Allow a football introduction.
There are two rival Universities in question, both equally prestigious and both in possession of well-funded athletic programs. They both have nice gyms, they both have neat helmets for preventing brain injury, they both have coaching staffs that, objectively, "know what they're doing." Their home crowds are comparably loud, they both train in environments similar in humidity and heat, and the banners their respective student bodies create are just as funny as one other (we'd hate to have excessive laughter be the uncontrollable variable here in our hypothetical situation!). All in all, these teams are about as well-matched as any teams ever could be.
Team One reaches the big rivalry game having lost three games, but they were hard-fought losses. Their schedule had been quite tough; they played all Division I (that's the good one, right? If not, substitute that "I" for whatever the good one is.) squads with nice gyms and good coaches and loud bleachers and all of that. In the end of it all, their measly three losses didn't feel much like losses at all, because they were so warred over.
Team Two reaches the big rivalry game completely undefeated. In fact, they didn't give up more than three touchdowns all season (though there may have been one embarrassing moment when the third-string longsnapper scooted the ball over the fourth-string punter's head, the punter sprinted back to retrieve it, and then was tackled in the endzone for a safety). There is a difference, though: every one of the games that Team Two played was against a High School.
Now. Which of these teams would we suppose has the edge walking in to the Big Game? The one with the loudest fans? No, the crowds are equally rambunctious. The one with the best weight-lifting equipment? No, their facilities are quite evenly provided for. The one whose coaches played the longest NFL stints? No, the coaches are outmatched only by each other.
Team One clearly has the edge: they may have had a season occasioned by loss, but each of their games - victories and losses, alike - were fought hard for and were worth holding their heads high over. Team Two lost not one game, but they were all against 15-18 year olds.
I wrote previously about how Bigger and Faster are rarely Better, but I'd like to expand it a little bit today, into something that will probably make most people uncomfortable (I know it did me), and I will do it with an uncharacteristically broad, blanket statement: Easy is ruining us.
The Failures of Failure Speech
Thomas Edison famously stated that each unsuccessful attempt at creating the light bulb was by no means a failure, he had simply discovered yet another way to not create one. Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times before being published and becoming one of the best selling anthology series of all time. William Wilberforce argued tirelessly in congress for years before finally being heard, and thus becoming one of the leading figures in ending the slave trade. Perseverance is, as you might surmise, a pretty popular thing for people to blog about.
At the very heart of the idea of perseverance is the notion that good things do not come easily. You can hear it repeated in songs about long-distance lovers, in pep talks from successful businessmen about their long hours toiling in silence, in books like Malcom Gladwell's Mindset, about how 10,000 hours of concentrated practice yields "overnight" success; but on the other hand, we're being fed a completely different bag of slop, and it's just, like, the worst.
A sea of inspirational speeches, feel-good blogs, and motivational posters encouraging their audiences to not give up in spite of difficulties floods us, but they are not working. They're us spitting on a forest fire. They're us throwing sandbags in the middle of a hurricane. They're Indiana Jones' refrigerators in the epicenter of a nuclear blast.
We exist in the middle of a culture that doesn't just thrive on "easy," it prizes it. We may catch the occasional "don't give up" Tumblr quotes but they're just flapping jaws; everything else about the way that American society is engineered exists in stark contradiction to the "never give up" mentality. I intend here to prove two things:
1) That our culture has failed us and is in desperate need of reform, and
2) That the more we buy into it, the more it destroys us.
Doing Something Easily vs. Doing Something Well
Let me first set something straight: I am not ruling out easy all together. It is easy for me to type words with a qwerty keyboard, and I often do just that. It's easy for me to adore fountain pens and books and nice paper, though I do not shun them simply because of the fact of their easiness. It is easy for me (some times are more difficult than others, but you'll see my point) to wake up very early to write and read and ground myself before the day begins its spinning. I am not an Essene; pleasurable things have their place. "Easy" can sit comfortably on the shelf which I have designated for it.
Here's what I am saying: Things that are come by easily are likely not the things that will, or should, be called "good". A painstakingly hand-crafted guitar effects pedal is objectively superior to a factory-churned cheap one. An intricately coded website is going to function, look, and perform better than a Geocities counterpart (remember Geocities?).
I'll use a better illustration. One of my favorite movies of all time is Jurassic Park, for more reasons than I'll be able to illuminate here. One scene in particular is rather apt to this discussion, though.
Dr. Malcom (Chaos theory!) has been brought to Dr. Hammond's extraordinary park along with some famous archaeologists and a (blood-sucking) lawyer in order to sign off on its safety and thus please Hammond's investors. Dr. Hammond asks him for his opinion finally, and he responds:
"If I may... Um, I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here, it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it."
Discipline. What a funny word. Discipline takes time, yes, but more than that it takes devotion. It takes sacrifice. A disciple of something forsakes aspects of his life in favor of cultivating the thing he's a student of. Hammond took the easy way - the one that would yield a profit - and didn't invest the time that would cultivate the necessary question of "should I?" - and, well, we see how that turned out.
Do you understand what this means? If doing something well requires discipline, and being a disciple requires forsaking things that are not what you're learning, we should immediately be skeptical of jacks-of-all-trades or of people telling you that you can do anything you set your mind to. We can do anything, sure, but should we? Would it be better, instead of doing anything, to do one thing extremely well?
Perhaps it's that we've forgotten the second part of that name I mentioned before: "Jack of all trades; master of none." What's saddest about this is how it applies to us today.
We live in the post-Kelly Clarkson era, where talented people are missing nothing but their big break to "make it." They're but a catchy Kickstarter campaign away from mainstream idea success. They're just a clickbaiting blog title away from viral.
Newsprint is slowly being overtaken by Sans-serif online papers. And op-ed pieces are overtaking journalistic pieces. And Buzzfeed lists are overtaking those.
And Paragraphs are being
Do you know what it takes to cultivate a thought? It takes wrestling it, grappling with it in the dark, kneading it with your grubby little paws until you've touched every inch of its rough skin enough to know it by memory. You have to interact with a thought to refine it; you have to develop counter-thoughts to ensure its foundation is sure. Often you can't truly know your thoughts until you've fleshed them out, written them down, allowed them to do battle on a page.
Twitter has effectively ended that. 140 character-long expectoration; thought sharing when they're barely thought-fetuses.
Do you know what it takes to remember? It takes being conscious of every moment, no matter how quickly they're blurring past. It takes mental acuity, a developed skill of observation, being so present that the past and the future are but the covers of the book you're currently reading. It takes listening to the tone of the voices that are speaking, noticing the scratches in the canvas of the painting, recalling the joy nesting in the depths of your chest, being immersed in the thunderous moment...
Instagram has forced memory into submission. We no longer remember, we document. We no longer go to concerts, we record them to later prove we were there.
Do you know what it takes to master something? Do you know the hours of work with no promise of reward that go into becoming truly great? Have you felt the desire to just give it up overpowered only by the pull that tells you that you must keep going?
What mastery doesn't feel like is mastery, or even "good enough"; mastery is spelled "never-ending work," and overconfidence is spelled "naïveté." Mastery is not the ultimate master, either; it is mastered by laziness, distraction, and buying into the lie that you are good enough just how you are. Any man who calls himself a master of something is a "master" unworthy of the title.
Strive for better. Improve daily. Find your niche and thrive inside of it - not in attempting to master it, but in deriving the pleasure that comes from your loving it. For instance, on this site and its Wordpress predecessor, I have written 126,539 words' worth of essays - over 500 manuscript pages - not because I am good at it or because I receive any kind of payment for it, but because doing battle with thoughts fills me with purpose.
Good vs. Enough
Alas, this is what it comes down to: a culture that says you can be all things, acheive all things, and do all things is a culture that will create nothing but mediocrity and self-absorption. Or, I'll put it this way: a culture that tells you that you're perfect just the way you are is a culture that is terrified that if everybody began being better, it would soon cease to exist.
I'm telling you this: you are not "good enough" (This is the heart of the Gospel, too, but that is not the focus of this post). You are not a good enough spouse, you are not a good enough citizen, you are not a good enough son.
I'll take it a step further: you are not your convictions, because faith without works is dead. Your ideas are not good just because you had them; your opinions are not right just because they're yours.
You are not finished here until you're dead. Let nobody tell you that you're perfect; let nobody tell you that you're not perfect until you buy what they're selling. They are both lies.
Do not let them tell you that beauty is surface. Do not let them tell you that pretty is interesting. Do not let them convince you that in order to be attractive you must be sexy - those are the easy things. Plastic surgery, makeup, and fashion sense may make you "pretty," but it will not make you beautiful any more than Facebook will make you social or Instagram will make you a photographer. The easy thing is changing how you look, how you appear: in conforming to external norms. Would you wish to leave behind the impression of someone who always dressed well or someone who engaged the thing they were created to conquer with the passion of one who would conquer it?
Work at it. Cultivate culture, don't follow it. Dock thoughts in your mental harbor so that they may reveal themselves to you when they're ready to de-board. Find the thing you were born for and work each second at perfecting it - your purpose is not found in being the best, it's in learning how to be good. And I do not think that it is supposed to be easy.