Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Searching for the Secret Passageway to Success

It may be a little late in life to search for the secret passageway of success, but I’m searching nonetheless. And I’m picking up some pretty fascinating, if improbable clues.

Like the link between making your bed everyday and lifelong success.

Or studying philosophy instead of sweating out an MBA or law degree.

Being creative, even if you aren’t smart.

Persevering, even if you keep failing.

And perhaps my favorite, don’t fear following your “weird.”

Admiral William McRaven, in a 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas, said, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed everyday.”

The world, except those surveilling your house legally or otherwise, will never know whether you make your bed. But you will know. And the point, says McRaven, is to take care of the little things so you are ready to tackle the big things. Make your bed so your are ready to make great things happen.

Straightforward logic. Should have thought of it myself. If I wasn’t afraid of water, I might have learned the lesson in basic Navy SEAL training.

For the record, I used to make my bed. My father, an Army sergeant, said it was good training (he never said for what). My mother said it was necessary if I expected to eat dinner that night. Different motivation, but more or less the same lesson as Admiral McRaven.

As it turned out I did study philosophy in college. It was my minor. I had no interest in an MBA and rejected one of my college friend’s importuning that I should join him in studying the law. (One of my favorites was Spinoza.)

I can’t comment on the relative merits of a minor in philosophy and a law degree, but I don’t regret what I did. My biggest takeaway from studying philosophers was how difficult it is to sum up the universe in a single theory. Part of the problem was the dense prose philosophers tended to use to express their theories.

My classes in logic and semantics helped to cleanse my writing style – and hopefully contributed to better pathways of thinking. Studying sophistry didn’t hurt as training to become a lobbyist.

Many people aspire to be the smartest person in the room. I sensed early on that wouldn’t be the case very often for me. So I focused on trying to be different, to see an angle others missed, to perceive order where others saw chaos, to use images to show what I meant instead of just words. For me, that passed as being creative.

As much as I love words, I have an equal or greater appreciation for a compelling photograph or painting. As a parent, I had no greater pleasure than to read my children awarding-winning children’s books that artfully blend words with the whimsy of illustrations. I still consider the best children’s picture books to be among the greatest artistic achievements.

Learning from failure is not a new thought. But we often think of failure as a one-off teachable moment, not a permanent condition. Great leaders such as Winston Churchill advised that if you aren’t persistently failing, you aren’t really trying to succeed.

Much in life doesn’t turn out as we might wish. Life itself is perishable. Some cope with the fleeting dimension of life by undertaking adventures, sometimes dangerous ones. But danger comes in more forms than a steep mountain or diving out of an airplane. It can be dangerous to try something new. That’s the danger I’ve always courted, sometimes with success, other times with splendid failure.

Holding on to your weird is the most subjective street to success. Weird Al Yankovich and Voodoo Donuts leveraged their weird into fame and long lines. But weird, as often as not, is just seen as weird, not wonderful.

Personally, I’ve tried to avoid being weird, perhaps even when I was unmistakably being weird. I like puppets and clowns and secretly rooted as a kid for the Washington Nationals to upset the Harlem Globetrotters. Tattoos, piercings and jeans sold with holes already ripped at the knee never appealed to me. Neither did riding motorcycles, ski jumping or singing off key in a church choir. That doesn’t necessarily make me normal, but it doesn’t qualify me a weird.

Maybe the point of weirdness isn’t to seem weird to others, but to be true to yourself. If that means being out of step with society or the in-crowd, so be it. They don’t have to sleep with you or look at you in the mirror. If being weird means being yourself, then long live weirdness.

Of course, none of this will make much difference if Elon Musk’s latest idea pans out. Musk wants to connect our cortexes directly to computers, which he says will enhance our mental capabilities without bothering with laptops or smartphones. Our brains will have instant access to an Internet of knowledge and our hands will be free to, well, whatever. Theoretically this could give us more time to make our beds, but then it won’t really matter.

If having the universe at the tip of our brain doesn’t ensure success, then at least we can blame Elon Musk instead of ourselves.






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