“I AM big! It’s the PICTURES that got small!”
– Norma Desmond
Ever wonder how people become “B-List” successes in life? You know, those who just get near the edge of the spotlight, but it never shines on them?
Call it the Jackie Lomax curse.
Have you ever heard of Jackie Lomax? No? That’s okay. No one has. Jackie Lomax was an English musician who died in 2013 at the age of 69. He had two different record deals in the 1960’s and even spent a week on the UK singles chart. He then became a protege of The Beatles and was signed to their Apple Records label and had three of the four Beatles play on his debut single. Here was a musician getting multiple record deals, singles on the UK Pop charts, and had the full backing and support of the biggest rock-and-roll band of all time! And in 1987, he was working at the Cat & Fiddle in Hollywood to make ends meet. I’ve never been to the Cat & Fiddle but here’s a picture of me on Hollywood Boulevard at the Pig & Whistle in 2003 with a girl I used to know.
I digress. Where was I?
Oh, yeah! Jackie Lomax. How many rockstars would get to record an album with The Beatles, only to watch their career fizzle!? Jackie Lomax is the kind of man who makes you think how cruel the universe can be. The red carpet is laid before your feet and the universe tells you that you will be a star, but as you start your meteoric rise, as you saunter suavely down the path laid before you, it’s yanked out from beneath you. And only then, when you fall flat on your ass and your clothes are dirty and your elbows are bloodied, do you realize the truth – the universe may love you, but the world is playing you for a fool.
It’s like when that gymnast girl in the 2012 Olympics, McKayla Maroney, made a face after winning the silver. Some criticized her for being unsportsman-like. I disagree. McKayla wasn’t making a disapproving face at her competitors – that certainly would have been unsportman-like. No. Obviously, she was making it to herself. That was an introspective disappointment; frustrated and dissatisfied with her own performance. And who can blame her? You don’t train your entire life, to go to the Olympics, so you can win silver. You go to bring home the gold. You go to be the best in the world, not the second-best.
Sometime back in the 1990’s I saw a very strange documentary about half a dozen wanna-be celebrities in Hollywood. These were all very odd people who were exceptionally atrocious actors and musicians and comedians, sincerely convinced that their “big break” was just around the corner. They were certain, after their 205 years of struggling, they were going to be the “next big thing” anyday now.
It was tragic. It was laughable. It was heartbreaking. It was pathetic.
The worst part of all, was their unshakable confidence. They were so passionate! These are traits that are usually admirable! Usually, hope and fortitude and perseverance are good things. But in this instance, they were heartwrenching. You knew these people were never going to give up. Yet they were so awful, so talentless, you also knew, they were never going to make it. No matter how hard they tried. They would never succeed. They would never be appreciated. They had nothing to offer. Even though nothing could convince them otherwise, you knew they’d stay living in their cars and rundown studio apartments until the day they die. The dream would never come true and they’d go to their graves, still determined that tomorrow would be better.
I have frequently expressed a strong confidence in the quality of my writing. I’ve never been insecure or questioned if it was any good. Some things I write are better than others. I have ups and downs, but I like to think I have peaks more frequently than valleys. But one day, I had a mortifying thought. What if I was just like those people in that documentary?
What if I was a really awful writer, and I just didn’t know it?
What if, like those downtrodden dreamers, I was so blinded by my self-assurance that I was incapable of recognizing my incompetence.
That was a horrifying thought!
What if I were sitting here mocking and pitying these Hollywood wanna-bes when the truth was, I might be just as desperate and laughable as them. Had the director met me, I may have been one of the people in that documentary. Ridiculed for my ineptitude without even being conscious of the fact that I was the butt of the joke.
That’s the terrifying thing about deluding yourself. How the hell are you supposed to recognize it? After all, the whole point of deluding yourself is that you not recognize it. So, if you are, how do you figure out that you are?
But then, I started to feel a little better.
I remembered that I frequently get compliments on my writing from total strangers. You can’t trust friends and family to be honest. Looking to them for validation is a mistake. But when strangers offer unsolicited compliments, that’s saying something. After all, success isn’t dependent upon whether you’re genuinely any good or not. What matters is duping a few million souls into thinking you are.
Also, I think people who delude themselves often know it. Somewhere deep inside, they know. I don’t feel deluded, so I’ll presume I’m okay.
They always say, “If you’re going to dream, dream big.” But that’s stupid, because it’s so obvious. Of course you’re going to dream big. The truth of the matter is, no one ever dreams of winning silver.
But as a note to the phenomenal McKayla Maroney (and if you ever see her perform, she is a magnificent gymnast), I don’t think second-place is the worst.
You know what’s gotta be the worst? Fourth place. Just ask track and field star Lolo Jones. She got fourth in the 2012 Olympics. That must be torture.
Think about it.
Even if you come in dead last, you can just say, “Well, I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t at the top of my game.”
But fourth place?
That must be the worst. To know if you pushed just a little harder, if you had made one less mistake, you would have at least gotten the bronze. But you didn’t. You’re not even allowed a toe on that podium. You go home with no recognition whatsoever. Just the knowledge that you failed, by a fraction, to be acknowledged by anyone. Knowing there are only 3 people in the world who are better than you, and on a better day, you might have knocked one of them, or all of them, out of their slots. You could have been a contender. You could have been somebody, instead of a bum.
But of course, there’s something even worse than that.
You know what that is?
When you get fourth place and you know in your heart of hearts that you couldn’t have given anything more. When you get fourth place and your body is wrecked. When you’re in pain for days and you can’t breath and you’re throwing up on yourself and you know you gave it everything you had, down to the last ounce of your blood. And you still weren’t good enough.
That’s why you don’t try, isn’t it?
That’s why you don’t give 100%.
Because you know, so long as you give 80% and you fail, you can always tell yourself you had more in you. You can comfort yourself with the idea you might have made it.
But when you give 110% and that’s still not good enough? What then? You have nowhere else to go. You have no more excuses. Your best isn’t good enough.
No one wants to face that.
But that’s the only way you’ll get the gold. Swim so hard, you don’t care if you drown. Run so fast, you don’t care if you break your foot. Lift weights until you literally get crushed (make sure you have a spotter – your stomach will thank you on the bench press, I speak from humiliating experience). That’s the only way you get the gold. The only way.
No one is good enough to get the gold when giving 80%.
No one. Is good enough. To get the gold. When giving 80%.
As I have said many times, better to attempt the impossible and fail, than to aspire to mediocrity and succeed.
How long are you going to keep giving less than your fullest potential?
A friend who is a competitive runner once reminded me, I’d never let her get away with anything less than first place unless her knee collapsed or she was puking her guts out. She was right. If we’re not pushing ourselves past our breaking point in order to achieve something, why bother? Why waste your time if you’re not going to devote yourself as hard as you possibly can? We must be willing to eviscerate ourselves on the alter of our passions. Through much of my life, I haven’t been fighting that hard. The time has come to change that.
One day, not long ago, I finally came to realize because I have never belonged in this world, the further I distance myself from the people within it, the closer to my divine decree shall I resonate. At last I learned nothing in my life I thought was important ever mattered. Nothing I imagined I might achieve someday was actually worth a damn. Friendships fade. Careers fizzle. Girlfriends abandon. Marriage eludes. Companionship dies. All of these things that bring the greatest value and meaning to the human experience have always evaded me. What are lasting and defining for most, for me are transient and ephemeral. This is neither tragic nor regretful. There is no sorrow in sacrificing hopes and dreams when it is done for the sake of fulfilling an even loftier destiny. I’m a ghost living in stardust, baby blue. In the words of The Eagles:
“I found out a long time ago
What a woman can do to your soul.
Oh, but she can’t take you any way,
You don’t already know how to go.
And I got a peaceful easy feeling”
Finally, I came to see those things were never meant to endure in my life. The only things that have ever remained constant, the only passions that won’t betray, must be ones reliant upon no other soul but my own. All which depends upon others is for naught. Why yearn for friends or lovers in the real world, when I can reach them on paper? The beautiful souls I meet in my stories are the best friends anyone can hope for. They never forget your birthday. They spend Christmas Eve with you. They call you just to go see a movie. As such, I have come to understand isolation is my sanctuary and my greatest company, my one true devoted love, are the words. The only thing that ever mattered are the words. Even if I don’t compose them as skillfully as others. Even if I am derided a no-talent hack, at least they have always been there. With wind and sun and the good earth itself, the words are the one thing to never let me down. They are my life. They are my meaning. They are the things that have always been ordained to define me. And when they have all been written, when those tales are done, my story will finally come to rest as well. This is why being reclusive is the only option anymore. My tribe does not yet exist and my sole purpose in life has always been to write for them. To finish these stories. Once they are complete, there will be no reason for me to remain here. I can finally depart this Earth knowing the quest was fulfilled. My destiny a success. My fate sealed at long last. Like all the heroes of old, I can ride off into the sunset and fade away forever. I shall perish as another John Keats. Unappreciated in my lifetime. Unknown. Undiscovered. Meeting my demise young and penniless, which is a shame because really, really old and really, really wealthy seems a lot more fun. But that’s okay, because one day, many years after I am gone, my tribe shall arrive and discover what I left behind for them. Our tribe does not speak a language uttered by any living soul. I now know the solitude was an unavoidable necessity, simply because I was sent here first. To blaze the trail for you. At least my words will persevere. At least I left something behind for antiquity. Something that can be loved and although they may not change the world with the magnanimous blessings of human potential, my words shall change the life of one who will.
Yes. This – all of this – is for you. You who shall change the world by guiding them to the light they have always wished to embody.
Help them. Help them to find the way. This task has fallen to you.
Maybe giving 100% and getting fourth place isn’t so bad after all.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”
– Ray Bradbury