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This is the 5th Duke of Portland,
and he was a bit of a whack job.
In the 1800s he lived here, in Welbeck Abbey.
He was so introverted, he had his meals delivered to his room by a miniature train.
Employing 15000 workers, the duke constructed, under the house,
a 250 foot long library,
15 miles of tunnelling,
and the largest ballroom in England, capable of accommodating 2000 guests –
a touch ironic, considering the man would hide behind an umbrella if anyone approached him.
(Probably put water in his cereal as well...)
My birth country has a long-standing habit of excusing borderline insanity as some kind of charming eccentricity,
but it isn't just my country –
history is full of wonderful and great oddballs,
many of whom we have forgotten.
And none of them are you, because
Sorry... about that.
1805, and the poet Lord Byron, or just Byron then,
has enrolled in Trinity College Cambridge.
He finds out dogs are banned.
"Alright", Byron says,
"What about bears, though?"
Trinity College Cambridge says.
Byron gets a bear,
and it stays in his lodgings, and he takes it for walks on a chain, much like a dog.
So, that... happened.
Several years later, John Mytton was on an alleged ration of eight bottles of port a day.
One day, he invites a number of his well-meaning neighbors over to his house.
John Mytton then bursts into the drawing room...
riding a bear.
The animal was not a sporting fellow, as it turned out, as it bit Mytten, then went on to attack a servant.
More like "Arsus"...
Anyway, that's just rich people, though, isn't it?
Anyone could go bonkers if they have lots of cash.
Well, how about rags to riches stories?
Early 1800s, and Ching Shih
is a Chinese prostitute.
Somehow, she meets swashbuckling motherfuckling pirate Zheng Yi,
and they decide to get married.
They grow Zheng Yi's pirate fleet from 200 to 1800 ships, or about 70000 men and women.
When Zheng Yi died in 1807, his widow took over the fleet,
and Ching Shih became Empress of one of the largest navies in the world,
and a PIRATE navy at that.
Now, admittedly, one answer you may not expect to the question "what do pirates need more of" is
"accountants", but they did.
Ching Shih introduced taxes and laws to her pirate utopia.
Loot had to be registered before it was distributed among the fleet,
and if you disobeyed Ching Shih, you were free to hang up your pirate hat and go your separate way –
just as long as you left your fucking head behind.
She wandered about from Canton to Macau, beating the shit out of the Chinese, British, Portuguese –
Yarrrr, etc. –
until finally the government offered her and her pirates amnesty,
which is a bit like if you stole everyone's kettles, and they responded by inviting you over for a cup of tea.
Her power was slipping away anyway, so eventually she accepted, the fleet disbanded,
quite a few of her pirates got cushy jobs,
and Ching Shih took a piratical sabbatical, kept her fortune,
and was given a noble title, effectively becoming a member of the aristocracy,
set up a gambling house, and lived a relatively nice life.
What is the moral of the story here?
Be clever,
be a pirate,
Be clever, be a pirate, kill people,
Be clever, be a pirate, kill people, ...chill?..
Pretty badass, anyway.
Then again, there are plenty of great humans who weren't necessarily unusual or eccentric –
they were just doing the right thing, or trying to –
again, unlike...
In 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov is monitoring the Soviet nuclear early warning system,
and notices that five nuclear missiles are apparently inbound from the US.
Petrov has a choice: he either picks up the phone and reports this to his superiors, and initiates probably a Russian response,
meaning nuclear war on potentially millions of casualties, or...
he... doesn't.
He has a bit of a think: five missiles does seem a bit unlikely, considering the US at the time has thousands to play with.
As you may have guessed from the fact that we are still here,
Petrov did not report the strike, and decided the warning was a glitch –
which, indeed, it was, thanks to sunlight reflecting off of the clouds.
So, большое спасибо for that...
Or, this is Ignaz Semmelweis, who was to medicine
what the chief iceberg inspector must have been to the RMS Titanic.
Semmelweis was a doctor in the 1800s, and he noticed that –
now, I hope you're sitting down for this –
washing your hands before delivering a baby actually stops women dying,
particularly from what was then called "childbed fever".
Humans wouldn't discover germ theory for a while yet, but it didn't matter –
Semmelweis knew that something changed when doctors kept their hands clean,
so he informed the medical community of this,
and won loads of awards, and died happy and respected, and-
Semmelweis was ridiculed mercilessly by the medical community, despite having proof of his hygiene theory,
eventually had a breakdown, and died 14 days after being committed to a mental institution,
probably after being beaten up by the guards.
A century later, and this is Sergei Korolev.
In 1933, he designed the first liquid-fuel rocket to take off in the USSR.
He was rewarded for his efforts with imprisonment and a stay in the Gulag.
By some miracle he was released, and went on to mastermind the first satellites in space,
the first dog,
and, of course, the flight of Yuri Gagarin,
who on the 12th of April 1961 became the first of the Homo sapiens to leave the Earth,
orbiting our planet for 108 minutes in "Vostok 1".
Sergei Korolev would die five years later,
probably thanks to injuries sustained in the Gulag.
The Soviet space program was extremely secretive, and he was largely unknown in his lifetime.
As history marches on, one day our period will blur into the countless others – behind and ahead.
We are not special, but some events will stand out.
This will stand out.
It was the first time we ever touched the heavens,
and it was in large part brought to us by a man grossly mistreated in his lifetime,
and largely still untalked of today, outside of science and engineering circles.
There is currently a portrait of him in the service module of the International Space Station above us right now.
And if, by some miracle, our species emerges from its current adolescence,
there is every chance Sergei Korolev's portrait will one day accompany astronauts
to corners of the heavens Korolev couldn't have imagined
even in his wildest dreams.
So, in light of all this, what makes a great person of history?
Well, let's start with two "born to ideal parents" eggs –
yes, lovely;
two cups of "in the right place at the right time" sugar –
three cups of natural talent flour; and, finally,
two and a half teaspoons of greatness.
Now, where is the greatness?..
No, no... tsk... Oh!
Oh, that's right, we we don't have any in at the moment,
because it doesn't fucking exist!
For the longest time I believed that there were two types of people:
the knowers, who knew what they were doing with their lives,
and then the feckless plebs like me, who were just wandering idiots going from plan to misguided plan.
Thirty is now spitting distance away from me, and, you know, the most traumatic part of exiting one's twenties
isn't the sudden random failure of body parts, nor the blissful crushing hug of student debt,
or even losing the ability to party past six in the morning and not die –
it is the realization that this model is bollocks, because these people do not exist.
Now, clearly, expertise exists –
don't trust a barista to fly your plane, nor a pilot to make your double frothy laxative anxiety juice –
but when it comes to wisdom, or working out how to be happy, or big boy and big girl meaning of life stuff,
no one has a damn clue what they're doing – not your heroes, not the smartest among us.
When it comes to matters of the soul, it is open season.
And this is a wonderful thing, because it means that as far as art or innovation goes, the world is anarchy,
and while you may have convinced yourself that there's no point trying to do anything groundbreaking or novel because someone will do it better –
whoever the greats are that you respect, obviously they had the same doubts, and they pushed through it.
They were intensely interested in or devoted to something,
while simultaneously feeling lost all the time.
A long period of confusion isn't a side effect of trying to do something radically interesting –
it's the price of admission.
We forget that Van Gogh was 27 before he even bothered trying to paint properly,
that Darwin told us: "I was considered by all my masters and my father a very ordinary boy,
rather below the common standard of intellect",
that Emily Dickinson was barely even recognized during her lifetime,
that it wasn't until a hundred years after Melville's death that anyone really gave a damn about Moby-Dick.
They were beset on all sides by mean critics, or the worst critic of all – themselves.
Cthulhu's dick, I have heard of art classes where the teacher begins the first semester
by assuring the students they'll never break through, and it's pointless to try;
rejection letters writers received, instructing them to put down their pens and never bother at it again;
vacuous jaded bollocks that convinces young artists to give up –
but may I humbly recommend that if one is informed you will never do anything remarkable with your life,
perhaps the most appropriate response isn't
"Yeah, you're probably right",
but rather,
"Fuck off! And who the fuck are you anyway?!"
The shit they will tell you –
"you've had all your good ideas",
"it's all been done before",
"you're too old, too young, too dumb",
"there's nothing new under the sun" –
let's say your lifespan is 80 years, or about 29,200 days.
If you're 18, you're about 6,500 days through.
28 – about 10,000 days through.
38 – about 14,000 days through.
Regardless of whether one believes in an afterlife or not, these days are not coming back,
and there is not enough time to listen to cynics.
By the power of Grayskull, look at where we are –
historically, technologically, galactically – the whole game!
This isn't normal, is it?
Act without expectation.
Make cool stuff just because.
Give cats fishies always.
Oh, for fu- Have you been editing the script again?
Today, this week, this month, year, decade, and century –
it will occasionally be referenced in history, and that will be that.
If one is cautious about pursuing an unusual path,
it may help to remember that the cynics will be forgotten just as readily as your failures will be, too.
There has never been a better time to do a thing.
And just by virtue of how weird existing is in the first place,
there are a trillion interesting things still undone, unmade, and unsaid.
Those areas have not been drilled, Eli.
It is a wilderness out there for everyone. It always was.
The greats didn't know they were greats – they were just mortal humans who refused to bow to cynicism.
And were we to draw some collective lesson from their lives, it might sound something like:
in your projects,
in your silly pursuits,
in your unlikely follies,
and your expeditions into the abyss
to recover those strange mental metals
you will fashion into something no one has ever made before.
I wish you the very, very best of luck.
Now so0d off and be remarkable please.