Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

In understated praise of underachievement

I have the most wonderful sisters in law. One in particular came to mind tonight. During her teen years, her family went to Salem, Massachusetts. When they came to the "Salem Witch Trial" historic things, she declined to get out of the car. "I've already seen this place,", she explained, "on [the TV show] Bewitched".

Last week when my friend Greg, my wife and I were sitting around talking, my wife made an amused point. "Did you ever notice," she said, "that so many of Bob's friends are classic underachievers?". We all chuckled appropriately, but it was the laugh of people who knew all too well the truth of the statement. Ever since I was in high school, I've always gravitated to people who do not sully their genius with the need for excessive achievements in the eyes of the material or social world. My best friend in high school literally tested out of his freshman year of college by examination, and then chose not to attend enough classes in the remaining several years of free education (ah, those pre-Reagan social security benefit for survivor kids years) to achieve a degree. He was the guy that could draft the A- essay for fifth period high school English during fourth period study hall. But when it came to the things of this earth--degrees, money, ambition, fame, social status--he could care less. He works at Kroger now, stacking fruit, paying his bills, raising a child, but even so, I'm sure he still thinks great thoughts and dreams elaborate dreams. As I sit here typing, I'm sorry we've lost touch lately, and pledge myself to remedy that. Another of my close friends, despite high grades, declined to set foot in college. He was and is highly self-educated, a reader, a thinker, and a font of self-contained common sense. But although he readily concedes that his earning capacity suffered a bit (he does management for a phone company), he simply never saw anything about formal education that was worth the folderol of seeking the "ribbons".

Even among my friends who pursued the highest education, that singular font of underachievement flows forth like the fluid of the Fountain of Youth. I know Ph.D.s who could have been doctors if they'd only tried harder. I know history professors in the making who ended up reviewing hunting and fishing regulations. In virtually every field, I have good friends whose lives are tales of misdirected potential. I can certainly extend that case to my own situation, in which I was raised to practice medicine, or at least save the world, but instead do commercial litigation.

It's not just a matter of "profession" or "money", though. I've known people who failed to meet their potential in virtually every human pursuit. I've known men married to loyal wives, which husbands inexplicably went astray. I've known people who achieve the chance for real financial security, only to throw it away at the altar of whatever gods manage the credit cards. I remember the woman who achieved a prestigious non-profit editorship, only to lose it in disgrace by the simple expedient of placing finished copy in her drawer rather than mailing it in to the printer. I'll never forget the day that this curious deviation from schedule came to light, and in a scene worthy of the old Perry Mason TV show, underachievement was unmasked with the person in error "on the hot seat".

I worry that I am a judgmental person. I have one friend from college that actually followed the form book--Fulbright scholar, Harvard Law, large firm partnership, international clientele. She's someone I always liked, and someone with whom I always enjoyed communicating. But is it telling that for years, I lost touch with her while I kept in perfect touch with the Society for Creative Anachronism fellow who would call me each quarter to tell me about new developments as his career progressed from pizza delivery to convenience store clerkship, as his social life progressed on a similarly parabolic curve? Of course, there's a rationalization for why I did not keep in so strong a touch with my "successful" friend--after all, she was traveling the world and conquering demons. But nonetheless, for some reason I've always had a strong affinity for people whose efforts are not met with success. By contrast, when the brass ring comes too easily, on the basis of hard work alone, I must admit that I tend to gravitate less to the "worker bee" and more to the lazy grasshopper with the good tale to tell. I never tend towards "popular" people, but always towards people who try hard at getting along with people but never quite make it.
So I worry that I judge people, for achieving too much, somehow.

I remember those Ayn Rand books, in which the world is divided into two groups. One is the minority of real doers, who get all the work done, who embark on 75 page lectures in place of dialogue, and who have the oddest way of shrugging at the most poignant moments. The other is the large universe of "second handers", who never really get anything done but just live, unappreciative, on the bounty of Those Who Can. But I must admit that I am not at all an objectivist, as Ms. Rand termed her philosophy. I am inordinately fond of Those Who Could but Don't.

It's not that I believe that people should accept their fate meekly. Any reader of the gurdonark posts and comments knows that my tragic flaw is a decided desire that we all Just Improve and Find our True Way. I am all for raging against the dying of the light, and all that. But I must admit that I think we underachievers add real value in this universe. For one thing, we are consummate consumers. As we rarely produce anything ourselves of particular note, we must rely on the products of others. Because we fail to achieve so much, there are so many Great Deeds left for future generations to do.

But I must also admit that my sympathies are all with those who try but fail. I have reached the point in life in which I am tired of worshipping uber-menschen and leaving the work to the Saints. Mother Theresa was wonderful, but I've decided that life no longer permits us to await Christs or Gandhis. I like the notion of dusting off one's faded jeans, and pitching in again.

All the things I really value in life don't come in large houses, primo incomes, expensive automobiles, great "artistic achievement", brilliant military strategy or even mighty mental feats. Rather, I want to live a life in which people are a bit more accepting, and a little more kind. I think in this score we underachievers have a lot to teach--we have learned to accept flaws, and we might be able to light the way for people so capable that they cannot accept imperfection. Mayberry may be a quiet place, but wouldn't it be nice if more of us could live there? Maybe we'd have to add a techno club, or something, but it could be done. Blessed are the underachievers, after all, for theirs are the thousands of little tract homes and apartments that really make this country tick.

Reverse snobbery perhaps comes natural to me. In the little milltown I grew up in, literally the worst playground epithet one could be called was "stuck up". But tonight I say--let's love everybody, but let's salute those whose reach does not equal the true potential of their grasp.

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