F. Scott Fitzgerald And What We Owe To Ourselves

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the classic The Great Gatsby(1925), is widely regarded as one greatest writers of the 20th century.

Although Fitzgerald’s passion lay in writing novels, only his first book sold well enough to support the opulent lifestyle that he and his wife Zelda adopted as New York celebrities.

To make matters worse, his beloved Zelda had already left him once because she, at the time, suspected that he was financially incapable to support this way of living.


‘Houston, we have a problem’.

In dealing with this issue, Fitzgerald made a crucial mistake.

As we’ll see, Fitzgerald’s wrong turn is an important warning about how being less than we can be eats us up from the inside.

Fitzgerald’s choice

It’s the 1920s, you’re a brilliant writer whose works are not selling and you have a beautiful wife who will leave you when you’re monetarily unable to support the preferred life of glory.

What do you do?

Like most professional authors at the time — Ernest Hemmingway, for example, did it too — Fitzgerald supplemented his income by writing short stories for magazines.

Fitzgerald and Hemmingway both referred to these sales as “whoring” and Fitzgerald even went so far as to claim that he first wrote his stories in an “authentic” manner and then rewrote them to put in the “twists that made them into saleable magazine stories”.

Fair enough, Scott, life is not all puppies and sunshine.

Fitzgerald’s “whoring” didn’t stop there, however.

He continued to struggle financially — considering the extravagant spending he and his wife engaged in — and made a deal with film companies to write comedies and other insignificant movie scripts, leaving him unable to cultivate his skills as a novelist.

The result

“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

He made more money than ever, Zelda stayed and together they had a daughter, but Fitzgerald was deeply miserable.

He felt that he ought to be writing novels, not failed film scripts, and experienced felt terrible guilt and shamefor not doing so.

He was an exceptionally gifted novelist who ignored his calling.

Accordingly, he spoke of his “degraded existence”. He thought of Hollywood — where he lived and worked for studios — “a hideous town full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement”.

Although he made more money than ever, he had all the reasons in the world to be disappointed in himself, because he was wasting his talents and not being all that he could be.

As such, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that he sold his soul.

During this period, Fitzgerald, drowning in self-loathing, was hospitalized and thrown in jail for alcoholism — the only source of happiness available — on multiple occasions. This PBS article even states that he “drank and smoked himself into a terminal spiral of cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, angina, dyspnea, and syncopal spells.”

Was there anything left for him in life?

Fitzgerald didn’t quite think so. He “drifted here and there, trying to forget the sad things that happened to me” and concluded:

“Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat.”

Today’s takeaway

“So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” — Final sentence of The Great Gatsby

So what’s the lesson here?

Scott Fitzgerald was a novelist, not a screenwriter. By not being courageous enough to try to be his best possible self, Fitzgerald made a mistake.

Not taking yourself seriously, it turns out, is a recipe for unhappiness, because we owe it to ourselves to take do so and neglecting this obligation to oneself comes at a high price.

It turns out that if you have the power to make rules, the rules are your responsibility. If you have the freedom to make choices, the choices are your responsibility.

On the one hand, in the game of life, the price of true winning is playing with all your heart and all your mind.

On the other hand, the price for refusing to live a life true to ourselves is depression and a life devoid of challenges that make it meaningful.

Learn from Fitzgerald: you owe it to yourself to take this responsibility. If you don’t take it, and instead lead your life in a way that is not based on your own examinations and conclusions about what matters, it’s might turn out not to be worth it.

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