Stop Renting. Start Living: Rejecting the Second-Hander

It’s what I couldn’t understand about people for a long time. They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand.

– Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead”

What is the most expensive rent you pay?

Ask yourself this question. I reckon most of you would answer one of the following:

  1. Rent for space (e.g., paying a landlord), or
  2. Rent for time (e.g., paying an employee), or
  3. Rent for ideas (e.g., paying a consultant).

Now, what if I tell you the most expensive thing we could rent is our Self? That the most costly is not second-hand clothes, second-hand cars, second-hand flats, but second-hand selves?

What does it mean to live a second-hand life?

What is it like to be a second-hander of life?

One example is Peter Keating – fictional character from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Keating is an architect that is successful by conventional standards. Yet, he is described as a second-hander, in the words of the protagonist Howard Roark:

He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.”

Through the mouth of Roark, Ayn Rand defines the second-hander as a person whose wishes, efforts, dreams, ambitions “are motivated by other men”, who is “not really struggling even for mateiral wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion: prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own.”

They (Second-handers) don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?”

Ayn Rand

What if we are all second-handers?

In a way, yes – we are all second-handers. As a baby, we receive almost everything “second-hand”: food is handed to us, stories are told to us, and even thoughts are passed down to us. We are told by our parents and other “grown-ups” on what is right vs. wrong, what to think vs. not to think, what to desire vs. avoid.

On a related note, even our emotions could be “second-hand”. In How Emotions Are Made, professor of psychology Barrett argues that “emotions are not biologically hardwired into our brains but constructed by our minds. In other words, we don’t merely feel emotions — we actively create them.” Emotions could be passed down second-hand – e.g., it is possible to develop feelings of shame at something if we were taught that it is a shameful act. I recommend checking out the podcast episode “We don’t just feel emotions. We make them.” on the Erza Klein Show.

What should we do if it is not possible to avoid second-handism?

Just because it is a fact that we all acquire (at least some) thoughts & behaviors second-hand (i.e., learn from or imitate others), it does not mean we refuse to acknowledge the fact.

Rejecting the second-hander does not mean rejecting everything we learnt second-hand – that would be going from one extreme to another. It means rejecting things that come to us second-hand without examination. This is analogous to rejecting alcoholism does not mean abandoning alcohol altogether – it means drinking in moderation, knowing our limits and making a conscious effort to honor them.

Howard Roark in the movie “The Fountainhead” (1949)

At the end of the day, what we want to avoid is becoming the ultimate second-hander:

He (The second-hander) can’t say about a single thing: “This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.” Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.

Ayn Rand

What is the opposite of a second-hander?

An individualist. Defined in the words of Ayn Rand, an individualist is the slave of no one and wants to enslave no one:

The best defense against the second-hander is an independent man:

Notice how they’ll (second-handers) accept anything except a man who stands alone. They recognize him at once. […] The independent man kills them (second-handers) – because they don’t exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know.”

The man who stands alone is not the same as the man who does everything on his own. The man who is independent is not the same as the man who does not acknowledge dependence on others. He is the man who stands for himself, who says: “This is what I want, this is who I am.”