We don’t begrudge the child who is learning to walk

Because that would make us cruel. We don’t berate them for trying, we encourage and celebrate even the things that “aren’t quite there yet”.

Yet in most modern meritocratic societies, we don’t celebrate failures. We only look at the highlight reels and put people on pedestals as examples. We don’t celebrate progressive failures nearly enough, I think, because it would paint all of us in a very unflattering light. We don’t talk about Michael Jordan’s losses, all the hours he spent training and honing his entire being like that of a lovingly-crafted tool, the failures that cost him games and many nights of sleep. The same could be said of Dave Grohl, Tony Hawk, Andrew W.K., Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, or Siddhartha Gauthama. Kings, warriors, magicians, lovers, poets, dreamers… even down to those who can claim no title.

All of this came up for me again when I tried to provide answers to the question “what is your definition of success”. I felt like a lot of my responses were inadequate. That I was inadequate. It springs from a position of not feeling as if I am enough.

You’re either a “hillbilly” or a “rock star”. As if the world operates in a binary state: one of either total unawareness and rejection (hillbilly) or one of complete celebration, acceptance, and excitement (rock star).

I’m sure even rock stars have moments where they are completely alone and unrecognized. The idea of being the proverbial hillbilly has its roots in rejection and failure. Of being unlikeable, unremarkable, and otherwise unacceptable to others. It stinks of failure and misery. Of not being seen or validated as worthy. The fear of descent into obscurity is a fear of ego death. It’s more about not being seen than it is about the actual “success”.

Being in the “middle of the pile” somehow feels like a kind of failure. If I’m not in the top ten percent, then what the am I doing? In this all-or-nothing meritocratic system, failure and burn-out are far too common. I don’t celebrate my efforts or progressive failures often enough. I don’t appreciate the climb until I’ve hit some kind of milestone. I don’t see the forest for the trees until they’ve all been ripped down and made useful in the forges of industriousness.

It’s not fair to me or anyone else. It suffocates the highest aspirations of the heart under the all-consuming surface of meritocracy. We don’t begrudge the child who is learning to walk, so why is it fair to begrudge myself or others for honest effort?

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