I sometimes wonder if the greatest scientist who ever lived is toiling away somewhere in a government laboratory in North Korea. Perhaps he is a supra-genius physicist who has sketched out in his notebooks a workable theory for the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity–the ultimate goal of modern physics which eluded even Einstein. Yet, knowing that the Workers’ Party has no interest in such things, he keeps his notes safely hidden at home. During the day he spends most of his working hours designing atomic bombs. No one except his family and his immediate superiors even knows his name; he will live a life of controlled monotony and moderate comfort (by North Korean standards) working on Kim Jong Un’s military machine, while his full genius and potentially revolutionary contributions to physics will remain completely unknown and overlooked. When he dies he will be forgotten by everyone except his wife and children.
A thought experiment, of course, but is it so hard to believe? On a planet of seven billion people it isn’t that unlikely (perhaps a mathematician could even work out some kind of probability) that there are countless thousands–perhaps millions–of people who, were they born in a different place or given different opportunities, would rise to make great contributions to the world, perhaps revolutionizing our understanding of physics, biology, or chemistry or inventing a machine that would forever change transportation or agriculture, or writing a novel or composing a melody that would stand alongside the greatest writers or composers who ever lived.
What is not debatable is the simple fact that the vast majority of human beings spend their entire lives in obscurity, unknown to anyone except their family and friends. Although we like to think we live in a meritocracy where talent and achievement are inevitably recognized and rewarded, the reality is actually quite different, and demographic and circumstantial luck play as much a role in our accomplishments as anything else. No doubt there are brilliant scientists whose theories are overlooked, great writers whose books are not read, and noble humanitarians whose sacrifices are ignored.
Entering the adult world, this is perhaps a good place for graduates to start: a recognition of their own obscurity (perhaps this is why I am never asked to speak at convocations). It might sound depressing or discouraging, but I see it more as a dispassionate description of the simple state of things: a few people will rise to fame and adulation, some of it deserved (scientists, artists, humanitarians), some of it not (celebrities). But the vast majority of human beings live out their entire lives in relative obscurity. If this sounds at all depressing or discouraging I would suggest that the problem lies in our cultural assumptions: young people growing up in the industrialized world immersed in the Twitterverse, YouTube memes, and vapid celebrity culture have perhaps a disproportionate desire to be famous than previous generations did. Certainly no twelfth-century European peasant had any illusions that one day everyone would know his name. If the idea of obscurity seems unpleasant or defeating it is probably because of unrealistic cultural expectations rather than a realistic assessment of obscurity itself.