“No matter how good you think you are there’s always going to be someone better. There’s always going to be someone tougher, smarter, faster, and better than you are. No matter what you do in life, there will always be someone, somewhere who’s better.” –Jack T. O’Connor
“What then?” Thomas Sowell.
The Tom Cruise movie messed us up in a lot of ways. The Cruise character was “the best there ever was” in just about every picture he starred in, and the hair and the confident, gleaming smile led us to believe it was probably true. We got the sense that all these Tom Cruise characters had to do was throw their hat in the ring, and they’d be better than the 99% of us who try and cry about it later. The conflict of his movies usually involves him trying to beat the one insolent fella who claims, usually with a snarl and belligerent attitude, that he is just as good as the chosen one. Tom Cruise beats him with that smile and without one of his hairs moving into an improper position. Mingled in Cruise’s tangible superiorities, are relatable intangibles that make us think we, too, could do whatever he’s doing without even trying. We then walk out of the theater thinking if we’re not going to be the best at something, why do it?
I had a tumultuous relationship Tom Cruise movies for many years, until I decided to just sit back and enjoy them for what they are. They’re all enjoyable, action-packed, and fun, but the inherent prodigy, “chosen one” themes have always bothered me. I prefer to think that he who works harder receives the reward. We all know that life doesn’t always work out that way. We’ve all met someone who doesn’t even have to try very hard to beat us, and the only thing we can do is stew in their shadow. It’s always difficult to come to terms with that, and it’s even more difficult to come to the conclusion that we’re not one of them. We’ve all heard the line, hard work has it’s own rewards, but when we have to work so hard to achieve what almost comes natural to others, the reward is almost bittersweet. The question the unnaturals should ask soon after they realize that they’re not a prodigy, a golden child, or the best there ever was, is what then? What are we going to do about it?
“Well, if I can’t be the best at it why do it?” is that annoying answer that keeps coming back at us when he hear the Tom Cruise movie say it, either implicitly or explicitly. If we follow this line of thought, and we leave a profession, craft, or past time that has a prodigy we’ll never outdo, we’ll run into another blessed with more talent and/or experience in the next.
We don’t want to work hard. We don’t want to work so hard that we leave blood, sweat, and tears on the cutting room floor to get it. We might do it, but that’s not what we want to do. We want to be blessed by God with such natural talent that others envy us. It’s why we love Tom Cruise movies, and superheroes. We see this when our kids try to pull the proverbial sword from the stone, and we remember how frustrating it was to learn that we were never going to be prodigy. No one marvels at hard work. No one wants to see a Dirk Nowitzki work out or Freddie Freeman take batting practice. No one cares about the little things they do to be the best, and we don’t care how hard they try. We want to be the finished product. We want natural speed, the ability to hit a baseball a mile without any coaching or practice. It’s humbling to learn that we’re just like everyone else, and that if we want it bad enough we’ll have to put in the same 10,000 hours as everyone else. We don’t want to make the humiliating and embarrassing mistakes we almost have to make to learn. We want to be the prodigies who can beat our opponent with one hand tied behind our back. We don’t mind trying to get better today, but we better be the “the best there ever was” tomorrow. To paraphrase The Who song, “You better, you better, you best.”
There’s something inherent in the human experience that prevents us from ever conceding that it will never be us. Even after our prime working years are over, and our days of athletic conquest have long-since passed, we think about how it could’ve been if we did a little of this and a little of that. Humbling experiences did lead us to put in our 10,000 hours on some pursuit, and we did incrementally improve our lot, but we kept running into prodigies who didn’t even have to put in a tenth of the blood, sweat, and tears we did. We admire natural ability as much as we loathe it, and the back and forth is probably how we developed a love/hate relationship with prototypical Tom Cruise movie.
I was a short, skinny kid with little-to-no muscular definition in 8th grade. With those physical detriments, I never dominated on the field, but I was quick. I wasn’t fast, as most kids could beat me in the 50 yard dash. In the space of ten yards, however, I had no peers. When harnessed, this talent proved surprisingly effective in soccer, until I met the doofus. I was the second shortest kid in my grade and the skinniest by about 20lbs. The doofus was one of the .0001% of the population who was actually shorter and scrawnier than I was. I was rarely confident, and never over-confident on the field, until I saw that this kid was going to be my toe-to-toe competition for the day. I thought I was going to have a glorious day.
I don’t remember how many times that kid ended up beating me, but let’s just say that it was an embarrassingly high number. Let’s say it was seven times. If it was seven times, it was seven times in a row. This kid wasn’t quicker than me, and his knowledge of the granular techniques of soccer was something, but it wasn’t everything. Yet, this kid always seemed to make the perfect move against me, and his ability to beat me exposed all of my comparable deficits. The reason this kid sticks in my head, all these decades later, is that he proved, over and over, what it meant to simply want it more.
This kid beat me down so thoroughly for that first half that I was sure my coach would be subbing me out. I learned this would not be the case when he said, “I will not be subbing you out.”
The implicit message was that I was going to have to find a way to adjust if I didn’t want to roast in the humiliation of total and unqualified personal defeat. It was a given, by the second half, that I had no chance against this scrawny, little nerd in toe-toe combat, so I just had to factor that into my game. I began running down the sidelines with him. I gave up some precious real estate on the field by doing so, but I followed him, waiting for him to mess up, and I planned to capitalize on any tiny slip-ups he made. He made very few no slip-ups, but my new strategy caused him to run out of real estate most of the time. He tried to kick the ball through me, and it usually bounced off me out of bounds for a throw-in or corner kick. I began nullifying this kid’s superiority, almost by accident.
The final story wasn’t a Rocky or Rudy story in which the lesser finds a glorious way to bring down his personal, miniature-sized Goliath. He continued to steal the ball from me and fake me out in all the humiliating ways he did in the first half, but I nullified him as a force on his team, until our toe-to-toe competition was basically a wash. He nullified me as well as I nullified him, which was a moral victory for me after my disastrous first-half. Even though he scored the only three goals for his team in the first half, he wouldn’t score again, and my team won the game. There was no glory waiting for me on the sidelines, after the game, as this kid continued to dominate me throughout the game, but he didn’t score again. I found a way to look my teammates in the eye when the game was over.
It’s nearly impossible, in any walk of life, to avoid comparing yourself to others to gauge for how we’re doing, and I’m a far better philosopher than practitioner in this regard, but I say don’t get mad, get better. We’re all going to run into brick walls in life, called “the best”, no matter what we do, and the first thing we have to grapple with is the fact that we’re not the best, and we probably will never be. Once we’re done knowing that, and kicking the wall, we need to figure out how to get better. Don’t get mad, get better.
My miniature Goliath and I had a lot to work through. We were both too small and too skinny. If he got tossed around as much as I did, he had an understandable excuse for never wanting to play another sport again. He, obviously, asked himself the “How do I get better?” and he probably didn’t find the answer or an answer, but he had answers every time the ball was between us.
There are always going to be people who are better, and I think one of the reasons we scream and writhe around on the ground is that we expected to be better at this by now. We expected that we would begin our lives as a prodigy, golden child by now. We haven’t done the work necessary to get better, but something should’ve come along by now. This kid isn’t bigger or better, but he beats me every time. It just seems unfair that some are better at sports than we are, and it is when we encounter a prodigy who was born with certain attributes we can’t possibly overcome, but most of the times toe-to-toe competitions are won by those who want it so bad that they’re willing to do whatever they have to to win.
Bret and Greg
Bret Maher was “the best we ever saw” in training class. We all knew his type, and we all know that they flourish in training classes. He was the type who everyone watches. If we were going one-on-one with him, in our soccer days, no one paid attention to us, his opponent, or credited us with a stop. They either deemed the confrontation a Bret success or a Bret failure. Bret was that guy who had all the answers in training class. When he didn’t, it led to witty banter with the instructor. If he was right, that was “just Bret” the most annoying two words in the English language for those of us who attended the two-week training seminar. Yet, when we finally made it out onto the floor, and he experienced the daily grind of the work, Bret was indifferent to bored, and he quickly found employment elsewhere. Either he found out he couldn’t be the best there ever was, or he didn’t think it mattered to everyone else that he was. Whatever the case, the job bored him, and he decided to take his talents elsewhere.
At his funeral, one of his best friends gave a thunderous tribute to a man named Greg Gunderson, “If he decided to become an astrophysicist on Monday, he’d probably be one of the best astrophysicists in the country by Thursday. If you think that’s a gross exaggeration, all I can tell you is you didn’t know Greg.”
“From the minute I met him, I just knew he wouldn’t be the type to live to sixty.” another friend said in a more casual moment, outside the funeral proceeding. “It’s hard to describe, but when he died, it wasn’t really sad. I tried to be sad, because I was so close to him, and I thought he was a real sweetheart, but if you got to know him as well as I did, you knew how unhappy he really was. So, when he died, it was almost like what took so long?”
The prodigious, young Greg Gunderson managed to match his athletic achievements with academic achievements, who proved to be just as successful as an adult, ended up drinking himself to death. How could someone to whom so much was given, seek the comfort of the bottle so often that he killed himself? Some of his friends alluded to the idea that it had something to do with the divorce, but other friends, those who claimed to know him best, said Greg and his wife both realized he just wasn’t cut out for marriage, and his serial philandering proved it. His wife wasn’t even bitter about it in the end, because she had dealt with it for so long. Greg didn’t appear mired in misery about it either. The two seemed to just accept his failure as something he either wouldn’t or couldn’t change, and their divorce, and the subsequent handling of child visitation, was surprisingly congenial. His closest friends were always quick to rule the divorce out on those grounds, so why then?
“Greg Gunderson was just a miserable person,” one of his friends said, “who couldn’t find anything that made him happy.”
“From the minute you met Greg, you just knew he wouldn’t be the type to live to sixty.” another friend said. “It’s hard to describe, but when he died, it wasn’t really sad. I tried to be sad, because I was so close to him, and I thought he was a sweetheart, but if you got to know him as well as I did, you knew how unhappy he really was. So, when he died, it was almost like what took so long?”
None of Greg’s really good friends addressed the questions we had, such as how could a golden child, prodigy with such a gregarious personality be so unhappy? I didn’t know Greg as well as these guys did, but I did get the sense that beneath the personality was an unhappy person. The one comprehensive answer I arrived at is that the human being is such a complex animal with different needs and wants that it’s almost impossible to develop a rule of thumb when it comes to trying to understand another fully. Some of us are a soup who want and/or need limited ingredients, some of us are a stew that call for a couple more ingredients, and others are a mishmash of gumbo or jambalaya wants and needs. There are no mandatory ingredients to a gumbo or jambalaya, but we know something is missing, we just can’t put our finger on what.
Greg’s friends said he didn’t talk about it much, and my guess is he didn’t think about it enough to source the hole in his soul. He just medicated his mysterious misery, and anyone who has ever tried to medicate their misery knows that it works, in the short-term. It can make us funny, fun, and laughable, until the next morning when we realize we’re worse, and the situation we tried to medicate is worse, because we put it off for another day.
No one could put their finger on what was missing in the delicate balance of ingredients of Greg Gunderson’s internal jambalaya. My guess is it called for a greater sense of satisfaction. We have to know some misery to ultimately know happiness, and we have to know the abject misery of failure to receive some satisfaction for our eventual successes. Greg Gunderson tripped up in life, but those momentary lapses were made on the path to accomplishments. He never, that I know of, knew the type of abject failure that causes one to want to quit with the notion that if I can’t be the best at something why do it? We have to know failure to know success, and if all Greg ever knew was success in his formative years, he probably didn’t experience much satisfaction from it. He probably expected it.
“All he ever knew was success,” his best friend said at his funeral. “He was a star athlete in high school, graduated college with honors, and he was always one of the best employees in his field.”
When they say all he ever knew was success, however, it seems like a bifurcation of the word knew. Prodigies, like Greg, know success at all levels, but do they know it like we do? Satisfaction, we could say, in lieu of Greg Gunderson, is reserved for those of us who work so hard for something that we leave blood, sweat and tears on the cutting room floor trying to get it. When we finally accomplish our goal, we know glory intimately, because we worked so hard to get there.