Thursday, February 02, 2006

I ain't Good. But I got Guts.

My brother had a friend in high school named Art. Art was not an "A" student, wasn't popular, and in fact could be described as your average, invisible schoolkid. I don't really remember much else about him except I knew he had diabetes and a unending penchant for irreverance. He kept the words "wing nut" stickered on the back of his pickup - I'm not sure exactly what that meant, but it feared me enough never to try and pass him (not that I was ever able to catch him anyway).

The other notable thing about Art hit me when he graduated high school and I saw his senior caption in the yearbook. Now 99.9% of senior captions are hopes, dreams, and wishes of young and bright-eyed kids ready to take on the world (I labored long and hard over mine about whether to cleverly snub the cheerleaders or create poignant prose about how I hoped that someday Dungeons & Dragons would be REAL). Often, their inexperience with the evils of the world shows through and is simply refreshing (and even enviable) to read. But Art's was far simpler - far more to the point. In fact, although somewhat sad, it might be the most lucid senior caption I have ever seen. It simply read:

"I ain't good. But I got guts."

Argue the eloquence if you will, but Art was an honest kid. I'm always amazed how we humans can perpetually fool ourselves. For example, when someone who isn't good looking says as part some appropriate response (or compliment fishing endeavor), "Well, I'm not very good looking" and the people around them jump up and tell them "No! You're fine! You're cute!". Surely they are trying to make them feel better but good looks is a pretty tractable quantity. Surely no one will agree precisely but most men (and women) will agree that Jessica Simpson is good looking and Rosanne Barr is not (sorry Rosy). Regardless, we don't like to admit friends are nasty looking even if they are. Here's a hint, if someone close to you describes anything about you as "fine", watch out.

The more I've traveled through life the more I come to realize how ridiculously hard we fool ourselves. At the same moment, I think that we must. Its truly the only way to survive. However, I've had a long self-debate about where the line should be drawn. We can't fool ourselves about everything. Some things are simply too obvious or too important. If I am not good looking should I fool myself to think I am? Or should I accept that and try to improve it? If I am bad at math, should I beat myself attempting to improve it? Or forget it and move to hone my strengths?

Art at the tender age of 18 at least at some level seemingly knew his limitations and he knew his strengths. Its quite likely that I am reading far too hard into Art's simple words - but at this point, I don't care. I choose to fool myself that that is what he meant. His words helped me shape my own life and I think for the better. If I believe he was a naive 18 year old putting up an inside joke, my own beliefs come into question. And, as with most beliefs, they are sticky - once you believe something you want to keep believing it lest you face the fact you were wrong. (and the longer you believe it, the stickier it gets).

Surely we are all born with factors that will take us down our specific paths. Good looks are surely a blessing and a curse. The tend to help you in life effortlessly. However, this lack of effort can allow other attributes to atrophy. I have thought long and hard about what kind of attribute (in this context loosely defined as a trait or skill some people have and some people don't) I would choose above all others. Or rewording, which attribute I should most try to enhance given the belief that we all have a little of every one. Just like a well-dressed man is likely more attractive than a slob, we can enhance them all, at least a little.

After a long elimination period of scores of attributes I had a perpetual fight in my mind between two contenders: courage and persistence. Good looks was eliminated quickly. I've seen plenty of butt-fugly guys I'd rather be than many hot ones I've seen. Luck might have been in the running but I don't truly believe in it. Intelligence would be a strong contender but I had made an implicit goal early in life to improve that as much as I could (whatever that means). I sort of believe I've done and do what I can in that arena (then again, to complete a beautiful circle, maybe I'm too stupid to realize what potential still exists).

Clearly Art claimed courage. By courage I don't so much mean the ability to rush in to battle. I much more mean the ability to ask for what you want. To take life by the balls and make it yours. Whether thats a job, a date, or attention. People with courage (aka "guts") can go far (and as Art so simply put it, even if you're not "good"). Persistence is closely related but in my mind distinctly different. Gambler's are often experts at it. Play long enough and you will win (of course, this implies winning the battle, not the war). Persistence cannot be understated, but then again without courage your life paths are limited.

After much deliberation, I have decided that although both are undeniably imporant, neither courage or persistence was the answer. Studying those attributes however, led me to a another more basic attribute. One that was core to both and at the heart of what I needed to be better at. The attribute I ended up choosing to perfect was failure.

Laugh if you will, but I have done my best to become very good at understanding and accepting failure. It is not only the ultimate teacher, it is an inevitable companion for all of us. In nearly any non-trivial endeavor I attempted, I realized that success could be defined as simply the first non-failure. Surely I tried to avoid it - but fate will eventually end that game.

The key to being successful in the long run is to make failure irrelevant. This is clear to any man who has a friend that is "good with women". Rarely are they truly "good with ALL women" - they fail incessantly. However - they have courage to ask, persistence to ask a lot, and the uncanny ability to find rejection as irrelevant and expected.

Both courage and persistence rely on this. Obviously, if failure (or rejection) is meaningless to you, why wouldn't you have courage? What are you now afraid of? For persistence, the point is to continue until you succeed. The old saying "If you go a bar and get turned down 9 out of 10 times, thats a good night" rings true. Assumingly the time you didnt get turned down was nothing except your 10th try. Tackle failure and you will (eventually) win the game. Whatever that game may be.

Undoubtedly, I do, as you do, fool myself perpetually. In fact, dismissing failure as irrelevant might require fooling yourself quite often. I first resisted that idea but I don't any longer. We're humans, its what we do. I have chosen my battles however - I really do wish to know my weaknesses and my strengths. I do my best and learn from failure.

I don't know what became of Art's life after he graduated high school except that I was told he died of his illness at age 28. Art's simple statement taught me plenty - at least about confronting your limitations. I don't know if he was "good" or not. But by what I remember of his boisterous demeaner and the loud memories he left me, I definitely believe he had "guts".


Nacho2 said...

Very touching reflexion.

Thanks to you... and to Art.

Lost Soul said...

i dont know but somehow u seem to be writing exactly the kind of stuff i wish to read ...

well written again :)

Arun Kumar said...

I think I learnt something very valuable here...