How to be a Precious Snowflake

Every few months, one of my much more successful friends will get frustrated by my apparent lack of aggressive hustle in service of my own work, and declare that I could be 10x better known and make 10x as much money if only I did x. The unstated assumption is that I am perversely being a precious snowflake by not doing x.

snowflake

Every few weeks, I also have a different kind of conversation, usually sparked by a particularly poignant email from a youngish reader who has been persuaded by something I wrote to “go sociopath” (a la Butters going Professor Chaos). Typically, my new best friend will express a desire (and seek my help) to pursue some creative mission of personal, soul-enriching significance, without getting eaten alive by some species of shark in their waters. These emails often strike me as precious (as in snowflake, as well as in every other sense of the term).

We need a term for an anti-snowflake. I propose clod. 

Clod

If you view someone as a precious snowflake, they necessarily view you as a clod. This post is about the clod-snowflake dynamic.  All culture arises out of it.

***

Even the most hardened sociopath, in the most viciously Darwinian of domains (like say a Wall Street trader, or an academic studying “critical theory”), has a self-image with a precious-snowflake aspect to it.

This is the part of you that you see most clearly when you stare into a mirror. You see yourself as you were when you were a child. You don’t notice the extra chins and jowls that come with age, or the extra padding in the wrong places. You don’t notice the stray gray hairs, the tiredness in the eyes, or the wrinkles.

You stare into the mirror, and the face of the child you once were stares back, through the worn shell of the adult. You might even strike a pose or make an expression that exaggerates the illusion. The child is not idealized or romanticized, however. It is the real past-you, whether you were the resentful and angry kind of kid, or the happy-go-lucky kind.

It takes conscious effort to snap back to reality and see and feel yourself as you are now. This is why it is particularly jarring to watch video footage of yourself. Unlike the image in the mirror, the person on the video playback screen is not a puppet you can control. Video playback breaks the illusion of being the child within, because it is footage of you at a different time, performing adulthood without the child on display, or active in awareness.

So you think, do I really look and sound like that? Or if you’re in a more maudlin mood, is this who I’ve become?

It’s not just in-head acoustics versus how you are heard, or the posture you feel versus the posture you strike. It’s the fact that the person out there, performing, is not the person you feel when you look inside. There is something it is like to be you, on the inside, and it is not that person out there.

This child — a sort of Freudian id++ — embodies the precious snowflake.

It must be killed periodically if you are to keep on living.

It will almost always come back to life, so it must be killed every few years, as it steadily regains strength. So long as you do this with disciplined regularity, the precious snowflake part of you will remain a valuable part of your psyche, but never in control. But if you let it grow unchecked, it will consume the rest of you, driving you to clueless, self-absorbed, uncreative narcissism.  

The precious snowflake child you see in the mirror is at once something that needs protection and nurturing, and a monster that needs periodic killing. Precious as in a spark of generativity worth preserving and precious as in charming innocence gives way to something that is pure precious as in snowflake. A mean-spirited, demanding entity whose first instinct is a self-indulgent, entitled grasping at life.

As with the Narcissus of mythology, it is the very act of regarding yourself in a mirror, and controlling what you do to reinforce the illusion of the child looking back, that feeds the cancer.

What keeps the snowflake in check is the act of creating in the external world. If staring in a mirror strengthens and feeds the snowflake’s larger-than-life identity, the act of external creation dissolves it.

***

When you see someone as a precious snowflake, you are essentially seeing someone whose inner child is stronger, relatively speaking, than your own. Someone who needs you to “be the adult” in the relationship, at least for a while.

Yeah, I am using the phrase inner child. Screw you.

Marriages often function via partners taking turns being the adult. Marriages often fail when one partner always has to be the adult. Any relationship with a clod-snowflake dynamic to it has marriage-like elements to it. But that’s a story for another day.

As a clod, you will see the behaviors of a precious snowflake as wishful, willful, deluded, unrealistic and self-limiting, but also as worth protecting. You will see your own behaviors, reflected in your dealings with them, as world-weary, wise, adaptable, stoically alone, and self-sufficient. At least within the bubble of the relationship, you will see yourself as someone who needs no protection. Someone who can inhabit the world as is, without help from a protector, and with enough surplus capacity to play protector to others.

The snowflake on the other hand will see you as something of a clod (which seems like an apt term for an anti-snowflake: a lump of damp soul-soil, such as might be created by the melting of a snowflake): a despised but necessary part of their life. A clod is someone with a base soul, so to speak. Either lacking, or having lost, the delicacy of sensibilities and unique aliveness to the experience of life that define a precious snowflake. A clod is someone who blunders through life, apparently soul-dead, seemingly unaware of the cringing they induce in others, on the way to success.

Often, the perceptions are correct. A great deal of the world functions via adverse selection of clods into societal roles, by way of their insensitivity to the incentives that are supposed to govern those roles.

But sometimes, the perceptions are deceptive. The clod is sometimes someone with their inner child on mute. It is lonely being this sort of clod. Often, this sort of clod is more of a snowflake than the snowflakes they protect. Sometimes the snowflakes are aware of it, and exploit the mute clod for protection anyway.

Yes, the clod-snowflake relationship is a messy one that can take on many characters: cooperation, symbiosis, exploitation, parasitism, and sadomasochism, to name a few. It can exist in layers, with the polarity of the relationship being reversed with each layer peeled back.

Setting those complexities aside for now, success is the key word here.

There is a reason I use the thoroughly ambiguous word successful to characterize the relationship between a snowflake and a clod. However you define success — whether in terms of financial success, critical acclaim from tastemakers, popular fame, or some ineffable air of social confidence — the curious thing about the clod-snowflake relationship is that despite the obvious ambiguity and subjectivity involved in judging success, clod and snowflake actually agree on the implicit definition of success in play, at least within the scope of a single conversation.  The definition that clod and snowflake agree on is simple: success is that real world process which, in the eyes of both, has somewhat destroyed/is actively destroying the clod in the relationship.

Of course, neither will admit it.

That is the reason the conversation proceeds at all. If snowflakes were truly offended by the crass obliviousness of the clod to their sensibilities and aesthetics, they would walk away. If clods were truly resentful of the lack of acknowledgement of their greater worldliness, they too would walk away. Snowflakes stay in the conversation because they sense their inner child is too strong and needs to be weakened and put to work. Clods stay in the conversation because their inner child is too weak and needs validation and a reprieve from work.

That is the unspoken narrative of the relationship. The overt relationship narrative is that of a clod patron and a snowflake artist, or a clod mentor and a snowflake mentee. The apparent asymmetry is deceptive. If the relationship persists, the nominally more successful party needs the relationship as much as the nominally less successful party.

The clod patronizes — in the sense of materially supporting rather than smugly clodsplaining — the precious snowflake. Partly in search of redemption, and partly out of the desire to protect in others what one has oneself lost. The snowflake on the other hand, seeks to avoid some bruising contact with reality in order to create more freely. The clod seeks to offer some of the necessary protection towards that end.

The purpose of the clod-snowflake relationship is perhaps the most surprising aspect: creation as a means of weakening the inner child of the snowflake and strengthening the inner child of the clod. If the relationship succeeds completely, clod and snowflake trade places. But that is rare. There is always some redistribution of clod and snowflake nature though. The clod becomes somewhat more precious; the snowflake becomes somewhat more debased.

The extent to which the purpose is achieved determines whether the relationship is more like marriage or more like prostitution, which is why prostitution metaphors are often deployed in clod-snowflake conversations. But that’s a story for another day.

***

The clod-snowflake distinction and relationship is of course very situational, and dependent on the specific people involved and the specific context governing a given conversation. It can be reversed by a change in context. For example, I often feel like a snowflake when richer people are telling me how to make more money, but like a clod when I am talking to the exact same people about how to manage perceptions with words or manipulate others with cheap tricks.

Still, there is such a thing as a culturally institutionalized clod-snowflake relationship. Artists, musicians and poets are generally snowflakes; technologists, business people and politicians are clods. Elsewhere in our fractal universe, technologists are the snowflakes and financiers are clods. In still other parts of our world, financiers are the snowflakes, and evil politicians are the clods. In cop shows, honor-driven detectives are snowflakes, while cynical lawyers are the clods. In thrillers, local cops are snowflakes, and the FBI are clods.

Rich people are generally presumed to be clods, poor people are generally presumed to be snowflakes. Within technology, engineers who work with math or simulations (the kind I once was) are snowflakes, hands-on types who build actual stuff are clods. Programmers are usually clods, UI designers are usually snowflakes.

These examples provide some indication of the characteristics of the relationship: it is a curious mix of mutual contempt mixed with mutual need between people with differing notions of sacredness. This is interesting, because contempt is normally a relationship-killer. The fact that the clod-snowflake relationship can persist despite the presence of contempt is a testament to its importance (it is what I once called a saint-saint transaction, though often operating in the guise of a saint-trader transaction, with the clod being the faux-trader).

This picture of societal defaults can get very nuanced, however. In one of my favorite movies, Barton FinkJohn Turturro plays a clod of a screenwriter, completely oblivious to the precious snowflake self-image of the insurance salesman character played by John Goodman (who desperately wants to be the author’s muse). In The Big Kahuna, we find that the snowflakes are the seemingly worldly older sales guys, played by Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, while the clod is the younger rookie, full of high-minded spirituality, but ultimately lacking the sensitivity to appreciate the tragic poetry of the the older characters’ lives in commerce, which they themselves are very alive to. In Juno, initially, Jason Bateman plays an apparent musician snowflake who turns out to be a clod, while Jennifer Garner plays his careerist wife, an apparent clod who turns out to be a snowflake.

It is of course not an accident that there is a guardian-commerce subtext in each of these complex examples.

My absolute favorite story of clod-snowflake relationships is that of Rachmaninoff and Sikorsky. The former, a wealthy and successful musician, gave the latter, a struggling inventor immigrant, a check for $5000. That eventually led to the perfection of the modern helicopter.

Read that again. A musician gave an engineer money to perfect the helicopter.

What all these examples (conventional and unconventional, fictional and real) demonstrate is that the snowflake in the relationship is the one whose ability to create is temporarily worth protecting — sacred — for both parties. The clod-snowflake relationship is about the clod willingly ceding some of his or her greater freedom (the fruits of “success”) to the snowflake, who both agree is able to put it to a “higher” use.

The clod-snowflake relationship is ultimately about a temporarily shared notion of pricelessness prevailing over deep differences.

***

We are all simultaneously clods and snowflakes. It’s just a matter of which aspect of our personality is at the forefront in a given relationship situation. In a given situation, the person playing worldly protector is the clod of course.

But there is also some commonality across relationship situations that tells you, in an absolute sense, how you are a clod or a snowflake.

To be a successful precious snowflake, you have to understand how you are a clod. And vice versa.

In general, you are a clod in that area of life where you are something of a professional. The area of life where you remain in control of your emotions and the situation no matter what the world throws at you. Usually, this ability is worth money or some other reward.

You are a snowflake in the area of life that can evoke the most uncontrolled emotions in you, or cause you to freeze up.

For me, strangely enough, my clod-nature has to do with introspection. You could say I am a professional introspector, capable of digging callously into myself, without being nauseated by whatever I find. Since I am not particularly special as far as the inside of my head goes, this ability allows me to serve as an introspection proxy for others whose sensitivities might make them throw up with this sort of introspection.

As you might expect, I am a precious snowflake in areas that involve the opposite of introspection: facing the unfiltered arbitrariness of the external world. Especially paperwork, formulaic behaviors, and other practicalities.

Someday, I will face a government form calmly, and be scared by something I find inside my head. That’ll be the end.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I went to see Robyn Hitchcock last week, and he made a funny comment about someone as part of his stage patter: they were just like a snowflake… when you look really closely, absolutely unique, but when you look from further away, looks pretty much the same as any other snowflake.

    Maybe being a clod is just being worn to low resolution.

  2. I can’t help but sense that the Clod-Snowflake dynamic will eventually be an axis of a future 2×2 table though at the moment I’m not sure what that other axis would be.

    • Something that comes to mind is the character of the clod and the snowflake. Maybe there’s nothing to this but I feel like there are 2 types of characters taken up by clods and similarly 2 for snowflakes.

      Clods strike me as one of:
      “Bucking the system” – from fiction, think the FBI agent who breaks protocol to let the detective “do his job”, sort of a “do what I can no longer do” motivation
      OR
      Magnanimous Big Men – in real life for example, my brother got a couple of breaks as a musician from seasoned vets who “like his spirit” or feel some kinship to their younger selves).

      For snowflakes, I’ve interacted with a couple kinds:
      “Nobody sees the world how I see it” – UI designers and “I could never work at a desk” types can both adopt this attitude
      OR
      Driven by the cause types – think hardcore do-gooders who go into dangerous situations like Doctors Without Borders people

      I’m not sure what can be extracted from that if anything. Or maybe I’m just oversimplifying and cynical :)

      • Answering my own thought – maybe it’s the difference between internal/external fulfillment? The Big Man Clod and Unique World View Snowflake are motivated by feeling good about themselves while the other pair are motivated by seeing good done in the world? I’m just rambling now :)

    • I don’t know that there’s a good 2×2 here. My spidey sense is not tingling.

  3. Honestly, I can’t really wrap my head around the 2x2s but I’m trying to work it out. So far I’ve got Y running from clod dominant to snowflake dominant (negative to positive I guess) with artist and engineer in opposite quadrants.

  4. Do you think people are temperamentally either clod or snowflake? I for one feel very clod-like and experience a visceral hatred for the snowflakes among us.

  5. the clod part of my personality is very dominant, I seem to be able to process abstract realities better than others( within my relationships) but my problem is, i don’t know how to exploit it to a useful advantage……

  6. Y’all should learn a trade. – §

  7. Betamax Guillotine says:

    Hm. I noticed that the Clod-Snowflake relationship is reminiscent of how a compassionate Messiah Sociopath relates to Clueless and Losers. From Gervais Principle VI:

    “…such Sociopaths turn into compassionate Messiahs, protecting the innocence of the Clueless, restoring the faith of Losers, using their Sociopath powers to guard the exits of paradise lest some unwittingly walk out.”

    Am I on to something here? Are Clods similar to Compassionate Messiah Sociopaths, protecting the Snowflake Clueless and Losers?

  8. Maybe I’m off, but I’m splitting this into 4 categories: introspective potential, extrospective potential, introspective realization, and extrospective realization.

    So the path of an artist (let’s say painter) may start out with introspective potential, where they believe they can create a piece of worthy art (precious snowflake). Someone may see potential in them(extrospective) and offer help, training, etc (clod).

    The artist may then progress to the point where they complete their piece of worthy art, though it may not be understood by others (introspective realization). At this point they would still be considered a precious snowflake by the general consensus. If they gained a general consensus that they had created art of value (extrospective realization), they would become a clod.

    So an artist with posthumous fame would not have been able to experience being a clod (thinking Van Gogh), and every artist is a precious snowflake until there is a group of people that say otherwise. Am I misunderstanding a definition here?

  9. Greg Gauthier says:

    Hm. I didn’t realize Darwin was vicious. I’ll make a note of that.

  10. I’ve never thought of myself as the kind of person who’d be uncomfortable with introspection, but this article has left me sufficiently queasy. I think I’ve been unknowingly letting the snowflake grow unencumbered for a while now.

    What’s interesting is that, for me, this article has had a clod-like “You better reexamine your s***” effect. I’d be curious to know if it has had a similar effect in the other direction on the clods out there. As if laying the dichotomy bare for everyone to see has an equalizer effect of some sort.

    Great stuff. Thanks again.