Friday, July 15, 2011

Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Life, and some other stuff


Life is a little bit like baseball. In baseball, our champions are towering monuments of success. Yet in baseball, failure is commonplace. Even the greatest athletes who ever played the game are going to fail most of the time they step into the batters box. Last year, the team which won the World Series won 93 games - but lost 70 - which means they lost 43% of the time.

Life isn't perfect either. No matter how much you want to win, most of the time you are going to fail. Civilizations have accumulated all sorts of adages and maxims about failure - most of which are meant to teach us the hidden benefits of it. Experience teaches us, it seems, that the champions among us are not those who succeed the most, but those who fail the least.

Sometimes I think we go through life carrying our failures like millstones around our necks. We learn to evaluate opportunities in terms of how likely they are to result in failure. Most of us are bench warmers, content to let someone else take the field and suffer the consequences of failure - annoyed, no doubt, in some dark corner of our minds when that someone actually succeeds.

Without consciously realizing it, we most often view success as a matter of mere coincidence. If ten people attempt, but nine of them fail, would not that make the single success sheerly a matter of good luck? What, exactly, did the one winner bring to the table that the nine losers did not?

You disagree? Consider:

The most important job of any parent who ever lived is teaching his or her kids not to take unreasonable chances. The first time my daughter ever drove a car on her own, all I could think of was how many ways it could end in disaster. I doubt if on that occasion I spent a single second thinking about any of the wonderful opportunities which driving a car would present her with. All I could think of was the potential for failure. Hold that thought.

My daughter was just the opposite. All she could think of was how cool it would be to drive a car on her own. I knew that. So, I wanted to temper her enthusiasm with a great big blob of anxiety. As she was driving, instead of thinking about weekend drives and hanging out with friends, I wanted her to be thinking about drivers shooting through windshields and mangled body parts lying on the side of the road.

I wanted her to think about failure, believing, as I did, that this would make her a better driver. And you know, I had all the evidence on my side. Its probably true that over ninety percent of all accidents are avoidable. And those accidents would have been avoided if whoever caused them had been thinking about failure first, last and always. Back to life...

Years ago, before we stopped manufacturing things here in America, I worked summers at the RCA plant in Marion while I was attending school. Being a temp, I got sent around to all kinds of jobs. One job they sent me to was just plain exhausting. A line of overhead hangers, each filled with a really heavy, old style picture tube would come by, next to a line of empty hangers going the other way. My job was simply to transfer the tubes from one line to the other.

I was just a shrimp back then, 5'10" and 155 at most. The first time I got this job I really threw myself into it. But, since the tubes were heavy and awkward to handle, the best I could do was transfer them at a rate of maybe 50%. Man, this wore me out - I mean I was dog tired. But proud. I thought transferring half the tubes from one line to another was something of a feat. At the end of the shift I asked a guy working nearby how many tubes the guy I was subbing for could transfer. Almost casually, the guy said, "all of them.".

The next day I was given the same job. Wouldn't you know it, I went from a rate of 50% the day before to a rate of a 100%. And even at that, after doubling my production, afterwards, I wasn't as tired as I had been the day before.

Bear in mind, I had never seen this rate of production actually done. All I had to go on was the word of a guy who claimed to have seen it done. I had thought that, given my size and strength, this was impossible. Yet the simple knowledge that it was possible was all I needed. I hadn't suddenly become bigger or stronger. The only difference was I was convinced of the actual possibility of success.

Trivial as it sounds, I think of this experience quite often. When I do, it occurs to me that succeeding is not so much a question of ability as it is of belief. I think, probably the best baseball players are not the most gifted, but those who are blind to the possibility of failure. When they strike out, they throw their batting helmets in disgust. They can't believe they could strike out, and hadn't spent a single spare second considering what they would do if they did.

Kids don't know much about failure. In their innocence, they say they want to be movie stars and presidents - and great baseball players. They don't know that of all the millions of kids who start out in T-ball, only a few hundred will ever make it to the big leagues.

But you know, if kids had the wisdom of old men like us, there would never have been a Stan Musial or a Sandy Koufax. Or for that matter an Archie Graham, who played one single inning in the Bigs, and whose brilliant and useful life was immortalized in "Field of Dreams".

Thank God we can't inoculate kids against failure with the morbid wisdom of old age!

Along the paths to every great novel or painting, every marvel of art and science, every wonderful thing which makes life the stunningly beautiful journey it is, lie the bodies of those who dreamed large dreams, tried and failed.

All of us, I think, can remember that one dumpy kid who entered the sack race at the annual picnic and came in a distant last - way behind everyone else and usually writhing on the ground at the finish line while everyone laughed.

But you know something Steve? That was the kid who crumpled up his doubts, tossed them away, got in the sack and tried. And he really wasn't last either - behind him, unnoticed, were all the other kids who didn't.


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