A friend of mine is obsessed with impressing people—whether ironically or literally I still have not figured out. “My personal brand of faking being impressive is being cocktail party interesting,” he writes, on a website called How To Seem Impressive. From what I gather, impressing people in this sense means piquing the interest of strangers or acquaintances so that they think highly of your persona and/or facade. Though I admit there’s at least a trace of this particular human proclivity in all of us, the conscious and primary pursuit of impressing people seems to me a total assault on the formation of one’s own mental faculties. One cannot fully realize the potential of her own brain—of which I believe there’s prodigious potential—if her thoughts and subsequent actions are shaped by what viscerally pleases other people.
This idea became clear to me when I began to think about not who impresses me, but who has impressed upon me—the latter being a much deeper admiration and respect that comes through strong, vivid, and often repeated impressions, rather than fleeting ones. When a stamp is impressed upon fabric, it leaves a mark, and so do the people who impress upon me, rather than merely impress me as a glittery parade float might.
The people (thinkers, writers, friends) who have impressed upon me share a few qualities. But the most salient are these:
Each thinks for herself, regardless of whatever is contemporary or mainstream or popular. In fact, each seems to disregard popular culture entirely.
Each is confident in her authority and voice. She believes—or at least acts as though she believes—in the significance of her own work, which arises from an unparalleled, inimitable existence. Without such a belief, the work crumbles—no one else can believe in its significance either. She trusts that if something is weighted with personal gravity and relevance, that it must matter to many more people too. This is by far the hardest quality to come by. Self-doubt is crippling and much more common than assured but not bombastic confidence. Believing in the significance of one’s work helps one to persevere; perseverance begets completion. This confidence does not preclude humility, or admission of fault when applicable. Constant awareness of one's own fallibility is essential to the progression of mind.
Each grapples with difficult subjects and ideas, not merely regurgitating what has already been said, or what has merely been taught. The work of grappling, whether intellectual or political or social, looks different for each person.
Each works hard. Genius may appear to be inherent or inherited, but the fruits of such genius are never without effort, and genius is only realized through labor. Each pursues her ideas to their furthest limits, beyond the limits set by those who preceded them.
Each exercises her distinct and idiosyncratic mental faculties to strive for truth, rightness, and lucidity of thought. The questions and answers in this endeavor may be neither popular nor impressive. However, a mind that exercises and strives in this way reaches its apotheosis. A unique consciousness working in the service of goodness—not merely capitalizing on its mimetic tendencies, which is much easier, much more primal, much more convenient, and much more feeble—is a noble and beautiful thing. (But of course, overcoming the majority of our mimetic tendencies requires much imitation and deep immersion in other people’s ideas and philosophies before we're even able to muster anything new. The examination of ideas, events, and language that may be difficult to comprehend, taxing to extrapolate, and time-consuming to dwell on is crucial in building the foundational layers of one’s mind). The person who does this understands the gravity and gift of human agency, which demands action. One does not accidentally stumble upon strength and confidence of thought. One is not born with mental faculties that are both fortified and humble, untroubled by passing winds but still open to its own betterment—one must consciously strive for it.