Trying Times

27 Sep

I used to want to be the best person. That is a fairly tall order. I wanted to be the best human being. This involves a variety of other bests too. The best listener. The best communicator. The best pancake flipper. So yeah, believe it or not, I was a perfectionist.

There is a lot to be said for perfectionism. Fastidiousness, meticulousness, and other ousnesses are all shades of perfectionism. The word “perfect” is in there for the Lord’s sake. The relentless pursuit of excellence is sort of our cultural fetish; true super hella’ hard and you’ll get everything you want. And the inverse is true, if you don’t try hard, if you don’t do it right, you don’t get squat.

That is the unspoken contract “good” young people enter into with society. The good kids decide they are going to follow the steps/rules/established mores. In exchange, the world is supposed to give them everything they want. If you are a good citizen, the good kid thinks, the world will reward you. If you break the rules, cheat, or slack off you don’t get anything.

The problem is that this is never, ever true. For one, the people who break rules very often get away (and ahead) with it. I’m all for being sensitive (lord knows I was a failure at sports when little), but everyone doesn’t get a trophy. When you play baseball, you are competing. Winners win, losers lose. Celebrate failure and you mitigate victory. On the other hand, the top is lonely for a reason: the people who populate it often aren’t really in the mood for company. Nobody at the top reaches down and lifts you up just because you followed the rules. It’s cool that you did, but if you’re not as good as someone else, for any reason, then tough luck. Your mom died so you’re emotionally drained for that interview? Ouch, that sucks. A goose hit the engine of the plane you’re in so you had to land making you late for the conference? Too bad that didn’t happen to the other guys.

As if anyone needed more reason to hate geese.

The contract isn’t a guarantee. It’s a  guideline. It’s an “all else equal.” By the time you’re old enough to realize “all-else” is never equal, you’re up to your eyeballs in commitment to doing things this way. You’ve passed by opportunities to act out, to explore, to try for something else… to look to see if there is anything else. And your role models, the products of this contract, they keep telling you it’ll work, and you keep hoping they are right. That years of hard work will pay off.

It will to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the unspoken factor no one talks about because there’s nothing to be done about it. That factor is, of course, luck. It’s fair that we don’t discuss it, that we don’t go in depth about it. What is there to say? Sometimes the other guy runs a red light. Sometimes your computer really does crash. Sometimes things happen out of your control and completely dominate your life.

But this is why we need to talk about it. Because if everything that happens to you is YOUR fault… is YOUR decision… then when you get, oh I don’t know… pneumonia, it’s your fault. When that, let’s say, gets you kicked out of school, it’s your fault. And if for the sake of argument that feeling of failure sent you into a tailspin of depression that shatters almost everything you’ve worked for… well, you had it coming.

(Where ever do I get my outlandish examples I wonder?)

Anyone who knows me knows I didn’t exactly cherish that social contract. But that’s because I was the worst kind of perfectionist: the kind that won’t do something if they can’t do it perfectly. It’s the fallout of that delightful adage fathers teach their sons: if you’re going to do something, do it right. Except what I took from that was: if you’re not going to do something right, don’t do it at all.


I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but life involves a considerable amount of trial and error. For example: dancing. You cannot do a dance move without practicing it. Someone who does not dance cannot simply watch a music video and then produce anything like that. It instead results in shame, self-conciousness, and very often injury. Given that most people need to be drunk (or otherwise under the influence of outside chemicals), this all gets exaggerated. No one wants to fail. I can gyrate with the best of them, but I fell over my first time trying to learn swing dancing steps. (That a well practiced eight year old then swept in to dance with my date, while mocking me loudly, did not help). Guess who never went back to learn swing dancing? This guy.


This idiot.

I say idiot because not doing something for fear of failure, or worse, rejection, is stupid. Sometimes… maybe often times… hard work doesn’t pay off. No matter what you do… how hard you work… loved ones will die, computers will break, and yeah… you’ll get sick. That’s no reason to hold back… no reason to go at life with anything less than one hundred percent. You just need to go in knowing you’re going to fall. (And when the eight year old mocks you, just smile and remember that the little &@$% has the joys of puberty coming soon).

What it comes down to is that while we are alive, there is almost nothing that is certain. You know you were born. You know you’ll die… some day. Other than that, it’s all guess-work. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s strangely comforting. You have to work. You have to try. And you have to fail. It’s going to happen. Learn from your failure. Understand the part in your life it plays. But remember. It’s just a part.

And for God’s sake, don’t take your failure as a moral fault. Who you are doesn’t change because you didn’t make the shot/get the interview/overcome a lung full of fluid. You aren’t a worse person because of it. Learn from it, get back on your feet, and do something with what you’ve learned.

I don’t want to be the best person anymore. Well maybe I do… but I define it a little more forgivingly now. Mostly I want to be happy. If what I’m doing is making me happy (in a sustainable, responsible way), then I’m doing a good job. I have goals, I have things I want. But if I fall short… in work, learning, or even love; I’m not a bad person. Just someone who needs to try again when he’s ready.

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
— Henry Ford


7 Responses to “Trying Times”

  1. Andy Sturm September 27, 2010 at 3:46 am #

    Mike, you are a great writer. Seriously. And you’re so introspective. I really enjoy your writing. It’s soothing to know I’m not the only one who thinks some of these things.

    • Mike Potter September 27, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

      Thanks Andy, I’m glad you like it. How’s the novel comin?

  2. Janet w September 27, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    So I have had the same job since I started working at 15. I’ve had some second jobs, but have always been too afraid to quit this one. Mainly, it is a safety net because I definitely do not stay for the money or the amazing management. This entry makes me feel challenged to quit and pursue new things that I want to do and to not be worried all the time what my repercussions will be.

  3. Janet Wheeler September 27, 2010 at 4:19 am #

    So, I have had the same job since I started working at 15. I’ve had secondary jobs and once I had three jobs, but I have never had the courage to quit my first job. I stay mainly because it is a safety net. I know roughly what income I’ll have, I know I won’t get fired, and I basically get to do whatever. On the other side of that, I’ve been held back from pursuing other things that interest me because I have been too afraid of the unknown. This blog makes me feel challenged to quit and go explore possibilities, to take some risks. And not be afraid and worried of the consequences.

    • Mike Potter September 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

      The unknown is scary, it’s only human to shrink from it. But if you wanna experience life, be one of those people everyone admires, and have a full life… you’ve gotta plunge in. Don’t be irresponsible, but also understand that failure almost never means the end of the world. Unless you’re James Bond.

  4. Robin September 27, 2010 at 7:47 am #

    I liked it. Sounds like you are learning through life. Hope you will no longer be so tough on yourself when things don’t always result in the work you’ve put in to them. It’s just….life.
    Yo Momma

    • Mike Potter September 27, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

      I don’t learn these life lessons too fast, but I get em eventually.

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