On the fear of not being special

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter series, but I have seen all the movies. And strangely enough, I have read some Harry Potter fan fiction, namely, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

There’s one scene in the original where Harry puts on the Sorting Hat to decide which school to go to. Yudkowsky’s reimagines Harry as wanting to go to Ravenclaw and having the following telepathic conversation with the Hat:

Sorting Hat: “What is the real reason you must not go to Hufflepuff and be happier there? What is your true fear?”

Harry Potter: I must achieve my full potential. If I don’t, I fail.

“What happens if you fail?”

…I don’t know!

“Then it should not be frightening. What happens if you fail?”

There was silence for a moment in the caverns of Harry’s mind.

“You know – you aren’t letting yourself think it, but in some quiet corner of your mind you know just exactly what you aren’t thinking – you know that by far the simplest explanation for this unverbalisable fear of yours is just the fear of losing your fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in you, of turning out to be pretty much ordinary, of flashing and fading like so many other child prodigies.’

The urge to work as hard as you can, to reach your full potential, can be motivated by the fear that you aren’t special – that you aren’t so great. But in reality, there’s nothing so bad about not being special and not being great. Happiness might be more important.

This fear can sometimes drive one to work hard, but it can also drive one away from working hard. Because the closer you get to working really hard, the more you see your limits, how much further you have to go, how much you cannot do, and how much others may be better than you. And then if you don’t work hard, you can always tell yourself, “I may not be great, but I always had the potential to be great.”

This fear is deep, but it doesn’t motivate for the right reasons. It cannot sustain your curiosity or creativity. Those need a life of their own.