The Importance of Sidekicks

[Re­posted from my per­sonal blog.]

Mindspace is wide and deep. “Peo­ple are differ­ent” is a tru­ism, but even know­ing this, it’s still easy to un­der­es­ti­mate.

I spent much of my ini­tial en­gage­ment with the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity feel­ing weird and differ­ent. I ap­pre­ci­ated the prin­ci­ple and pro­ject of ra­tio­nal­ity as things that were deeply im­por­tant to me; I was pretty pro-self im­prove­ment, and kept tsuyoku nar­i­tai as my motto for sev­eral years. But the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity, the peo­ple who shared this in­ter­est of mine, of­ten seemed baf­fled by my val­ues and de­sires. I wasn’t am­bi­tious, and had a hard time want­ing to be. I had a hard time want­ing to be any­thing other than a nurse.

It wasn’t un­til this Au­gust that I con­vinced my­self that this wasn’t a failure in my ra­tio­nal­ity, but rather a differ­ence in my ba­sic drives. It’s around then, in the af­ter­math of the 2014 CFAR alumni re­union, that I wrote the fol­low­ing post.

I don’t be­lieve in life-chang­ing in­sights (that hap­pen to me), but I think I’ve had one–it’s been two weeks and I’m still think­ing about it, thus it seems fairly safe to say I did.

At a CFAR Mon­day test ses­sion, Anna was talk­ing about the idea of hav­ing an “aura of des­tiny”–it’s hard to fully con­vey what she meant and I’m not sure I get it fully, but some­thing like see­ing your­self as you’ll be in 25 years once you’ve saved the world and ac­com­plished a ton of awe­some things. She added that your aura of des­tiny had to be in line with your sense of per­sonal aes­thetic, to feel “you.”

I men­tioned to Kenzi that I felt stuck on this be­cause I was pretty sure that the com­bi­na­tion of am­bi­tion and be­ing the lo­cus of con­trol that “aura of des­tiny” con­veyed to me was against my sense of per­sonal aes­thetic.

Kenzi said, ap­prox­i­mately [I don’t re­mem­ber her ex­act words]: “What if your aura of des­tiny didn’t have to be those things? What if you could be like…Sam­wise, from Lord of the Rings? You’re com­pe­tent, but most im­por­tantly, you’re *loyal* to Frodo. You’re the rea­son that the hero suc­ceeds.”

I guess this isn’t true for most peo­ple–Kenzi said she didn’t want to keep think­ing of other char­ac­ters who were like this be­cause she would get so in­sulted if some­one kept com­par­ing her to peo­ple’s side­kicks–but it feels like now I know what I am.

So. I’m Sam­wise. If you earn my loy­alty, by con­vinc­ing me that what you’re work­ing on is valuable and that you’re the per­son who should be do­ing it, I’ll stick by you what­ever it takes, and I’ll *make sure* you suc­ceed. I don’t have a Frodo right now. But I’m look­ing for one.

It then turned out that quite a lot of other peo­ple rec­og­nized this, so I shifted from “this is a weird thing about me” to “this is one ba­sic per­son­al­ity type, out of many.” Notably, Brienne wrote the fol­low­ing com­ment:

Side­kick” doesn’t *quite* fit my aes­thetic, but it’s ex­tremely close, and I feel it in cer­tain moods. Most of the time, I think of my­self more as what TV tropes would call a “dragon”. Like the Witch-king of Ang­mar, if we’re stick­ing of LOTR. Or Bel­la­trix Black. Or Darth Vader. (It’s not my fault peo­ple aren’t will­ing to give the good guys drag­ons in liter­a­ture.)

For me, find­ing some­one who shared my val­ues, who was smart and ra­tio­nal enough for me to trust him, and who was in a much bet­ter po­si­tion to ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish what I most cared about than I imag­ined my­self ever be­ing, was the best thing that could have hap­pened to me.

She also gave me what’s maybe one of the best and most mov­ing com­pli­ments I’ve ever re­ceived.

In Aus­tralia, some­thing about the way you in­ter­acted with peo­ple sug­gested to me that you help peo­ple in a com­pletely free way, joyfully, be­cause it fulfills you to serve those you care about, and not be­cause you want some­thing from them… I was able to re­lax around you, and ask for your sup­port when I needed it while I worked on my classes. It was re­ally lovely… The other sur­pris­ing thing was that you seemed to act that way with ev­ery­one. You weren’t “on” all the time, but when you were, ev­ery­body around you got the benefit. I’d never rec­og­nized in any­one I’d met a more diffuse ser­vice im­pulse, like the whole hu­man race might be your mas­ter. So I sud­denly felt like I un­der­stood nurses and other peo­ple in similar ser­vice roles for the first time.

Sarah Con­stantin, who ac­cord­ing to a mu­tual friend is one of the most loyal peo­ple who ex­ists, chimed in with some nu­ance to the Frodo/​Sam­wise dy­namic: “Sam isn’t blindly loyal to Frodo. He makes sure the mis­sion suc­ceeds even when Frodo is fuck­ing it up. He stands up to Frodo. And that’s im­por­tant too.”

Kate Dono­van, who also seems to share this ba­sic psy­cholog­i­cal makeup, added “I have a strong prefer­ence for mak­ing the lives of the lead heroes bet­ter, and very lit­tle in­ter­est in ever be­ing one.”

Mean­while, there were doubts from oth­ers who didn’t feel this way. The “we need heroes, the world needs heroes” nar­ra­tive is es­pe­cially strong in the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity. And typ­i­cal mind fal­lacy abounds. It seems easy to as­sume that if some­one wants to be a sup­port char­ac­ter, it’s be­cause they’re in­se­cure–that re­ally, if they be­lieved in them­selves, they would aim for pro­tag­o­nist.

I don’t think this is true. As Kenzi pointed out: “The other thing I felt like was im­por­tant about Sam­wise is that his self-effi­cacy around his par­tic­u­lar mis­sion wasn’t a detri­ment to his aura of des­tiny – he did have in­se­cu­ri­ties around his abil­ity to do this thing – to stand by Frodo – but even if he’d some­how not had them, he still would have been Sam­wise – like that kind of self-effi­cacy would have made his essence *more* dis­til­led, not less.”

Brienne added: “Be­com­ing the hero would be a per­sonal tragedy, even though it would be a triumph for the world if it hap­pened be­cause I sur­passed him, or dis­cov­ered he was fun­da­men­tally wrong.”

Why write this post?

Usu­ally, “this is a true and in­ter­est­ing thing about hu­mans” is enough of a rea­son for me to write some­thing. But I’ve got a lot of other rea­sons, this time.

I sus­pect that the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity, with its “hero” fo­cus, drives away many peo­ple who are like me in this sense. I’ve thought about walk­ing away from it, for ba­si­cally that rea­son. I could stay in Ot­tawa and be a nurse for forty years; it would fulfil all my most ba­sic emo­tional needs, and no one would try to change me. Be­cause oh boy, have peo­ple tried to do that. It’s re­ally hard to be some­one who just wants to please oth­ers, and to be told, ba­si­cally, that you’re not good enough–and that you owe it to the world to turn your­self am­bi­tious, strate­gic, Slytherin.

Firstly, this is mean re­gard­less. Se­condly, it’s not true.

Sam­wise was im­por­tant. So was Frodo, of course. But Frodo needed Sam­wise. Heroes need side­kicks. They can func­tion with­out them, but func­tion a lot bet­ter with them. Maybe it’s true that there aren’t enough heroes try­ing to save the world. But there sure as hell aren’t enough side­kicks try­ing to help them. And there es­pe­cially aren’t enough tal­ented, com­pe­tent, awe­some side­kicks.

If you’re read­ing this post, and it res­onates with you… Espe­cially if you’re some­one who has felt un­ap­pre­ci­ated and alienated for be­ing differ­ent… I have some­thing to tell you. You count. You. Fuck­ing. Count. You’re needed, even if the heroes don’t re­al­ize it yet. (Se­ri­ously, heroes, you should be more strate­gic about look­ing for awe­some side­kicks. AFAIK only Nick Bostrom is do­ing it.) This com­mu­nity could use more of you. Pretty much ev­ery com­mu­nity could use more of you.

I’d like, some­day, to live in a cul­ture that doesn’t shame this way of be­ing. As Brienne points out, “So­ciety likes *self­less* peo­ple, who help ev­ery­body equally, sure. It’s so­cially ac­cept­able to be a nurse, for ex­am­ple. Com­plete loy­alty and de­vo­tion to “the hero”, though, makes peo­ple think of brain­wash­ing, and I’m not sure what else ex­actly but bad things.” (And not all sub­sets of so­ciety even ac­cept nurs­ing as a Valid Life Choice.) I’d like to live in a world where an as­piring Sam­wise can find role mod­els; where he sees awe­some, suc­cess­ful peo­ple and can say, “yes, I want to grow up to be that.”

Maybe I can’t have that world right away. But at least I know what I’m reach­ing for. I have a name for it. And I have a Frodo–Ruby and I are go­ing to be work­ing to­gether from here on out. I have a rea­son not to walk away.