idea to meet that Saturday. I must have assumed he’d forget again.

Life sometimes has a way of pulling us in the right direction. I didn’t like the idea of not following through what I had said, even though the plan was informal; I don’t like being unreliable (even with someone who hasn’t proved reliable), but something deep inside myself told me it did not matter this time. Something told me I had to be there, with these people, on that day, or else I would miss out something profound. And to this day, I believe this to be true. I wouldn’t trade this day for any other day in the world, no matter how fancy or luxurious the alternative may have been. Something about this day reminds me of who I am and who I want to be.

As If a Scene from a Movie

Once in the car, we set the GPS and put “Coney Island Beach” as our destination. While I was driving, Robert took charge of the playlist. He played German electronic and rock songs I had never heard before. One song in particular—an instrumental song whose title I can’t recall—still inhabits my thoughts. The sky was clear on that Saturday afternoon; everything was calm. The road was easy through Brooklyn all the way to Coney Island Beach. When we arrived, we left the car somewhere around the beach and went for a walk, the timeless activity that seemed to have structured our day.

On this walk, we had strange, interesting conversations. We discussed everything from American culture, European politics, and how blessed and happy our souls were to be in the “land of the free.” We talked to each other as though we had known each other foreover, though we had only met the day before. It is uncanny how when we meet the right people in our lives, it feels as though we have always known them—when, in fact, we know nothing at all about them. We feel this way because as we get to know them, our assumptions prove right. We know the kind of people they are, which is why we connected. And as our conversations progress, as we realize they confirm more assumptions about who we think they are, we like them even better than we already did.

Later that afternoon, we stopped to eat at a pizzeria. We shared a large chicken pizza and had soft drinks. But more important than the food was the decor. It looked old and new at the same time. The decor was vintage, maybe a bit cliché, and for some reason, it made me feel at home. Perhaps the right adjective is “timeless.” It created a moment for us to share. My friends took a picture of me, and I always loved to look at it from time to time. Later that year, when I’d start my entrepreneurial journey, I’d publish that photo along with a post about writing. People unanimously loved the photo, agreeing that the decor, though imperfect, had something to it.

At the pizzeria.

After eating our pizza, we walked to Steeplechase Pier, where a scene in Requiem for a Dream (2000) was shot. It felt as strange as ever to be here. Even though I had been to the United States many times before, I still felt like a “fanboy”—I couldn’t believe I was, in some way, in the center of American culture. Not many Americans can understand this feeling because they take the fact of American culture for granted. Neither can Canadians because they share the same language. But for a young man who had grown in up in Saguenay, Quebec, to be at Steeplechase Pier had a deeper significance. Silly though it might be, I played the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack on my phone—a song that had populated my life after I had watched the film for the first time as a child, alone one night in my bedroom.

Coney Island Beach & Boardwalk

It felt special to be there, there is no doubt about that. I could not help feeling emotional. For my whole life up until this point, it had been my goal to “make it to America.” The goal had been simple: make it to America somehow. Receiving a visa to the United States was how I was measuring my life’s success. I had grown up speaking French in a town where I felt I didn’t belonged. All I wanted to do was to get good at something and be successful. I had decided the U.S. Department of State would be the ultimate judge. “If you let me in,” I thought, “it means I’m doing something right.” And here I was on my J-1 visa teaching French in a Pennsylvania college. (How ironic is it that America let me in to teach the language I was seeking to escape?)

A Private Party?

We had no plans, no agenda. It was now around 4 or 5 PM, and we drove back to Brooklyn, unsure about what we were going to do for the rest of the day. The sky was getting darker. We parked the car on a street in Brooklyn, and all we knew was that we needed to use the restroom—and fast! So, we walked to the first coffee shop we saw, but, alas, the coffee shop was closing. The staff advised us of a bar located in the same building. There seemed to be a party going on. We asked security to use the restroom, and they let us in.

On the way to Coney Island.

We entered a room full of people, men and women, mostly white, dancing and drinking as if there were no tomorrow. We came to use the restroom, but after we did, we felt we had no reason to leave. The place was rather bougie; the DJ was decent, too. We knew there must have been a cover fee to enter, so we figured we’d stay and enjoy the party. We ordered a few bottles of beer—Stella Artois, if I recall well—and took part in the party. It was a bit awkward, to tell you the truth. It seemed private, and we had no idea what this place was and who’d organized the party. These people all seemed to have something in common, but we couldn’t tell what it was. While we didn’t talk much to anyone, we did enjoy the beer and the music

It became clear this was a private party when I went outside to get some fresh air for a few minutes. When I came back inside, the security guard asked to see the stamp on my hand, which I didn’t have. He told me I couldn’t get in, and I explained my coat was inside—with my friends. He stared at me with a reprimanding look. “How’d you get in?” I explained someone let us in to use the restroom, and we stayed. He shook his head and opened the way for me to enter. When I told Robert and Wesley, we had a good laugh. It was far from the party of the century, but the simple fact we had no business being there made it better.

Party Over

By 7 PM, the party was over. Everyone started leaving, and the place became dull and desolate. We left the bar before we were the last ones (that’s always good practice). Robert had parked his bike somewhere in Brooklyn, so we went to pick it up. I left my rented car in a parking lot, and we took the Brooklyn Bridge to walk back to Manhattan. On the way there, we gazed at the sky and the Hudson River. This beautiful day was coming to an end. The day would soon be over, I’d come to understand. Robert, Wesley, and I talked about planning a trip to Boston or Washington, D.C. We were clueless about the fact we all would be forced home by the COVID-19 pandemic. We were looking for ways to make the best out of the little time we had left in the United States.

Back in Manhattan, Robert called it a night. So did Wesley. I have always been prone to wanting to make things last forever, so I was a little disappointed they didn’t want to extend the day to get dinner and drinks. But Wesley was lodging in White Plains, an hour-long commute from where we were. Robert had plans to watch some movies. Plus, I believe the two of them were living on somewhat limited budgets. So, we all called it a night—except me. I had the night for myself and was determined to do something nice, something different.

I ended up at a Russian restaurant and bar, where I had Russian dumplings (I had no idea this existed), with a nice glass of wine. By then, it was 8 or 9 PM. A Russian band was playing, and I was charmed by the sound of their voice and their instruments. Their melodies were unknown to my ears, and I loved every second of it. I can’t say the same of the waiter’s humor, who pranked me by saying, in a very stern way, that taking a video was prohibited as I aimed my camera phone at the band. He burst into laughter saying he was joking, and I was left wondering, “is that Russian humor?”

Russian Dumplings

I left the bar a few hours later and headed back to Brooklyn using the subway. The rest of the evening was uneventful. I returned to my Airbnb slightly around midnight and had a good night’s sleep. The next day, when I got up, I could hear the French couple in the next room having sex. Little did they know I could understand every single dirty word they were telling each other. When I left, about an hour later, I greeted them in their mother tongue, and an expression of uncomfortable surprise covered their faces. (Wink, wink!)

On my way to picking up my Fulbright colleague who needed a ride back to Susquehanna University, not far from the college where I worked, I accidentally bumped into the car in front of me at a red light. We pulled over, and I ended up giving the man over $80 for paint repair. even though the car was mostly fine. Sometime after I got back to Williamsport, I touched bases with the acquaintance I was supposed to meet. He took things the wrong way as I thought he would, but I didn’t care because that day turned out to be fantastic—much better than it otherwise would have been. And sometimes, even to this day, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t “ditched the plan “forgotten” about the plan. We may never have met (since the acquaintance wasn’t reliable). We also may have met, and it could have been a mediocre day.

Whatever may have happened, it never would have been the most beautiful day of my life.

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“The Highest Heights Are for Other People”: The Story of a Hidden Limited Belief and the Fight for Real Success

Fighting My (Invisible) Limiting Beliefs

For a long time, I thought I didn’t have limiting beliefs. For a long time, I thought no childhood experience got in the way of my success. I never said anything about it publicly, of course. Why would I? Still, I secretly believed I was over the “mindset stuff.” Was I arrogant? Maybe. I simply felt as though I always had a growth mindset, always had a good attitude, and was predestined for success. It just was who I am, I thought. I never liked the labels like “limiting beliefs,” anyway. The personal development community has a way of using labels ad nauseam. 

Now, although I still dislike a lot of the “mindset stuff,” I’ve come to understand my biggest blind spot—my biggest limiting belief, if we want to call it that. But before we get into this, I should add that I believed I was over the “mindset stuff” because of the nature of its discourse. Personal development authors and speakers often focus on traumatic childhood experiences. More often than not, they talk about how one goes from merely surviving to living, and from living to thriving. 

I was fortunate enough not be to be traumatized as a child. I was also fortunate to find a passion early on, writing, which challenged me to grow my skills and gave meaning to my life. I woke up one day, at 21 years old, with the realization I’d won the lottery of life: I found purpose and meaning to my life, and I was thrilled to be on this earth. Because of that, it was hard for me to relate to what the personal development gurus were saying.

But sometimes, the lack of tragedy is a tragedy in and of itself. I grew up in a middle-class household in a small town in the province of Québec, Canada. My father worked for the government. He still does. My mother stayed at home to raise my older sister and me. I had a happy childhood—ordinary and uneventful. My parents were loving, caring, and mindful. Although they raised me differently than most other children in my environment, I encountered no traumatic experiences.

My parents never abused me. I almost never got bullied at school. I was encouraged to follow my passions, which helped me gain confidence. I wasn’t a popular kid, but I knew how to play my cards. I managed to find the right balance between order and chaos. After all, every teen needs to rebel at some point or another. My parents, never too controlling, gave me a solid framework. They had some non-negotiable, but overall, they were relaxed.

In fact, my parents were even a bit too relaxed to my liking. I sometimes wished they were a bit more like other parents. I sometimes wished they would tell me, “go and find a degree that will make you money.” I sometimes wished they would push me toward discipline, focus, and self-improvement. Why? Well, I’ve always liked the idea of financial success. But it turns out my parents couldn’t care less about it. So they said nothing of the fact my sister studied arts and I studied English.

My Limiting Belief and the Two Edges of an Education

I would argue that my parents gave me the best education they could have. If you ask me, they did a great parenting job. I would go so far as to argue they are the reason why today I am successful. Yet I’ve come to realize that with such blessing comes a curse. Although my parents encouraged me to explore my creativity and follow my passions, they also instilled in me an unconscious belief I yet have to overcome fully.

That belief is that the highest heights are for other people.

My parents are simple people. They like good food, good wine, good books, and good times in nature. They’re humanistic atheists and lean left on the Canadian political spectrum. Success to them means something very different than for me. They are not the type to want to write books, build businesses, and influence others. They love their little nest, and they think it’s where they belong.

While I appreciate my parents’ sentiment, I don’t relate to it, and it’s often put me at odds with them. I’ve always liked entrepreneurship, I’ve always been interested in financial success, and I’ve always liked the idea of making an impact on other people. These are the things that bring people to the top of the mountain in our society. But the top of this mountain, for my parents, is essentially meaningless, and not attainable—at least that’s the message I get from them. I’ve had conversations with them about my goals, during which I felt as if talking to a wall.

The End of Innocence and Coming to Terms

It recently occurred to me that my parents had instilled this limiting belief in me when I listened to a podcast featuring Christopher Salem, who talked about the inner critic and limiting beliefs. The podcast started as usual. He described what he does and shared a little bit about his story. He mentioned how his childhood experiences caused him to seek validation and feel anger, which led him to escape through sex and alcohol.

Up to that point in the podcast episode, I couldn’t relate. There was nothing I could identify with. I thought that what Salem shared was interesting, but ultimately, it didn’t apply to me. I kept listening still. The podcast host then asked how he was able to lead a successful life after dealing with addictions. Salem replied that it all boils down to routine and consistency. He laid out his morning routine, which includes 20 minutes of meditation and journaling.

I was never good at staying consistent with meditation and journaling. But upon being prompted by the podcast, I decided to meditate and journal a little bit. I sat down on the floor facing a mirror in an empty room in my apartment. I sat on a small cushion and alternated between closing my eyes and looking at myself in the mirror. I wore a casual, dark v-necked t-shirt. What struck me about my reflection was that the lighting made half of my face a little darker than the other. I stared at my half-dim-lit visage.

During my meditation session, I thought about nothing and everything. I thought about my childhood, my parents, my experiences, and how far I’ve come. I recently moved into a brand new apartment near downtown Toronto, Canada. A little over a year ago, I never would have thought I could afford such a place. I’d never thought I could be running my business full-time and be successful with it. Why?

Because I was taught to believe that the highest heights are for other people.

As I stared into my own reflection, I couldn’t help thinking about all the targets I’ve missed, all the struggles and frustrations I’ve experienced in the past year. I couldn’t help thinking how I’m still nowhere near I want to be (the continual condition, of course.) I thought about who I wanted to become and the mentors who inspire me. I thought about the people I admire, my desire to be as successful as they are, and my ruthless commitment to getting as far as I can in my pursuits. 

And it finally occurred to me that there was indeed something in my childhood that has been getting in the way of my success: I was led to believe, unconsciously, that there is a class of people whose successes, financial and otherwise, cannot be replicated and who are unreachable. The people at the top of our society were born this way, had an intrinsic advantage over others, and we do not access these heights if we’re not of these people.

There it was, exposed at last.

There’s no need to describe the absurdity of it, but this belief has been at the back of my mind for some time. I remember telling my parents about an apartment I was looking into in Toronto, and when I told them what I’d pay for it, they said, “Well, you’re not part of the bourgeoisie. Why would you pay that?” This was perhaps the most explicit testament to their mindset.

In truth, the rent wasn’t outrageous. But it was expensive relative to where my parents live because Toronto is one of Canada’s most expensive cities. The apartment was a simple, but nice, one-bedroom not too far from the downtown area. It was well arranged, though not luxurious. Yet for my parents, paying this kind of money for a place to live indicated being part of a social class to which we do not belong.

And when they said these words, they made obvious what I should have suspected before.  

The apartment anecdote points to something deeper. My parents didn’t know how much I was making with my business. I hadn’t told them because if I did, it would only make sense to tell them how much I’d invested upfront in getting the training and coaching necessary to do so. It would seem an astronomical number in my parents’ eyes, so I decided not to tell them about it. For context, I had moved back to their place after COVID-19 caused me to precipitously leave the United States, where I had been working on a short-term contract.

Realizing this truth about myself made me reconsider events from the past—feelings I’ve experienced, too. From the age of 15, I was always entrepreneurial in spirit. I always had ongoing projects and ideas to keep me busy. I wrote, played music, and tried to figure out business ideas. It helped me kill the boredom I was destined to feel in my small town. It gave meaning to my life. But there remained a problem: I could never stick to one thing. I juggled between different things, going in one direction, then in another. I could never commit to one thing and keep at it long enough. It would be fair to say I suffered “shiny object syndrome,” but the problem ran deeper than that.

The core issue, I now realize, is that I couldn’t commit because deep down, I thought it was futile. I didn’t see the heights I could reach if only I stuck to one thing; I could only see the predicament of mediocrity: doing well enough, but never to the point of being visible. And truly, this was the problem. According to other people, I was “successful.” People in college referred to me as an “accomplished writer,” even though I’d never published anything. They said so simply because I wrote a lot and couldn’t shut up about writing. (Nothing has changed in that department.) But while some people called me successful, I could only see what I hadn’t achieved. I could only see where I truly wanted to be.

In other words, I could only look to the top of the hill—the Tony Robbins, the Brendon Burchard, the John C. Maxwells, etc.—and saw these heights as unattainable. Why? Because I believed these people had an inherent advantage. I believed it was something only “them” could do. Yet I would come to realize that they didn’t, that they started exactly where I started.

This is the problem of presentism and our society’s obsession with the glorious side of success. It had never occurred to me that the people I looked up to started in no better circumstances than I did. They became who they are because of who they chose to become, not because of who they already were when they started.

​Studying Inceptions Trumps Motivation

A lot has changed for me in the past year. I’ve started a business, began taking my personal development more seriously, and took my writing craft to an entirely different level. I began studying leadership. I began investing in coaching and mentorship. But most importantly—and, of course, as a result of all the above—I began studying inceptions, the genesis of great leaders. 

I began paying more attention to where people come from than where they currently are. I have been seeking humble mentors and mentors who aren’t afraid to discuss their humble beginnings, hardships, and struggles. I have been seeking advice from people who’ve started at the bottom, which began with finding where these people are.

Today I realize that no true success comes without studying inceptions—our inception and the inception of those we admire. And by true success, I mean a sustainably rich, fulfilled, and abundant life—not a life rich in appearances. To me, success means constantly reaching and redefining one’s full potential and investing both in ourselves and other people. That’s why I look up to people such as Tony Robbins, Simon Sinek, John C. Maxwell, and others. These people live purposeful lives, and through their work, they lead people to live purposeful lives, too. They are recognized and compensated proportionally to the impact they have on their audience. 

This is the life I want.

I sometimes ponder whether anyone can become a legend like the people I’ve mentioned above. I sometimes consider whether there is more “nurture” than “nature” in the equation. This question has no precise answer that I know of. However, when I look at the inceptions of these people, I realize there is a possibility. Of course, one must be gifted to reach the levels of influence of Tony Robbins or Simon Sinek, but we don’t know how gifted we are until we’ve tried our best. We don’t know our true potential until we push ourselves to our very limits.

I’ve always had a sense that I was gifted for writing, but it wasn’t until I started helping others with writing that my purpose became clear. It wasn’t until then that I realized how gifted I was and what kind of impact I could have on other people. We sometimes learn more by teaching than by learning, and there’s no greatest endeavour than helping other people improve themselves and find the value inside of them.

Breaking Free from the Limiting Belief

​Today it’s clear to me I’ve been unconsciously prisoner of my own mind. Unconscious beliefs have conditioned me that the highest heights are reserved for “other people.” But when I compare where I come from and where “other people” come from, I see no difference. Perhaps I even a head start.

There is, in essence, no difference between us and those we admire than the time we haven’t yet put into mastering our craft and in being someone of value. The inception of “other people” is also our own, and nothing except our decision to commit to a process can get in the way of getting where we are. In December of last year, I woke up to a strange realization: I’d finally understood that I could be whoever I want—that I could be a Tony Robbins or a Simon Sinek if I wanted to.

There is no need for me to aim that high, but I believe that the higher we aim, the further we get—and the further we get when we are on a mission, the bigger our impact on other people.

What happened during this past year that put me on the right track? Well, I now had a plan, a process, and a real vision. In April of last year, I met mentors who helped me build my business. To help me build my business, they had to help me build my identity and my vision. 

In the end, what was supposed to be business coaching ended up being brain rewiring—the good kind. When I started, I couldn’t think a month ahead. Within a few short months, I was then able to think quarterly. And within a year, I was able to think years ahead. I now knew why I do what I do, and I got clear on the legacy I want to leave behind. It finally clicked.

The first months in business were a stressful roller coaster. I committed to a process through thick and thin and stuck to what I was told were the fundamentals. I worked on myself first—on my identity. When I ran into problems, I looked inward, not outward. The result was astonishing. Within about seven months, I changed into a brand new human, someone who believed his desired level of success is inevitable. That didn’t change the fact that, unconsciously, there’s still a part of me which holds on to this belief that the highest heights are reserved for “other people.” But that unconscious belief has been brought to light, and it is dying a slow death.

For now, I’ll keep assaulting this belief until it’s completely gone.

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