Back in 1960, the famed Objectivist author Ayn Rand came to New Haven to deliver a lecture at Yale. Ever the harbinger of controversy and debate — are you listening, Rick Santorum? — our dear Alisa Rosenbaum drew quite the crowd, with students from both Yale College and the professional schools packing the auditorium of the Law School.
Lecturing for nearly an hour, Rand posited a link between altruism and authoritarianism. Reports of the lecture were contested; Rand even penned a letter to Time Magazine accusing it of misrepresenting her philosophy. “I would never use so evasive an expression as ‘tolerance of the incompetent,’” Rand wrote as she curtly challenged the “straw man” leveled against her. “It has no intelligible meaning.”
You can listen to Rand’s speech, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” online, but it isn’t really important to the story.
What is important to the story is this: In the audience that February was Stanley Tigerman, the famed Chicago architect, who was then a student at the Yale School of Architecture. He had read “The Fountainhead,” and he had loved it — loved it so much he knew he wanted to do nothing more than become an architect. For that, he had Howard Roark to thank — and, of course, Ayn Rand.
So when Stanley Tigerman heard that Ayn Rand was coming to deliver a lecture at Yale, he knew he had to be there. When the lecture was over, he approached her. He told her his name, that he was a student, that he was pursuing a degree in architecture — and that, of course, it was all thanks to her. And according to Tigerman’s story, our dear Alisa Rosenbaum stared at him with two critical eyes, gave him the old once-over — probably the twice-over, too — and said little more than a devastating “So what?”
This is not a story about discouraging you from sharing your personal accomplishments and preferences with famed Russian authors. Nor is it about the pleasures and pitfalls inherent in the Objectivist mindset — you can check out the online comments to this article for that inevitable discussion. This is a story, at its core, about being happy for other people.
Yes, it seems incorrect to expect that Ayn Rand — she who wrote “The Virtue of Selfishness” and made a living challenging generosity and gratitude — would take delight in the accomplishments of others. We are not Ayn Rand, and her standard need not be ours. And yet how often have we responded to the enthusiasm of others with cynicism? With contempt? We aimlessly scroll through our Facebook newsfeeds and dismiss each proclamation of joy.
The friend asking you to support his charity or startup? Bragging. That high school classmate who nagged a spot in a selective seminar at her college? Disingenuous. A pre-concert pep talk, or post-show binge of thank yous? That’s self-indulgence at its best.
This kind of attitude — where we are immediately skeptical of the success of others — is not only harmful but also indicative of a culture in which we perceive success as a zero-sum game. Yes, there are a few circumstances where our success is indeed contingent on the failure of others. It sucks; embrace defeat; move on. But there are far, far more situations in which there is room for everyone to feel relatively accomplished while neither falsely inflating egos nor indulging already-inflated ones. After all, does that writing seminar at the University of Michigan really have any bearing on your existence?
So don’t assume the worst in others; be happy for them. Like that Facebook status, favorite that tweet, listen with intent about that seminar, that research proposal, that project. Your happiness — especially sincere happiness, though well-feigned happiness works in a pinch — makes happy people happier, and happiness is an infinite resource.
Plus, when you acknowledge and engage with the successes of others, they will reciprocate. They will be happy for you, which will make you happy — you will feel special and important, and maybe even powerful. You will benefit. Your self-interest will be sated.
Even our dear Ayn Rand would be alright with that.
Marissa Medansky is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.