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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Pithy Advice From Books

I love pithy advice from books.
This week, while I await news of the 12th grader's college acceptances, I have not much original to share. But this great passage from Forty Rooms, by Olga Grushin, appealed:

"Papa, do you believe there is any meaning to life?" I blurted out.
"The meaning of life - the meaning of a single, individual human life, since I assume that is what you are asking - consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind's mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile. If you are a carpenter, be a carpenter with every ounce of your being and invent a new type of saw. If you are an archaeologist, find the tomb of Alexander the Great. If you are Alexander the Great, conquer the world. And never do anything by half."

I think if Papa had stopped talking after saying figure out what you're great at and push mankind's mastery of it as far as you are able, inch or mile, I would feel totally great about his answer. It's an exhortation to be your best and to work hard and contribute to the collective knowledge.

But then he lays on the expectations. Don't just be a carpenter, invent a new type of saw! Don't just be an archaeologist, be an archaeologist who finds a really important, famous relic! Don't just be the head of something, conquer the freakin' world!

Expectations are necessary, but also dangerous. As a parent, I understand the impulse to expect great things from my children. As a person struggling under both lack of expectations from people who knew me as a child and super high expectations of myself, I think the second half of his answer stinks. How many new kinds of saws are possible? How many tombs of mighty conquering emperors exist? How many Alexanders can there be? Most of us need to find a way to succeed and build meaningful lives in humbler ways. On the other hand, without expectations to rise to, maybe we won't discover our inner Alexander.

If Papa said, "Figure out who you are and what you're good at doing - and like to do - and then work really hard at it," that would be the best thing he could say.

Well, Papa didn't say it, but I did. Now I'm going to try to remember it while we are waiting, waiting, waiting. And afterwords, too. That's when it will really matter.

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