Lonely is the Man Apart

Knowledge, when actively and correctly applied, is power. In an earlier piece I spoke on this at some length. There is though one caveat I failed to mention…being right can be a very lonely place. Fields Medal recipients, Nobel Prize winners, celebrated individual geniuses such as Elon Musk and others; they are so far beyond most people in terms of intellect who can they relate to and how do they make sense of a non-sensical world? I’m reminded of the character Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) from ‘The Watchmen’ and a line from the film in which he states “the only person with whom [he] felt any kinship with died three hundred years before the birth of Christ…Alexander of Macedonia or Alexander the great as [we] know him”. Though fictional a person can’t help but wonder if this burden is something truly felt by the special few upon which the transformative ideas of the world are built?

As someone filling the rank and file I find myself quick to complain about the alienation of being part of the proletariat struggle (though this is self-induced) never thinking that there is an equally difficult struggle existing on the other side of the Bell Curve. For the sake of illustration, it’s worth noting this doesn’t just plague those of great mental ability. Take the superior athlete for example. As a native Clevelander I’ll use an easily relatable example, LeBron James. Regardless of how a person feels about him personally or as a teammate there’s no denying his skill level is far beyond the majority of his peers. It’s in that separation a great sense of personal isolation has to exist. For someone operating within a team sport, or a corporation for that matter, having a vision and aptitude beyond the next closest subset of colleagues can be crippling. As the saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown.

This is the part of my rant where I try to tie it all together. If as you go along in life you should happen to discover that you are one of these rare birds take heart. The road to achieving your goals will be an uphill battle, not merely because of what you’re attempting to accomplish but because in your way will find a slew of folks whose only existence appears to make your job harder. Prepare yourself for the burden of being different, of being special…of being great. I can’t profess to be one of these people, weird yes, gifted no, but what I do see and recognize all around me is that this world is overrun with DNA (do-nothing assholes). They control and dictate the situation of far too much economically, politically and socially. Know that the uniqueness you possess will be a one-way ticket to a deserted island, learn to swim with the sharks and everything will be okay.

Someone’s Punching Bag

You live and you learn…or if you’re someone like me you live and you don’t, not at least until life hits you in the face so hard you find yourself emotional concussed. Of the variety of topics, I’ve covered so far, ranging from professional to academic and even including personal there’s one item I realized I haven’t spoken on (at least of any great length) and that’s self-worth. While the concept has been touched on I want to speak to it in the form of a very common American phenomenon – participation in athletics. Americans LOVE their sports and I must admit I’m a pretty big basketball fan. The reason I’m drawing a line between the two is that they together illustrate a euphemism for almost all of life.

At some point in our history sport(s) became a right of passage. As we as a society completed/abandoned our conquest of what’s become the modern United States and her territories the focus shifted on rallying our people around something other than (near constant) warfare (didn’t work out but the thought was nice). After all variety is the spice of life. With the ushering in of the modern Olympic games in 1896, the development of American football, basketball, and modern professional baseball, people found a new way to socialize and shortly thereafter stratify individuals based on the combination of skill and genetics. Fast forward some 60, 70 years later and we found not only these sports as professions but as serious collegian activities as well.

From this historical understanding let’s proceed to weave this cultural caveat into the articles topic, self-worth. It’s natural for people to define their value in the context of others. What people think of us, their opinions – manifested through words and actions – have tremendous influence over our emotional framework. We seek acceptance and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing its something that can be leveraged against us. An area where this is blatantly obvious, yet for some reason never spoken upon, is the world of preparatory sports; namely high school athletics. It’s the perfect storm of social upheaval and (in many instances) the last step before coasting to adulthood.

The thing that makes this particularly note worthy is that in addition to being thrown into a world dominated by primal thought (which I’m certainly not against) – defined by a hyper-obsession with winning and domination over one’s competition/enemy – there is an additional toll not often thought of; the physical taxation levied on a person’s body. As someone that was a part of a national championship high school wrestling team and an attempted collegian walk-on I feel the aches and pains of what I’ve put my body through every single day and at 37 feel as if I’m someone 20+ years older. Through all the vigorous training I gained nothing. I was not a recruited athlete and received zero additional instruction or focus from any of my coaches. I’m not bitter about this and only bring it up to make a final point on the matter.

Athletics, like much of life, is a casting call in which most people will not even get a supporting role. There are many folks I’m sure that participate in these gaming events based not on a clear desire or passion for the activity but rather as a way to create value for themselves. My concern lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority (especially in sports that are extremely demanding in nature – such as American football and wrestling) will serve as little more than turning someone into the bricks upon which competitively superior participants will walk. Your injuries, frustrations and time spent in the mostly inefficient routine of practice illustrate an occurrence that happens also later in life; where in the business world those who are better connected, though inversely skilled to their colleagues, will once again use those around them to lift themselves up. I don’t wish to say that participation in sports is a bad thing, it’s not and is able to help a sizeable number of people in a variety of ways, what I am cautioning against is a person blindly throwing their future physical (and to a degree mental) health out the window in the statistical likelihood of receiving nothing in return. You’re likely worth far more than making someone else’s dreams come true.

Slow and steady wins the race

As someone on the outside looking in at the success of other’s I’ve noticed an interesting commonality. Lasting achievement doesn’t resemble a hurricane, it’s more a steady rain that provides the fields of life with just the right amount of sustenance to keep everything green. This is something visible to both the well-known and common person alike. The strange and interesting thing to me is how often this is overlooked. In our desire to have all the necessary items of existence ‘out the box’ ready we fail to recognize where the true success of the average lies – in the process of growth. The concept of steady improvement, adjustment and learning along with calculated planning has taken a back seat to dominance.

From the business world to sports a person can see this everywhere. A company and its board bring in a new CEO to replace an outgoing one who was not given enough time to execute their vision. A team drafts a player that was a high achiever at the collegian level with the blind belief that the level of success will automatically translate in the pro’s. The trouble with this thinking is that it puts little premium on tomorrow while placing nearly all the eggs into ‘today’s’ basket. We trade in impact for stability and in the end often get neither. Is there a solution to this conundrum? You bet there is and it involves a radical process…exercising patient.

To breakdown the pitfall of not allowing natural growth to take hold I’m going to turn to a place where it’s most obvious – the world of sports. Of all the positions in a sport one that has possibly the greatest premium is the quarterback in American football. Let’s take what many analysts consider to be the top five players as of 2018: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. Of these guys only two of the five (40%) were drafted in the first round and neither (Roethlisberger or Rodgers) was selected in the top 10. Also, of note is that the teams Aaron and Ben played were a complete non-factor in the race for a college championship title – Miami of Ohio unranked the entire season and the University of California finishing the season 7-4 in the 25th spot.

The point of this divesture is that reaching a certain level of success, on whatever stratosphere it exists, relies perhaps more in the foundation than the completed project. Time changes things and the ability to adapt is often time as critical as skill level. Peaking, while a naturally occurring phenomenon, should not be where the greatest concentration is placed, albeit sport or life. Rather I purpose a two-prong approach. The first, operate within a healthy framework of output. Whether that is athletically, academically or even professionally – too much, too soon, ultimately equals something that doesn’t last. The second is prepare for the transition. This one is a little tricky because it requires a lot of self-reflection and/or unbiased 3rd party opinion. An ounce of honest, intelligent, reflection is worth a pound of long term future achievement.