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Thursday, February 16, 2017

80 Percent of Success or Life or Something

Another fine week tucked under the belt like a nice, crisp button-down. Yessiree. Highlights of the week included Valentine’s Day, when I took a break from my month without sugar to eat some chocolate and enough Sweethart candy hearts to make my tongue raw. I have since returned to my sugar-free month and my tongue is healed. 

Another highlight was the 9th Grader’s orchestra concert. This was not a school concert. It was a concert by the repertory orchestra of the Empire State Youth Orchestras for which she plays French Horn. While we were waiting to go into the auditorium at Voorheesville High School, the husband and I took our nerd walk in search of a spot to sit and read. We finally found benches in a lobby somewhere in the vast complex of high school and middle school. The husband pointed out a plaque with the motto, 80 Percent of Success is Showing Up. The husband is quite helpful in providing blog fodder for me. I was grateful because I was not sure what I was going to write this week. But that motto is a good one, not just for a blog post, but also for times like these. By "times like these" I mean difficult times, times when it’s hard to read an entire newspaper article, let alone a book, because of, well, because of the times. “May you live in interesting times,” is another old saw that seems pertinent. Not sure if it was meant as a blessing or a curse originally. Probably both. But, my, we do live in interesting times. 

So, yeah, showing up is 80 percent of success. 

Showing up at what? Readers, you may well ask. And I will say -- showing up at that thing you are supposed to be doing. For me, it is writing a draft of a book. Showing up means closing my Internet browser and opening my Scrivener file. Showing up means getting off of Twitter, where I follow a fascinating array of conspiracy-minded counterintelligence journalists and pundits, each of whom, like me, seems to think that constant worry and “tweeting” will help prevent disaster, and putting something down about success in my draft. To borrow writer Anne Lamott’s terminology, I’m just trying to show up and write a shitty first draft. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be something. What do you need to show up to do? Show up and you’re almost there. Four fifths of the way there, to be precise. 

Speaking of precision, that quotation was unattributed. This bothered me, since it was hanging in the lobby of a school. Well, it would bother me anywhere, because I am an educated person who was taught to always attribute my sources, as well as a person who worked for five years in a library. Also, facts matter, and statements were stated by someone, and that is a fact. This unattributed quotation bothered me especially, however, because it was hanging in the lobby of a school. A school that ought to be teaching the importance of attributing facts - and opinions, if we're really going to get into it. Sources matter. 

“That’s by Woody Allen, I think,” I said to the husband. He was, of course, dumbfounded by my encyclopedic knowledge. I made a mental note to check the truth of my statement later. And so I did. And Readers, my search for the originator of that phrase took me on an interesting journey. 
According to, the phrase has several variants: 

  • Ninety percent of success is just showing up.
  • Showing up is 80 percent of life.
  • Eighty percent of success is showing up.
  • Seventy-five percent of life is showing up.
  • In life, 50% of it is showing up.

Originally the quotation appeared in the failing New York Times (fNYT) in a 1977 interview with Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the movie “Annie Hall.” The fNYT quoted Brickman attributing the following to Woody Allen, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” 

Which is not about success. It’s about existing. 

But then, in 1989 William Safire asked Woody Allen about this quotation. And, according to the website, “Allen replied with a letter in which he asserted: ‘I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.’”  So was Marshall Brickman mistaken when he attributed the saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life” to Woody Allen? Had Woody actually said, “80 percent of success is showing up”? Or "Showing up is 80 percent of success?" Or in the intervening twelve years since the comment was first made, had Woody incorporated the slight change into his memory? Is there any way to know? 

This confusion must mean something, Readers. And it does. It means several things. For one, words get twisted all the time. Each of the iterations of this quotation means something a little different. Yet they all mean in essence the same thing. For two, a fact can be a difficult thing to verify. That Woody Allen said, "Showing up is 80 percent of success," is a fact. It's also a fact that Marshall Brickman said that Woody said, "Showing up is 80 percent of life." Each of these statements are opinions. There's no proof that showing up is any percentage of anything - except perhaps of showing up. Opinions and facts are often mixed up. This reminds me of my high school history teacher, Mr. Wood. Mr. Wood blew my mind when he taught us that primary sources for factual events that definitely happened often conflict. One diary mentions one view. Another letter recounts another version. Did ten people die? Or none? Or twenty? Depends where you were situated when the event unfolded. Everyone’s got his or her viewpoint. Objectivity is nigh impossible. Nevertheless, a fact is a fact. Video and photography can help clarify. But they can also mislead. 

For three, at least in part success is about showing up, a.k.a., putting in the effort. That is a fact. 

And so I did. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Failure, Persistence, Success

My transitional object, Bunny, still extant - barely
Today’s a good day to talk about Rivka Galchen’s article on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker. Called "Fail Funnier" in reference to Samuel Becket’s oft-quoted quip, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” the piece makes two good points about success.

As a side note, I must say that this quotation is from Worstward Ho, by S. Becket, and has become a meme and mantra for self-helpers and tech gurus and Buddhists, at that wonderful and strange nexxus where they co-mingle. If I know Becket, and I do, but not his entire oeuvre, then this line means something slightly different than we all take it to mean. Indeed, it is probably ironic. I’d place a bet on it if I were a betting man. But I’m not a betting man, nor a man at all, and I’m perfectly happy to take it as it has come to mean — that success is all about failing and trying again. 

The husband read the article first and said I had to look at it. In fact he said he wanted to be Mo Willems. Since I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to become a children’s book writer, I was curious. We are Mo Willems fans, as our children are. I still don’t have a clear answer why the husband said he wants to be Mo Willems. He’s already tall and thin. Maybe it’s the dark floral blazer Willems wears when he talks with Galchen. Perhaps he wants to unleash his inner pessimist. I don't know. It’s a mystery. However, the article was pertinent. 

The first thing I noticed was that Mo Willems’s success illustrates perfectly the importance of loving mirrors. Loving mirrors, as you may recall, Readers, are people who see potential in you and reflect it at you when you are unable to see it yourself. It was Mo Willems’s wife, Cher, who recognized that Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus would be a good children’s book. He had been trying to write one for some time. In the middle of discouragement, he created his annual holiday comic for friends and family. That was the origin of Pigeon. And it was Cher who said, “I think this is a children’s book.” Cher was his loving mirror. And so began his career as a children’s book author. It still took two years to sell the book. I find this heartening, while also disheartening. But heartening. But this is not about me. This is about loving mirrors.

The other thing in the article — the reason the husband said I had to read it — was the insight that many of Willems’ books are about failure. Characters fail at their goals. Pigeon, for example, never does drive the bus. 

This makes sense for stories for children. After all, so much of what children do is doomed. I’m thinking of how much faith my children had in scotch tape and cardboard. There were days I cringed at their undertakings, knowing how they would end. 

I’m thinking of a morning when I was about three, I guess, and trying to put on my own shoes. I remember sitting on the stairs and putting the shoes on first one foot and then another. They were round-toed Mary Janes with buckles. I could not figure out which way they went. I didn’t remember that the buckles went on the outside. So there I sat, trading them back and forth, from foot to foot, trying to feel which was the right way, since I couldn’t tell by looking. It was so frustrating.

This is a really early memory. It’s one of those second generation memories by now, because I see myself sitting on the stairs. Seeing yourself in a memory is a sign that your memory is actually a memory of an earlier memory. There’s even a term for this. It has to do with a phenomenon called childhood amnesia, which causes us to forget our earliest memories, the ones from about three until seven or eight. I like second generation. I’m spending way too much time trying to find the actual term. It doesn’t matter. The point is elsewhere. The point is frustration, failure, and persistence. But when I think about how it felt to try the shoes on first one way and then the other, I am me at three, sitting on the stairs, staring at those shoes, a rising panic in my chest because this task was not getting easier. It was getting more and more confusing. And I really wanted to put those shoes on by myself. 

So, viewed one way, much of childhood is about trying and failing. Failing and failing better, to paraphrase Samuel Becket. To be sure, there are many victories, too. But, oh my lordy, they are hard won.

Well, isn’t everything, Readers? It wouldn’t rate as a victory if it came easily, would it? 

I’m reminded of a passage in Bounce, about the “science of sports success” in which the author uses the example of a competitive figure skater to show how much of success is about failing. The skater must master a new jump. That takes repeated tries - that end in falling and messing up, over and over, until she gets it down. Then she can practice it, over and over, until it’s easy. But then it’s time to learn the next harder move. And so begins again the cycle of trial, failure, failure, failure, until at last success. 

It’s a good thing to remember, isn’t it?* Mastery is about overcoming failure. And then about taking on a new challenge. 

Eventually, the shoes got on the feet. I don’t remember how. Perhaps my father took pity on me that morning. Eventually, I did learn how to tell left from right. Nowadays, I’ve got the shoe thing mastered.

P.S. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Annals of Success: Be an Anteambulo

Hello. Happy Friday. Welcome to today’s blog post, a disjointed reaction to, well, life. 

Just the other day I listened to a podcast of “This American Life” all about coincidences. People love coincidences. They make great stories. Coincidentally, the library notified me that a book I had requested had arrived. I had no memory of ordering this book, called Ego is the Enemy, but when I picked it up I saw mention of Eleanor Roosevelt and recalled I was looking for a book with some case studies of successful people. The book is by Ryan Holiday, who used to be the head of American Apparel and now has some kind of creative advisory company. And he lives on a ranch. And he’s about twelve.  And his hair is just so. And appropriately, the book’s cover sports a marble bust, headless. Y’know, because it is egoless. Also because he loves a good Greek or Roman term. There were several, which I offer to you. Anteambulo. Euthymia. Sympatheia. I'll get to those. 

What tidbits can I learn from this book, I thought to myself. And what can I sarcastically skewer for my readers? And also what can I offer them, besides the chance to pass judgment on a book - or accept its great advice, potentially - without having to read all two hundred-twenty-six pages of it. 

So I haven’t yet finished the book, but his main idea is that ego keeps you from real, sustained success. It’s better to keep a student’s mindset - you always have more to learn. Okay, sounds good. And be an anteambulo. What is this anteambulo, you ask, Readers? It's a Roman term. An anteambulo was an artist slash writer with a patron. Ah, the glory days of Roma, when wealthy patrons took on artists and supported them - housed, fed, clothed them - so they could create. In return, the artist was expected to perform tasks for the patron. One of these was anteambulo, which means “one who clears the path.” The anteambulo walked in front of his patron, “making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier.” 

Anteambulo. Who knew? I thought under the patronage system the artist just got time to create for free, all expenses paid - so, more than free. But no. No such thing as a free lunch or a free patron. 

Holiday’s point is that to succeed, one should be in effect an anteambulo for whomever is one’s boss. He scolds The Youth of Today for lacking humility and expecting to be treated as special and important right from the moment they begin a job, for lacking a work ethic, and on and on. I could do without the scolding, because I doubt it’s true. But what he says about being the person who clears the way, the person who makes her boss look good, the person who is willing to focus and work without worrying whether she gets full credit immediately being key to success reminded me of Adam Grant’s philosophy of givers and takers. 

Like Grant, Holiday says the most successful people are givers. Although Adam Grant says that while the most successful people are the givers, the least successful are also givers. So too much headless, egoless way-clearing can go wrong. Both of them are talking about people who manage to achieve goals and sustain them and the rest of their lives, too, as opposed to the spectacular successes who then undo their achievements in spectacular ways. Howard Hughes is one example. Apparently he was really a disaster. The only money he managed to keep was the money he amassed from the businesses his father started - which he left alone because they bored him. 

Holiday’s message is to keep focused on what is important and not to give way to entitlement, control-seeking, or paranoia. Those are symptoms of ego and they take you down. People can get to be very successful by “raw power and force of will.” Those things unchecked, however, can cause them to destroy their success. To sustain success requires returning to the more humble, head-down, purpose-focused approach to life. 

So I think about my life. Am I an anteambulo? Perhaps that is my role in my little family. As the mother. I don't do a lot of literal sweeping, but figuratively, I sweep and clear the path for everyone. If so, I would have to say that sometimes the anteambulo’s work is all-consuming and the art creation slackens. But after reading this book, I think perhaps the creative work lags more due to lack of euthymia, or sense of purpose or path and a little too much ego. I suffer from almost all the evils Holiday lists: envy, fear, desire. These things do indeed get in the way and they are indeed all about me, me, me, and they do obscure my purpose sometimes. 

To proceed ego-free, know your values. Yes, that plank in the scaffolding of success comes up in this book, too. Ryan says, “‘Man is pushed by drives, Viktor Frankl observed. ‘But he is pulled by values.’ Without the right values, success is brief.” Without the right values, success is brief.

Without the right values, according to Holiday, ego takes over, leading to paranoia, control-seeking, aka being a control freak, and entitlement, all of which blind you to your own mistakes and prevent you from correcting course with input from others when needed. He offers anecdotes about all kinds of prominent successes who went on to destroy their lives, from Ulysses S. Grant to Nixon to the the maker of the Delorean. And he offers a few counter-examples of people who managed to avoid the ego trap, such as General Sherman and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post

All of this drips with pertinence these days, but time will have to bear out the truth of these assertions in regards to the Orange One. 

Another plank in the scaffolding he touches on is focusing on the presentThat means staying focused on the purpose of the work - being anteambulo as well as creator. It also means taking time to center yourself by putting yourself in perspective. “Meditate on the immensity” of the universe, or the ocean or the mountains or sky. Something that reminds you that you are a small person compared to the vastness of the world. 

I don’t really have a problem with that. Okay, that’s actually an untruth. I do have a problem with that. Those moments when I realize how very, very insignificant my one little self is in the whole shebang - history, the world, the universe, you name it - are the moments that could go either way for me. One way would be Ryan Holiday’s way, the way of feeling sympatheia (more Greek philosophy for you), or connected to the cosmos in an uplifting way; the other is to become overwhelmed by my own insignificance and inevitable erasure from existence and fall into existential despair.

I suppose Ryan Holiday would point out that the fear comes from grasping on to ego. If you can let go of the need to prove your importance to yourself or anybody else, I guess it becomes a lot easier to keep going forward, no matter what happens.

So I said it was a coincidence that this book I had forgotten about ordering arrived at the library. It wasn’t much of a coincidence, after all. It was more serendipitous. It arrived at a good moment, provided distraction when I needed it, and revealed a message that could not help but make me - and I hope you, Readers - feel reassured. Even though the flamboyant and seemingly successful among us cause us distress, history usually takes care of them. Until then, we do our work, we clear the way for a better future, and we remember that proceeding with purpose is the way to success.