I have a couple heroes. One is Richard Feynmann. Here's a guy who grew up in New York and persisted throughout his life to have a really strong New York accent so that when he spoke, you were sure you were talking to someone with the I.Q. of a Gambino family strongman.
He frequented titty bars and played drums. He had an idea the state of Tuva should cede from China. He drove around in a white van with diagrams of particle interactions painted on it. He flirted excessively.
This guy, with a lot of traits the more well-heeled of us would consider character flaws--this guy wins the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. This guy becomes one of the smartest people on the planet. He never stopped being himself. He was just him the whole way.
Anna Quindlen is another of my heroes. My feelings for her may be more of a fermented adolescent crush than hero worship. Though, every time the woman opens her mouth she says something that tears my heart out. I believe Anna to the tiniest fiber of my soul.
She got this cherry job at the New York Times, succeeding beyond all comprehension, and the gave it up to go have babies. Presidents and lauded authors asked her why she would do that instead of writing and being famous. She just went and did it. When her kids got older, she got back into writing but as a novelist. And editors of world-class publications hunted her down and begged her to come work for them, and she told them to get lost. She was going to write stories. And then she just did that and was way good at it, as one presumes she is at motherhood.
It has always been obvious to me that the world's successful people have things to say to us common mortals that we should take to heart. But then, why? Do we think we should listen to them because by emulating their theories, we might become like them?
One trait of successful people is they tend to believe that what they've accomplished is doable by anyone who follows a couple simple rules. Though they believe this, I have not found it to be true in practice. The great achievers have a spark of something that enables them, for better or worse, to turn their effort into production while others thrash. For instance, I could spend years training for a bike race and never beat Lance Armstrong. I don't have the DNA. I could spend a lifetime learning to play the piano and never render a piece of music as well as Billy Joel, or Van Cliburn. In fact I think I'm like most people who do some things better than others, but nothing in a way that's historical in proportion. And our heroes, do.
When we're hurting, for one reason or another, it's easy to be driven into excessive emotional states. Anger. Sorrow. Self-pity. When I'm not feeling well I read certain pieces and it makes me want to burst into tears and run away. But I'm trying to think about this logically because the issue of making success one's life's work sits very heavily on my shoulders. As I have had some appreciable sips of life, I am measured by those around me. I try to prempt their measurements by doing it myself, and I come up short. I've had success in little bits, but I've never been able to hold on, and my brute force mentality suggests the reason my successes have been fleeting is that I must not have tried hard enough. Or I gave up.
There's the whole, "never give up," scenario. We ask the successful people how they succeeded and they say they never gave up. Truth is, never giving up is a necessary but not entirely sufficient quality of one's effort to succeed. Other qualities are luck, talent, and timing. You need all of these to become the next American Idol, and lacking any one will assure you continued anonynimity.
Though like I said in my daylog on June 30th, 2004--why would you want to be the American Idol? Why do you need the audience?
Anna agrees with me, as I knew she would. And she makes me teary eyed doing it.
...Trying to be perfect may be sort of inevitable for people like us, who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at one level it's too hard, and at another, it's too cheap and easy. Because it really requires you mainly to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be, and to assume the masks necessary to be the best of whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shapeshift, sure, but when you're clever you can read them and do the imitation required.
But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations.
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
...Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.
...When young writers write to me about following in the footsteps of those of us who string together nouns and verbs for a living, I tell them this: every story has already been told. Once you've read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice. If she is doing Faulkner imitations, she can stay home.
If she is giving readers what she thinks they want instead of what she is, she should stop typing.
...Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives. It is a quest that causes us to doubt and denigrate ourselves, our true selves, our quirks and foibles and great leaps into the unknown, and that is bad enough.
But this is worse: that someday, sometime, you will be somewhere, maybe on a day like today--a berm overlooking a pond in Vermont, the lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. Maybe something bad will have happened: you will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something you wanted to succeed at very much.
And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for that core to sustain you. If you have been perfect all your life, and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where your core ought to be.
--Anna Quindlen's Address to the Graduating Class of Holyoke College, 1999
"I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."
-- Dying words of Richard Feynmann
What are they thinking when our heroes say these things to us? Do they honestly think we'll be helped? Or are they simply reciting what they must?
I know exactly what Anna Quindlen is saying about trying to be perfect. Straight-A grades. Hell, now a days it's got to be straight A+ grades. A 5.0 average. 5.0 out of 4.0. Weird twisted over-accelerated math invented by parents to torture their kids. Read at three. Calculus by the time you're five-years old. Playing Bach Fugues on your toy piano by the time your six. Deflect all errors to your lesser-equipped peers. And hell, they're really not your peers. They're the people who get the other grades in the curve.
Write your paper and edit it until you drop. Till every character conforms to some version of purity impossible to articulate.
And then one day you trip on the sidewalk and smash your face on the pavement, and you're late to your applied math final, and there are no exceptions, you gotta do the whole test in 20 minutes instead of two hours, and guess what--your perfect everything crumbles. Then what's left? The perfect score is gone. The perfect GPA. The perfect record. Then you realize it was a house of mirrors reflecting an image you wish was real, instead of what is.
And if you're one of those people watching the person who tripped, what's going through your head is: I wouldn't have tripped. I would have been careful. You failed because you didn't measure up. And you can get really old thinking this. But you can't keep it up because you're made of flesh and blood. Nobody could. You will not be the first to escape death and ascend to heaven on a beam of blue UFO light.
If you're in the Olympics with dreams of a gold medal, the chances are great you'll come home without one, irrespective of your talent, luck, and timing. When you've come home medalless, after having spent a lifetime training for your event, you'd better have something else upon which to base the value of your continued existence.
I work in an industry that preaches "make this a great place to work." It teaches employee balance between work and family. It monitors for burn out and offers training in stress relief. It values loyalty.
But not one person believes any of it. In reality, we value people who live to work--work to live. We admire the guy who has sixteen-year-old children whose birthday parties he's never attended. We have meetings where we browbeat and insult each other. We climb upon and stab each other's backs.
We do not walk the talk. In fact, we believe walking the talk of living a "balanced", full life, is a sign of weakness. Ineffectiveness. The guy who works harder will always win, and winning must be done. Winning is what we value. Coming home with the gold, with the stock options, the raise, the company car, the strange set of underwear in the back seat.
Both Anna and Richard were driven people most of their lives. The drive is what made them successful. They would not accept less from themselves than what they felt was excellence. I'm sure the students with the 5.0 averages listening to Anna were saying that to themselves--yeah--have a family but you know, they have to put things in perspective. Priority goes to success. It's easy to sit in the pulpit and preach having a balanced life when you've lived the other, and reaped all the rewards. People are as interested in who came in second as they are in who came in second to last.
Of course, these guys knew all this. When they said their words, they knew who they were talking to. They were speaking from the other side of a divide the rest of us will never cross. They knew that all of us are going to die and rot to atoms. And then what of your life? What of anything you've accomplished? What is gaining the world if you deny the soul? They saw it from over there.
Don't take that chance. Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way.
George Eliot wrote, "It is never too late to be what you might have been."
It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world.
Take it from someone who has left the backpack full of bricks far behind.
Every day feels light as a feather.
-- Anna, Ibid.
Death-- Richard says from beside the grave--is just plain boring. It's life where everything is. Maybe the difference between Anna and Richard and the rest of us is that they weren't afraid to lose what they'd worked for their whole lives in pursuit of life itself. What you work for, what you get when you work, is not the thing of life. The thing of life is something else. Intangible. Knowing on your daughter's wedding day you've been to each of her birthday parties. Stepping on distant land. Smelling spring's sweet air the first day the teacher opens the classroom window and dreaming of beaches and running for well hit softballs.
Being able to do whatever you want, and doing it.
You can never lose what you are, but you can find it when you need to.
Dear God, teach me to believe that. Because I can write it and I can say it, but when it comes time to work or play, I will always choose work, and I think that means something is wrong inside me.