What makes some people become extraordinary? There have always been child prodigies, but the majority of exceptional human beings are not born with a noticeable gift. Instead, they develop into outstanding achievers as they mature. The explanation for why they reach the creative heights seems to lie with self-alienation and psychological distress, a fact that for centuries has surrounded creativity with myths of wild inspiration and “divine” madness. Research has shown that exceptional individuals come more often from homes where there has been a lot of bickering and conflict.
Yet being troubled is not enough. The extraordinary person also possesses the ability to use that suffering to propel themselves down the long hard road of self-discovery and self-realization. It would seem that inner bickering and conflict are a necessary part of the creative process, leading one to speculate that creative people internalize the chaotic home life when they are children, and then exploit it as a resource when they become adults. When they are young, they raise their eyes from their embattled immediate surroundings. They look up to role models who seem to offer better ideas, better ways of looking at life, better and more interesting ways of living; they hero worship.
Those who will become extraordinary have released their drive to look for answers, to search for and know themselves. They are introspective and become embroiled in intellectual striving. They are, or become, spiritual, intellectual, and cultural pilgrims. In Jungian terms, they are developing and living out an archetypal behavior pattern. Hermann Hesse would say they are finding their inner destiny, not of their choosing, and living it out.
To borrow from Jung again, we can say that those who become extraordinary are those who have individuated, become true individuals, and developed all of their talents and capacities to the full. Perhaps the urge to individuate is a potential we all possess, but only a few (those exposed to the right conditions) ever realize. Distress activates the will to individuate, and individuation makes one extraordinary. The process of individuation carries within it the vital process of self-realization.
Self-realization is not self-improvement.
Self-realization is infinitely superior to self-improvement. This is so because self-realization focusses on revealing and enhancing one’s strengths while self-improvement is usually focussed on propping up or eliminating one’s weaknesses. To put it another way: self-realization is the achievable development of one’s actual capabilities, one’s genuine qualities, and one’s authentic character. Self-improvement is too often the futile attempt to put a shine on one’s already inaccurate false persona, one’s idealized self-image. The decision to self-improve is a manifestation of the refusal to accept oneself as one truly is. The obvious difficulty here is that one cannot work with what one has if one does not accept what one has. To engage in self-realization is to be loyal to one’s true self. To chase self-improvement is to be loyal to one’s false persona.
While most extraordinary individuals begin the individuation process early in life, it is possible to embark on the journey of self-discovery and self-realization later on. Two situations commonly launch the long-delayed individuation process: a life crisis that fatally challenges the false persona, or a nervous breakdown that collapses the idealized self-image entirely. In the first case, accepting the truth about oneself becomes unavoidable. The evidence that one is not what one would like to think has become impossible to deny. In the second, the eruption of repressed unconscious contents has swamped the psyche and everything is now out in the open where the restoration of sanity demands that one deal with it.