Act I: The Discovery of Conflict Invigoration
I recently discovered a phenomenon common among many highly successful people. I'm calling it "conflict invigoration" - this is a personality trait, a mixed blessing and curse. It's the kind of person who can move heaven and earth when inspired, but doesn't do as well when they aren't... and who is always invigorated by a fight.
I first noticed conflict invigoration among a number of the most successful people I knew personally. See, I don't think this is an entirely new observation, but a lot of the people that reach stratospheric levels of success are kind of deranged. You almost have to be, to keep going after you've "won" by every conceivable measure, to work yourself to the bone at the expense of your sanity and longevity and vitality, to neglect so many of the basic human needs and pleasures and comforts.
I saw this trait in lots of successful people, and then I started paying attention to biographies and histories. Indeed, many of the most expansive people in our generation and previous ones are conflict invigorated - they've perhaps always got a baseline of creativity and striving, but it really comes out when a fight breaks out.
"Competition is always a fantastic thing, and the computer industry is intensely competitive." - Bill Gates
Molly had flipped on the lights, which were quickly gaining their glow and illuminating the empty hallway before them. “I miss the old gas lamps. They had character, and they warmed the room for you!” Professor Ellery lamented. Indeed, it was only marginally warmer inside than out, and they removed their muddy footwear out of polite deference rather than their own preferences. Molly looked around the now lit hallway. It seemed unfamiliar somehow.
“Guys, this isn’t the dining hall,” she called out, just as Jim opened one of the side doors. “No, really? But it does have food. Free food, the very best kind of food,” Jim replied, moving over to a table at the back of the lecture hall he had just entered. The chalkboard at the front was covered in partially erased scribblings, but he was much more focused on the snacks at the back of the room. When guest lecturers came to visit, the school provided an assortment of snacks - usually sweet pastries, sometimes cured meats and other savory foods. Jim recalled fondly one time an Archaeology lecture about south-sea idols carved from green soapstone recovered during a Miskatonic expedition that had captured his interest, but not nearly as much as the deviled eggs in the back had. This time there were just a handful of pastries left, enough for everyone to have two and Jim to have three, plus half a pot of cold coffee which the four of them split from three mugs. Adam and Molly shared, which Professor Elery took note of. He was surprised to find in himself a pang of what he at first thought was jealousy. He hadn’t thought of himself as being attracted to the young woman, though attractive she clearly was. He had prided himself on having a jovial yet completely professional relationship with her and all his students. And besides, his heart still belonged to his beloved Marcia, though she was dead and long since buried. Still, the pangs of loneliness and heartache can make one think and occasionally even do terrible things, as he knew all too well, and Molly and the others would discover soon enough… he determined to think of his feelings as a fatherly protectiveness. Molly was one of his best students, and perhaps the one most in need of his guidance and protection, being in a uniquely vulnerable position as the only female Chemistry major at Miskatonic University. May in the administration still resented being “forced” by public opinion to allow women to enter, and his position as head of a department carried a good deal of weight, even if Miskatonic was focused more on the Humanities than the Sciences.
Adam had opened the door on the opposite side of the entrance hall. It led into a smaller room, a simple classroom instead of a large auditorium. There was nothing there besides the desks and chairs one would expect, small bits of litter, and the chalk board at the back, scribbled over with symbols he had no idea the meaning of. Adam was also a student of the histories, focusing more on Archaeology than Anthropology-he didn’t like having to think about the personal aspects of other cultures, especially ones still existing in the present day, but there was something about physical artifacts from the past that intrigued him, and therefore he had chosen to major in that. While his true passion was sport, he did feel a visceral thrill whenever he held something that was known to be ancient. He felt it even stronger when he was able to identify that for himself. While Adam was not particularly bright in terms of raw intelligence, he had incredible willpower, honed from years of daily exercise and practice, and was an excellent team player. When there was a project he was focused on, he was focused like a laser beam, and could continue working on it for long stretches, often overnight, and function well with minimal sleep (especially during the off season). When he was assigned to group projects, even if he did not feel particularly passionate about the specific project, he felt intensely loyal to his partners, and would go to extraordinary efforts to make sure that he pulled at least his fair share. More than one person had been assigned to a group project with him, inwardly groaned at having to work with “the jock”, and then been astonished and a bit ashamed at the effort and sincerity he displayed. The results were rarely astonishing, never genius, but often impressive.
Adam hoped that he would be able to focus his studies on deducing and verifying the ages of artefacts. He could easily picture himself as being on a team (he always pictured himself on a team) of experts hired by museums, universities, and private collectors, to verify the authenticity of the items in their collection. He hated cheats and frauds - unlike many of his teammates, past and present, he had never done anything unethical to improve his grades to stay on the team, he had just buckled down, worked hard, and been sure to only choose classes he was confident he could do well enough on - and the thought of being able to find out and expose people who made a living by tricking others filled him with a righteous warmth. He, like Jim, was a year ahead of Molly - Adam and Jim were sophomores, while Molly was only a freshman (“First Year,” as she insisted on being called), and he hoped he would be able to focus and specialize more on the verification of antiquities in the rest of his college career. Already he was developing instincts, and so when he slid his fingers across one of the desks and they came up dusty, he was surprised, and noticed this fact. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, save to be confused. How could dust have accumulated this quickly? This was the first true day of Winter Break, after the initial weekend, and surely this classroom had seen use the week before. Adam had never been inside it before, but surely it was used by other classes. Pondering it for a moment, he thought of the possibility that perhaps only some of the classrooms were needed during final exams, and so this one could have been out of use for a week or two more. That might be enough to explain the dust. Yes, that must be it.
He looked up at the blackboard again. He had assumed that the symbols were mathematical or greek, but looking closer he thought they were a mixture of something - hieroglyphs too blurred to be legible even if he could read hieroglyphs in the first place, and a series of triangles or blurred dots that may have been Sanskrit? But that was odd, because this definitely wasn’t the Historical Studies building. Maybe there had been a guest lecture here? But he would have heard about it. Oh, that must be it: some students were having a study session in here on their own for the finals. That also explained why the room was so messy - if the janitor hadn’t known people were going to be using the room, he wouldn’t have thought it necessary to clean again before the Christmas Break. Yes, that explained everything. He still couldn’t shake a feeling that something was off, that he wasn’t noticing something. It was like examining a vase for the chips and the different, visible layers of lacquer to try to determine its age, only looking at the minute details, never pulling back and seeing the big picture, only to miss that it was covered in a painting depicting the 1915 World’s Fair. He noticed this sensation and tried to pull his consciousness back and see what he was missing, but he could not quite manage it, and when his efforts led him nowhere fast, and he heard Molly call out that there were pastries in the other room, he went back and rejoined them.