The lottery of life: the not-so-secret to my (sort of) success

Believe it or not, I have spent much of my life not fully aware that fitting-in and ingratiating oneself to a group is the key to success.

I understood, of course, that currying favour was a thing that people did to succeed, but I probably thought (or hoped) that it wasn’t a necessary condition of success. It has finally truly dawned on me that social acceptance is the key driver of everything we humans do or don’t do, whether we are successful or not.

Because this now seems to me to be such an obvious and simple truth, I can’t help but wonder — out loud, of course — why it took me so long to figure it out. The answer to that question also now seems pretty obvious too: privilege.

I was able to overlook the very obvious and essential role of social acceptance in human achievement only because I am a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, settler male who is reasonably tall. Society is pretty much designed to accept people who look and talk like me. It is baked right into the system. To be accepted, I only need to exist. As a result, it was very easy for me to take it for granted. Like fish everywhere, I overlooked the very stuff I was awash in.

It also occurs to me that I have been able to play out my adolescent fantasy of being a L’etranger-philosopher-king-without-a-cause only because of that baked in social acceptance. I can “take risks,” “blaze my own path,” and “speak truth to power” precisely because I’m not really ever putting myself at risk. Society has always got my back.

At this point, I can imagine one totally reasonable response to this “discovery” and my decision to share it: “Well done, Dr. Privilege, you finally figured out what people have been telling you for decades. What do you want? A hero biscuit?”

I hope not. My aim here — I think — is to acknowledge the lottery that I have won simply by being born. I also want to flag the idea of privilege for people who might be similarly naive. If I overlooked the full impact of privilege in my life — and I am a reasonably well-attuned to issues of social justice — I’m sure that I’m not alone. We all have our blind spots, I suppose.

If the concept of privilege is new to you, this is a good introduction:

Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide

If the concept is familiar to you and you know some good introductory resources, please share them below. I am sure I have more to learn.

The Moment that Changed My Life Forever. What I Learned May Change Yours Too.

WinterTreeI had heard of this peculiar and, I think, uniquely male quirk before I first experienced it. When I finally did experience it, before I even realized it was happening, it was already too late. I was trapped in its paralyzing inertia and I couldn’t escape.

It was the summer of 2001, the summer that terror forgot. In those hyacinth days before we knew who or what to fear, I was in Montreal for my first ever Fringe Festival and I was on my first ever Fringe tour, which had been hastily arranged when The Root of All Squares, a play I co-wrote with Sam Varteniuk, won the Best New Play Contest for the Toronto Fringe Festival.  

The prime directive of touring is “keep costs down” and, after a few days in Montreal, I was on the hunt for some healthy(ish) low-cost fast food. I sought out a Burger King, which, at the time, had a tasty and relatively inexpensive veggie burger. After a tasty but uneventful meal, I headed to the public washroom with the naïve expectation of a normal and routine visit. It was in that washroom that my life changed forever.

In retrospect, I now realize, the timing had to have been perfect. Had I arrived a second earlier or a second later, my transformative experience might never have taken place. The proximity of the urinals had to be perfect too. Had they been even a little closer together, I would have headed demurely to the toilet stall. Had the urinals been a little further apart, I would never have noticed the dilemma of the man next to me.

Of that man who changed my life forever, unfortunately, I know almost nothing — such is the etiquette of the urinal. I don’t even know what he looks like because my eyes were, as custom demands, always respectfully locked straight ahead. All I know of him is that, at the very moment I was ready to pee, he seemed unable to pee.

And then it struck me! I had once heard it said that, yes, sometimes, some men, when they are standing next to another man, they can’t pee at all or only when the other man pees first. When I realized that the man next to me couldn’t pee because of me, some switch deep in my mammalian brain was thrown and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t pee either. It was, for me, an altogether alien experience. I had always been able to pee freely without inhibition regardless of who was nearby. Somehow, knowing that the man next to me couldn’t pee because of me, it prevented me from peeing too.

We were stuck he and I, in a profound standoff without recourse. There is, after all, only so much encouragement one can “self-administer” at a public urinal beside another man before the efforts seem suspicious. Time stood still and, after an interminable delay, the other man conceded defeat. He zipped up without peeing, and departed furtively. A moment later, whatever mammalian switch that had locked nature’s gates firmly shut was flicked and nature flooded freely once more.

My life was never the same, after that fateful moment in the Burger King washroom. Once learned, some habits, as is well known, can never be unlearned. Ever since, the close proximity of another inhibited peer (ha!) has always thrown a switch that locks nature’s gates firmly shut. No amount of coaxing can break the spell. Only one’s man pee or his departure can crack it.

Or so I thought.  

The other day, I was reminded of my primordial watershed(less) experience in that Burger King washroom, when I found myself in yet another inhibited standoff. This time, thanks to some unknown, but surely divine inspiration, I decided not to coax open nature’s gates, but instead took a deep breath and let nature take its course — come what may.

And come it did, freely and flowingly. A relaxed patience, I learned, like Ali Baba’s magic words, can move mountains. A lesson from the urinal, which may ultimately prove useful in life — mine and yours.

The Surest Path To Failure Is To Be True to Oneself. So Why Am I Smiling So Much?

TheDividedSelfA decision has been made. Of that much, I am sure.

In the past few weeks, however, I’ve read enough “popular” neuroscience to know that “I” did not make this decision, if by “I,” one means the self-conscious inner monologue that most people equate with “I,” and which is mostly responsible for most of the words I put here.

What’s more, I am also certain that the certainty and conviction, which has arrived hand-in-glove with this decision, is not the logical result of careful and rational deliberation. The “certainty” light in the dashboard of my brain is rosily lit, but not for any reason that can be connected to reason because what I have in mind for the future will almost certainly fail.

This is not false modesty. It is the brutal reality of entrepreneurship. Almost all entrepreneurial projects end in failure. Period. To make matters worse, the idea that I am pursuing lies on the plausibility scale somewhere between foolish and silly because it originates in a hunch that flies in the face of all logic, reason, and experience, but, nevertheless, rings true to me.

Unfortunately, thanks to the logic of the market, the surest and most certain path to failure is to be true to oneself. The market only ever favours and rewards that which has mass appeal, and never that which is unique and idiosyncratic. Or, at least, so it seems.

And yet, my pleasure centres are firing like they haven’t fired in a long time. The dopamine is running like sap in Spring. Undoubtedly, some much less rational part of me has decided that this is the right — nay, the only — way forward. Dopamine never lies, right?

Ultimately, the path forward isn’t terribly romantic. I will keep my costs low, work to develop some revenue streams, and see what happens while my savings last. Seems simple enough, but so does rocket science — I mean, that’s just sticking humans in a metal pod on top of a giant exploding stick, right? In practice, how hard can that be? Right?

Are you pursuing — or thinking about pursuing — a crazy idea that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of succeeding in hell’s market. I’d love to hear about it. The more the merrier! Why? Because I know, if you are like me, you are having — or about to have — the time of your life, and who wouldn’t want to share in that.

Please leave a comment below.

Content, like Elsa, was born free. Help keep this blog free forever. Make a one-time contribution.

In 2015, I Will Try to Give Birth To A Dancing Star. What About You?

PregnantWhat a difference a year makes.

You probably wouldn’t have been able to tell by what I wrote and posted last year, but, on New Year’s Eve 2013, I was miserable. I won’t go into the details of who, what, where, why, and how. They were not responsible for my misery. No, not they, but I.

I was miserable because I was not pursuing what I loved, what mattered most to me. It was my choice, and my choice alone.

That night set the stage for a pretty difficult, tiring, and draining year. Through a mixture of hard luck circumstance and lily-livered choice, I cornered myself into a perspective of passivity and misdirected hope. I sat there with my dunce cap jauntily set, and waited pointlessly for something to happen.

2014, nevertheless, was not all blight and gnashing of teeth.

I wrote a pretty good little play, for a pretty neat little project, and I am now working with some talented people to make it happen. I moved to a great new apartment in a great new, but, technically for me, very old neighborhood. I cycled and brunched like nobody’s business. 2014, as tough as it was, set the stage for what is to come, and I know, whatever its precise outcome may be, it will be good.

In 2015, I will attempt to give birth to a dancing star.

I may not succeed. To be honest, I am very likely not to succeed, such is the savage reality of entrepreneurialism, and my own unique take on entrepreneurialism is so far shaping up to be particularly implausible. Let us also not forget that Zarathustra himself, the prophet of the dancing star, ended up broken, penniless, and stark raving mad.

But, who cares!? The choice, the journey, the attempt is what matters, whether the star lives to dance or collapses into a tiny black hole of itself, and I am now in a pretty good position to make a good faith attempt at creating exactly the kind of life I want to live. On this New Year’s Eve, I am peering over the edge of the ever unknown year before me, my belly is pregnant with the possibility of a dancing star, and I am smiling.

I hope you are too. Have a very happy new year’s!

Have you got any dancing stars incubating in your 2015 belly? Let me know what you have baking in your oven with a comment below. If not, why not? It beats watching TV, is much more effective than Prozac, and is guaranteed to add or remove inches wherever you happen to want them added or removed! Millions of doctors agree!

S.T.O.P.: The Still Moment Between Lost and Found.

STOPStop, think, observe, plan.

It’s what you do, once you realize you are lost. It’s easy to remember because, taken together, the first letters of each word spell the most important consideration: STOP.

I don’t suppose it’s possible to experience or identify the precise moment when you become lost. If you could experience the boundary between lost and found, presumably, you would step back across the threshold, once you felt yourself cross into the lost lands, to the place where all horizons are familiar.

I also suspect you can’t even be sure that you are lost until you make the decision to stop. You may have a hunch that something is not right about the path you find yourself on, but the only way to be sure is to stop, think, observe, plan.

It’s time, I think, for me to S.T.O.P. What about you?

The Bucket List: Human, All Too Human

HumanReasonA bucket list is the purest form of human irrationality.

Why?

Because it is a list of desired experiences drawn up in the name of the very thing that will eradicate the relevance of those experiences to the person who desires them. All experiences, good or bad, too few or too many, are leveled to nothing in death.

Moreover, once death comes, the length of one’s life is also leveled to nothing. Whether death happens now or forty years from now, once dead, it will make no difference to the dead.

And, yet, I can’t reason myself to choose or accept death. Reason tells me that death’s leveling wake reduces life to irrelevancy, but some part of me chooses life over and over again. Irrationally, I want to live as long as possible and accumulate as many meaningful experiences as possible.

That means, I suppose, I’m not as inhuman as I sometimes think I am.

On the Remembrance of Things Past: Heading West To Paradise Lost and Found.

The Garden of EdenIn remembering, I realized I had long since forgotten to remember.

I realized this as I reread Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, which, for me, is itself an act of remembering because I first read the unfinished novel in high school — towards the end, I think. It moved me greatly but, years later, I couldn’t really remember the details of why. I knew only that my long time desire to run away to the south of France with someone I loved originated with this book.

I came to be rereading the novel because, on a whim, I had decided to visit the Rosemount Public Library, to roam randomly for books, as I once did, when I was young and first falling in love with books and reading and libraries. As I scanned the stacks for possibilities, it dawned on me that the library is no longer set up quite as well for browsing as it once was — except for the children’s section — because of the wonderful convenience of online search and home branch delivery.

I decided, then, to look for authors, who came to mind easily. When I found no Ursula K. Le Guin, I looked for Hemingway, who I haven’t read in years, but to whom I often return for a window to the adolescence in which I found him, and, as I approached the Hs, I thought, “wouldn’t it be perfect, if I found The Garden of Eden,” because I have been dreaming of running off to the south of France, if only I had someone to take with me, and there, to the delight of my storytelling synchronicity seeking brain, it was. I almost didn’t check it out, for fear of ruining the magic of the not fully knowable feeling that originated in my first reading of it.

To my surprise, from the outset, the novel was much better than I had expected and also much more juvenile than I remembered. Hemingway is rightly vilified for his simple-minded women, but his men, even his protagonists, are not much better. If they seem any more complex, it’s only because we are granted greater access to their inner experiences. If one focuses only on the dialogue and action, the men are as simple minded and stunted as the women.

Nevertheless, there is more than enough charm in the opening pages of this re-imagining of Adam and Eve as Romeo and Juliet, if they had managed to escape the poison of Verona and sneak their way back into the garden to test the norms of middle class complacency, thanks to the privilege of inherited wealth and literary talent. In Hemingway’s defense, love, like these newlyweds, David and Catherine, is simpleminded and beautiful, and, yes, wouldn’t it be splendid to be in love with a beautiful devoted wife or a handsome doting husband, in the south of France, without a care about money, while eating, drinking, making love, napping, and tanning, and doing it all over again.

I found myself remembering, while reading, because, about half-way through the novel, after the short declarative and perfectly presented presentation of now, during which paradise is enjoyed and the seeds for its loss planted, David returns to writing, which, for him, is a remembering in words with pencil and page. He returns to remembering, to write some of the hardest stories he has not yet written, stories he has avoided writing. He returns to them now, it seems, to avoid the blooming reality of Catherine’s now acutely obvious mental illness. She is not only Eve, we have discovered, but the devil, too, and, by this point in the novel, she has brought another beautiful woman into their relationship, to serve her own unfulfilled desires, to destroy the marriage, and to have a replacement ready for David when she falls totally and completely into the madness she also sees looming before her.

Hemingway is at his best in this novel, I think, when he writes David’s experience of writing, even if I think Hemingway writes writing falsely. He writes it, I think, as a reader would likely imagine the experience of writing. For David, as Hemingway writes it, writing is a return to the reality he writes. I’m not convinced writing can ever be like that. Writing, at its best, is a transcendent experience, but one is brought to a nowhere place in which spirits are channeled but not directly experienced, until the rereading of what was channeled, which is never writing but reading. Of course, my experience of writing might simply be different than his.

In remembering (and now I can’t even remember what I remembered), I realized it had been a long time since I had remembered, in the exacting and precise way that David remembered. I have never been one for living in the past, but detailed reminiscing helps to make measure of the time we’ve lived and maps a sense of who we have become. I had and have no immediate answer to the question of why I have not been remembering in this way, but I suspect the perpetual present of social media has some role to play in the final explanation.

I was also surprised to discover that loss and sadness pervades the whole novel, despite the fine shimmer of beauty and love running throughout. Even in the opening pages, when all seems well and true and good, we know it can’t last because the conventions of the novel demand that it won’t, and we easily see the early signs that Hemingway provides to remind us that it won’t. And yet, despite minor and major tiffs, even when they are three, paradise remains paradise, in part because it is paradise, with or without snakes, and in part because of this trinity’s implacable ability to ignore the obvious, to ignore the dread, and to drink hard, strong booze at every opportunity.

It’s a strange story. David loses one love, but he gets another. His stories are destroyed by Catherine in a moment of madness and spiteful pettiness, he swears he will never be able to write them again, but the book concludes with him doing exactly that. He loses everything and nothing. One beautiful wife is exchanged for another, who seems much more understanding of his work, and, yet, there are already early signs that she might not be entirely different. Beauty is everywhere, melancholy and dread pervades all of it, but this story isn’t a tragedy. It is, at most, a happening.

I suppose the juvenility of the story best explains why I enjoyed it so much as an adolescent. Love lost, love found, and the wet dream titillation of having two beautiful and overlapping loves would have been compelling reading for my younger brain. There is also the eating, and drinking, and lazing about, too. The portrayal of one writer’s creative process also would have been a draw and, of course, all that melancholy beauty.

Twenty years or so later, I enjoyed The Garden of Eden because it is expertly written, even if unfinished, because it is a window to the adolescent I once was, and because it reminds me that I am not as juvenile as I sometimes think I am. The thin line between me then and me now is our different attitudes to sadness, melancholy, and dread. Then, my response was one part sublimation and one part romanticism. Now, I accept that melancholy, sadness, and dread can be a part of life, but I know the best response is to experience them directly, without romance or wallowing, and never to bury them. Paradise is lost and found and lost again, but our demons will only haunt us if we refuse to exorcise them.

Remembering is like heading west to find the Indies, one hopes for Asia, but, in the end, one only ever discovers, colonizes, and exploits a new world.