One kind falls within the realm of knowledge and therefore has predetermined structure. These are the personal firsts. The first time you vote, or braid hair, or run a race. These are known quantities, you have a vague idea of what to expect because there are books, videos and trainers, there are insufferable mansplaining assholes on social media. There are resources galore! It's only a first on the individual level.
Then there are the firsts that occur outside the realm of existing knowledge. Where there is no structure yet. No one knows what to expect. You venture there... it won’t just be a first for you, but for all of humanity as well. This is the universal first. Exciting. And Terrifying. You are still technically somewhere on the map of human knowledge, but you’re off-roading in uncharted territory, and instead of retreating back to the safety of the borders of the known, you get to pull out a sharpie and add to the map: Marking this “first first” for those who need it later.
-Dr. Daniel Hale Williams figured out how to perform the first successful open-heart surgery when nobody else could. People needed that later to save lives.
-Marie Curie discovered radium when everyone thought uranium was as potent as it gets. Totes needed that info later to treat cancer.
-Hedy Lamarr’s spread-spectrum communication tech--useful as shit for anything you’ve ever done via wi-fi.
These people walked off the edge of what was known, and walked right onto new land that they couldn't even see, they just hoped it was there. They were operating off years of educated guessing, or sometimes just a hunch. It’s like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where he was in the Temple of the Sun, going through that American ninja warrior course (but for Christians) and he got to the Double Dare challenge called THE PATH OF GOD where he's at a cliff and he has to cross, and there’s no bridge, BUT THERE WAS A BRIDGE, it was just disguised to look EXACTLY like the face of the cliff on the opposite side so you couldn’t see it, you just had to trust that it was there because God is apparently a complete asshole and enjoys seeing humans shit their pants, but Indy figured it out and when he got the other side he scattered *sand* all over it, so it could be seen and so people would know that God’s a giant dick.
Anyway, everyone else was saying “Dr. Williams, Madame Curie, Hedy Lamarr! Why bother, it can’t be done, there’s nothing there to find!” and they’re all like COOL, I’M GONNA GO AHEAD AND CROSS THE INVISIBLE CRUSADE BRIDGE, YOU CAN COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT BUT I HOPE YOU PICK THE WRONG GRAIL AND YOUR DEATH GETS SPED UP REALLY FAST AND YOUR EYES FALL OUT OF YOUR FACE WITH THE MAGIC OF 1989 MOVIE SPECIAL EFFECTS!
LOOK: Every first, every leap into the unknown, every attempt to define the as-yet undefined either personally or universally has value. It is how humanity stretches, how it scratches that eternal itch: The Why. The How, and my personal favorite, the great What If.
We are born with a natural curiosity to examine, to create, and to ask. And lucky for us! So many millions of curious people have gone before us! We have logic questions that Hypatia posed to her math students in the early 5th Century CE. We have ancient epic poems from India from the 2nd century. We have museums packed with generations of brilliant artists who created new genres. We have volumes and volumes and volumes of technology and information at our fingertips. And yet we don’t stop asking. The map of humanity’s knowledge keeps growing and we keep striding RIGHT to the newest edge, gripping our sharpies and stepping off--
By now the map looks like the rings on a tree, each new boundary giving way to another and another, marking those extraordinary moments when a first is accomplished, catapulting us forward, on to yet more questions.
You can have the final word. I hear the view is amazing from up there. But that’s because you have to climb up onto the shoulders of someone else’s first to get there. You are teetering on their research, on their sweat, balancing the balls of your feet on their sleepless nights and their hundreds of precious, valuable failures before the spark of that one success--
Meanwhile, First goes to the brave & hungry, the ones who need to find or say something and can’t afford to wait for someone else to do it for them, because they know they are running out of time and so are you.
Humanity’s potential for firsts is endless, but individually our capacity for firsts is finite. You only get so many. Don't wait for someone else to start something. Don’t push back that one idea of yours just because it is unfamiliar or untried. FUCK THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT. Fuck pleasing the subscriber base. Start from scratch, create fearlessly, jump that cliff, find that bridge and spread sand for those who come after. Do things you’ve never done--I wrote this essay while taking a luxurious bath, a personal first! And here’s the key: it doesn’t matter a good goddamn if anyone even knows you had a first--if Meryl Fucking Streep can get away with playing an aging rock star in a movie with Kevin Kline that literally nobody saw, except me. In the bath. IT STILL COUNTS.
Life’s too short to not fill it up with firsts. Do that thing you're afraid to do especially if it scares you. You don’t have to perfect open-heart surgery, you don’t have to add to the periodic table, you don’t have to invent technology or prove that God’s a dick!!
Just dig into your pocket, pull out that sharpie AND USE IT.