Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You can do it! (maybe)

“You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” ~ Homer Simpson

Americans are in love with our “entrepreneurial spirit”. We admire winners and love stories about people who have achieved success by overcoming great odds. But there is one myth we hold dear in this culture that I find most troubling: The idea that you can be anything you want to be if you want it bad enough.

It’s a warm fuzzy “feel good” politically-correct statement, but really, it’s patently not true. I don’t
believe, for example, that a legally blind person can become an airline pilot, no matter how hard they try. I don’t believe that all the kids who want to become president someday will become president. I don’t believe that anything you believe you can achieve is achievable no matter how badly you want it. I’ve seen the video of the paraplegic who climbed Mt. Everest on his specially crafted ski chair. Yay! But he didn’t accomplish that goal by himself and he didn’t do a “happy dance” there on the summit.

I think the phrase “within reason” sometimes needs to be inserted into these lofty motivational statements. I heard a comment from a young man who was dying of cancer talking about his hope for the future… which, in his case, wasn’t to be very long. His goal was to make the remaining days of his life as meaningful and as happy as he could. This was not only a lofty goal; it was an “achievable” goal. His hope was tempered with a strong dose of reality. He pointed out wisely that: “You don’t have a choice in the cards you are dealt, but you do have a choice in how you play them”. This is a truly profound concept.

My wife was impressed with a drama she once saw on TV about a middle-aged man who trained for a Mar
athon. He was intensely focused on the goal of winning this race; he worked as hard as one can train for the competition. On the race day he finished the race in the middle of the pack. His friends and family supported his efforts and cheered him on. Yet at the celebration his family threw for him at the end of the race, he walked past them all, went into his bedroom, closed the door threw himself on the bed and cried. They were all perplexed – You see they didn’t understand that his expectation was that he would WIN the Marathon. Perhaps the goal he had set for himself was not a reasonable goal.

The truth is that we cannot measure the scope of our triumphs against the standards set by the rest of the world. Fame is fickle and short-lived; wealth and financial success are largely the result of luck and opportunity. Only in the eyes of the Law are all men created equal: in reality, there is often little equality within the context of where, and how, we come into this world. What we determine is “success” is relevant to what is achievable within the conditions we find ourselves. The only place where there may be no limits to our abilities is within our imagination.


Mary Witzl said...

Boy, does this post resonate with me! I could not agree more.

I've just finished marking my students' final exams and some of them failed. As I counted up their points, I noticed that some of those who did not pass -- who will be crying their eyes out right now -- actually improved on their midterm exams by 20% to 30%. This won't matter to them; they're too young yet. All they will see is that they didn't pass, but I'm amazed and heartened that they did so much better (especially considering how little some put in...)

The problem is identifying the limits yourself and learning to accept them -- recognizing that the impossibly cheesy, glitzy Hollywood ending so hyped up and expected nowadays is largely a fiction -- that stretching your limits and going beyond them IS success and not failure.

In high school, I was awful at math. I consistently got Ds and Cs. At university, I took algebra and geometry over again and although my grades weren't much better, I got a lot of joy out of making connections I'd failed to make in high school. Quite honestly, I discovered the joy of math. I'd have loved making an A (or even a high B), but the B- I ended up with was still a huge achievement for me. I'm convinced that the secret to having a happy life is finding joy in small things, which is, in itself, reaching for the sky. This doesn't mean settling for less or not pushing yourself to your limits. Just as you say, it means coming to terms with them.

Love the story about that middle-aged man running the marathon. I'd be thrilled to run a marathon -- even coming in last would be okay.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Although I am in no way religious, Buddhism deals with this concept quite well. "Before I became enlightened I chopped wood and carried water. But after I became enlightened I chopped wood and carried water."

When I begin to envy the lives and possessions of my friends, my wife reminds me to ask if I would willingly switch lives with them if I could. My response is always No.

kara said...

hey! i took that picture!