My personal journals, spiral bound and filled to the brim, are stashed away in the safety of my childhood bedroom in Sofia. I can tell you exactly their drawer of residence and I’ve skimmed them enough times over the years to be able to recall from memory some of their content too. I suspect that my mom, my most avid (and sometimes stealthy) reader, might be able to help me fill in some blanks. I am the only one, however, who can discern the origination of those written thoughts. The handwriting changes over time, and I know exactly the penmanship, for instance, that saw me imitate a much-admired friend. The “g’s” of pre-teen me curving their tails to mimic the ones my friend scribbled off with ease. I know for a fact that this emulation extended beyond notebook paper to thoughts and tastes, to choices in clothing and books. Then circumstances would change, and those books would take the lead in breeding thoughts, their fantastical lands spilling over into the margins of my journals and coloring my daydreams. There was one heroine who I was particularly taken with, and I remember in sticky situations thinking, what would she do? But as my writing evolved, turning more acutely self-aware, realizing it would later be scrutinized; it started to come from a brain that was also finding out its susceptibility to others.
The world is chaotic, full of choices and ways to see things. Glass half full, half empty, colored purple with glitter or full of dark watery passageways burrowing under the table on which it pretends to be a glass at all. Everyone has someone aside from him or herself, who subtly or ruthlessly dips in to conduct the orchestra of their thoughts. In a world fond of the high and mighty, I won’t blame you if you think I’m talking about large-scale “thought leaders”. I imagine the phrase is intended for those who swoop into Davos and, in a starburst of charismatic entrepreneurialism, reinvent world order. There is probably a lot more curiosity out there about those types of leaders. But my closest experience is not with the celestial Bransons and Sandbergs of the world – it is with close-by people and primarily-fictional books and movies that have held sway over my mind’s minutest movements. So this is an essay about thought leadership on the opposite end of the prophetic spectrum. Mom and pop thought leadership.
Many kids start off as thought-replicas of their parents. Those giants pour words into their little lamb’s head, which are then regurgitated in interesting combinations. Curiously, adults find it difficult and mystifying to peek back into those small heads – to understand the thinking that was once theirs. With a few dozen years as our excuse, we like to imagine that kid-thoughts are untouched litmus tests of morality and hope, or visionary fragments of the future. Well, they’re not. They’re adults’ litmus tests of morality and hope, or visionary fragments of the future. For better or worse, mom and pop thought leaders often imbue their blank imps with a sense of a world that never existed.
Our closest guardians, by conscious example or by accident, elicit our first emotions and condone our first obsessions. Some such incidents from my days in the single digits seem well preserved in memory. One, for instance, is the exciting moment in which a picture-less book first turned into more than the sum of its parts. That instant in which little black letters stamped on endless pages shimmered into a place and feeling. Could I have failed to register that moment if my parents weren’t avid, encouraging readers, and I hopeful to join in on the trance? Perhaps. For all the rewards some societies bestow upon originality, there is no greater compliment than imitation. “I don’t know where the child gets it from!” proclaim helplessly amused parents. But they know.
Then comes that fearful time when other entities begin to preside over your thoughts. Your parents know the moment when you suddenly begin to diverge from them for real. It’s a rebellion, and they may well try to quash it. But such attempts will only clarify the situation. The situation being that your thoughts, no matter how much they are encouraged, are not yours to own. You may be called stubborn, a free spirit; you may even be blessed with the criticism-as-complement of having “a mind of your own”. But that simply won’t be the case for some time to come, if ever. I can already hear the gentle rustle of heads shaking, this isn’t right, some apples fall far from the tree! Maybe, but it’s the tree that gave them the height from which to plummet. And if not the tree, there are birds, and wind, and so many other things to repel you. The little contrarians who won’t do as they’re told, who insist on taking the path less traveled. What would their rebellion be without antagonists to rebel against? Just as I asked myself what my favorite fictional heroine might do in given situations, I have also asked myself what another person might do, so that I could do the opposite. And this too, is a type of flattery.
I’ll venture, as an interlude, that no flattery is more helplessly indulgent than the bending of thoughts to infatuation. There’s a Blink-182 line for it: “Don’t waste your time on me / You’re already the voice inside my head.” My first brush with this sort of involuntary affliction came around the same time of this song, in my early teens. The more I’d struggle for control over my train of thoughts, the further toward obsession it would veer. While this can be a romantic entrapment, it isn’t necessarily so. Infatuations lurk in the realm of intellectual currents, in fastrack friendships, in professional aspirations, and in weird little relationships. But what characterizes the unwitting thought leadership exerted by objects of intense interest is its often abrupt and anticlimactic finale. One day it’s hypnosis and the next it’s Wednesday.
As you move towards the Wednesday of life’s week, however, I think you do wrest some control. Perhaps you’ve shed the mental training wheels installed by parents and early friends. Maybe you’ve read a decent number of books and rehashed them in your share of impassioned debates. Here comes the time to coalesce experience into an original way of thinking. Do you? I think if you follow your inclinations to their origins, your impulses to their inception, you will likely still find a set of editors, maybe authors, and you may well have put them there yourself. I don’t see this as a disadvantage or a failure. It is a way to cope with the level of complexity that sometimes swells around us without reinventing the wheel. What we gain as we leave childhood and step into a less structured existence is the ability to be more selective of our small-scale thought leaders. Let’s exercise that ability.