People who achieve great things are often rejected or ridiculed when starting out.
That sounds inspiring… but I don’t think it is. Because if you are currently being rejected or ridiculed, it either means that with further effort you will achieve great things OR you should probably give up and just accept your overwhelming mediocrity.
There is a legend that in their acting class at the Pasadena Playhouse, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were both voted “least likely to succeed”. That sounds ridiculous, not just because both did succeed, but because it’s hard to believe that an acting class would have such an award. That would be like having a “most likely to cough up a liver” award for an AA meeting or a “least likely to see next year” award on the children’s hospital lymphoma ward.
There is an epilogue to that anecdote: after Hoffman and Hackman went to New York and befriended another talentless hack named Robert Duvall, Hackman was found working as a doorman by an old instructor from the Playhouse. The instructor reportedly said “See, Hackman, I told you you wouldn’t amount to anything.” That was the early to mid 1960s, and to be fair Hackman didn’t receive his first Academy Award nomination until 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, so obviously what that instructor meant to say was “you won’t amount to anything up until a few years from now when you will be a world-renowned actor”.
This got me thinking about my various endeavours and the various levels of failure I’ve encountered throughout. That’s a bit harsh of an assessment, since I have achieved things that some houseplants or roombas may consider impressive. But lately I’ve been getting the feeling that there may not be an ultimate victory over the naysayers for me (not that anyone really bothers to “naysay”). Maybe it’s not that my writing is just unconventional, or that my technical skills are unorthodox, or that my jokes are too experimental, or my political wiles are just a little too ahead of their time… maybe I’m just not that good at any of it, or maybe if I would just focus on one area I could move beyond being a dilettante and become passably skilled.
I know I’m not alone in this worry. There are many people like me out there, people who were always over-praised as children, told they could do anything they put their minds to, treated like they were geniuses even if they would be the guy at Mensa meetings who was always put in charge of the coats.
We’re the fakers, the phonies, the ones who always skated by doing the minimum because that’s all we needed to give. I don’t even know what practicing actually means, since I never really did it when I was growing up. That’s why I don’t play piano outside of the home, and why when I draw horses after three decades of “experience”, they still look like dogs with thick manes. I used to brag about not needing to practice, or never having done homework, or not having read the books they assigned in school, back when I was young and mostly a virgin. Now I realize that it’s nothing to be proud of, that my innate ability to “fake it” didn’t get me any further than “that’ll do”, which is miles away from where little Regan always thought he’d get to go.
So now I’m trying to learn about these foreign words and phrases, “hard work”, “dedication”, “practicing”, “going beyond ‘good enough’”… I’m trying to learn skills everyone else seemed to have a handle on when they were learning to tie their shoes. The truth is, to this day I still don’t know how to tie laces correctly. I learned to make it look like I was tying a bow, when all I was doing was double-knotting with two loops for show. I never knew how to do it properly, and I was too embarrassed to ask, because that would mean admitting that there was something I wasn’t good at; now I’m thirty one years old and I’m still faking it every time I lace up my ice skates, which thankfully isn’t very often because I never spent any time practicing my hockey skills.
These days, nothing screams “dilettante” more than being an unknown writer. When I sent out my first story in February 2010, I thought “they’ll email me back in a couple minutes to tell me I’ve changed their lives and editing careers FOREVER”. That e-mail didn’t come, and three days later a form rejection arrived instead. I felt shocked and insulted, because I’m a writer more or less, and that’s how we always feel. Now I have fourty-seven more rejections to keep #1 company.
Rejection #48 arrived today. Two more should be in by week’s end, and that will make fifty.
I fully expect to reach #100 one day, by 2013 or so. And I’ll probably reach #1000 before the time comes (in the not-so-distant future) when I achieve immortality by downloading my consciousness into the iPhone5000s.
Writing and not really getting anywhere, if that’s what ends up happening, may not be the best use of my time on this Earth, but it’s definitely not the worst way to live your life. That honour goes to Adam Sandler for his upcoming film Jack and Jill.