Saturday, February 21, 2015

Persist, Adapt, Repeat

My name is Dave O'Gorman and I am trying to finish a novel. And the problem with that idea is that I am not particularly smart. For more than two decades of on-again / off-again writing and on-again / off-again adulthood I've put up a serviceable front as someone with something going on above the neck, but the truth of the matter is that I've been largely faking it the whole time. Some would tell you otherwise, but I'm actually not a terrifically bright guy.

This is not false modesty. I am not smart enough to have taken the undergraduate math classes I would have needed to excel in a graduate-level economics program, and I'm not smart enough to have realized that shortfall before trying a second time. I'm not smart enough to see a half-full glass when the totality of the world's progress all seems pointed in such an unhealthful direction, and I'm not smart enough to avoid alienating people by crabbing about it on Facebook. I'm not smart enough to learn my lesson about trying on ideas with friends who'd rather not be monopolized by the uncooked pasta salads oozing from my brain, and I'm not smart enough not to brood when they get tired enough of listening to me, to call me on my bullshit.

What I just may be smart enough to do, is persist.

True, this persistence has often manifested as a dogged, unsavory, almost Nixonian dedication to silencing some critic or doubter or imagined slight -- but this doesn't change the fact that in the half-dozen venues I've decided are important to me, I've proven almost without exception that I can calm the screeching sleet-storm inside my head sufficiently to leg out my agenda. The only big thing I've really ever quit on is my Ph.D. in economics, and that was after I'd passed the written preliminaries. So, okay, no: I can't keep my gigantic mouth shut; I can't wake up tomorrow and not be mostly self-focused and vain and cranky. But if I've proven anything it's that I can grit my teeth and finish something if I want it bad enough. (Badly is an adverb.) It's a meager form of emotional intelligence -- hell maybe it's the most meager form of emotional intelligence -- but it is something I can do. And until very recently it would have been enough to get me the rest of what I want. I can persist. It's not nothing. It's just not everything, either.

It only lately occurs to me that persistence in today's universe can function as a sort of trap. A person who needs five years to satisfy himself over a specific project may find himself emerging out the other side into a world which has no patience or use for his achievement. This has always been true, of course, and it's true of all areas of human endeavor: The eight year-old figure skater whose mom drives her to practice every day at 4:30am is placing an implicit wager on the continued existence of Olympic figure skating. The software-engineering major in college is placing an implicit wager on the continued marketability of his profession after he graduates. The writer, or even the aspiring writer, is placing an implicit wager that his fantasy vocation will even continue to be possible for society to reward, in a rapidly evolving cybersphere where multi-hundred-billion-dollar corporations can dupe even the most far-left progressives into carrying water for their shameless efforts to enrich themselves by undermining copyright law. All three individuals are taking a degree of risk from which there is no obvious hedge, and all three of them must know it as an instinctive attribute of life on this planet. It always has been, for all three of them, in one guise or another.

But if the soundness of those three wagers seems unevenly distributed, there's a simple explanation: it is. Persistence is one thing everyone has always needed, and continues to need, in order to maximize the chances of fulfillment, and the other is adaptability. And this, in the end, this is where my own resume truly jars against the formula. I've proven I'm smart enough to persist, but I have conspicuously failed to prove that I am smart enough to adapt. And the point of today's column is that it's about time.

I don't know about anyone else, but I've grown pretty sick and tired of listening to the sound of my own negativity on any number of issues, some of which are either completely outside of anyone's control, questionable actors on the achievement of my lifelong dream, or both. It's no accident that I was inspired to scribe this essay after having attended a local writers' fair here in Gainesville, or that the authors featured were all superlative craftspeople and sounded conspicuously better-adjusted in their discussions of their work. Yes, the Google/Amazon crowd is making it much harder for those of us who aspire to conventional publication. No, bitching about it hasn't assisted any of the writers whose works were featured earlier this afternoon at the Civic Media Center.

And here's the thing: It seems to me now that for this very reason -- because the authors I heard today have instinctively held themselves immune from the self-poisoning toxicity of lament over the future of their profession -- their own success as fully arrived artisans has manifested right alongside the very impediment which may have been easy to blame for its absence. They have adapted, in other words, by persisting.

This is hardly a one-size-fits-all prescription, even for my own errant ways. Some forms of adaptation will continue to require a much more proactive investment. But in changing one's strategy, as in writing a novel or landing a triple axle or finishing that tricky function-call in that enormous block of computer code, one cannot run before he walks. The journey to increased adaptability has to start with something more concrete, easier to reach, and more constructive, than simply replacing the negativity of a failure to adapt with the negativity of having recognized the failure. One must believe in the providence of persistence to finish a big project, and then, in persisting, one must trust that he will in due course discover more robust forms of adaptation into the bargain.Only in persisting can the best means of adaptation be revealed, and only in adaptation can a person realistically expect to satisfy his dreams.

My own dream, as mentioned at the outset of this column, is to finish and conventionally publish a novel. And it begins to appear as though, in the end, I just may not be quite smart enough. Only persistence, and the adaptability that comes from tuning out the toxic excuses, will tell. And even then it wouldn't be all that much to crow about, of course. You can join a tougher and/or more important fight. You can join a fight which is more noble and selfless and to those extents more gratifying. You can learn how to fight a fire. You can save a life. You can raise a child. You can hurl yourself into the campaigns against illiteracy, poverty, water-borne illnesses or man-made climate change. But what all of these challenges will forever share is a common pedigree in the twin facilities we have, as a species like no other on this planet. We hunger for things, and then we persist, and in persisting, we adapt.

In the end it is all we can do.   

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

No comments: