We All Struggle To Reach The Top
“Great men are not born great, they grow great . . .” — Mario Puzo, The Godfather
Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing among the elites. The best athletes, doctors, writers, engineers — you name it. You’re just hangin’ there with world renown chefs, musicians, and artists. Whatever you do, whatever it is you’re passionate about, those folks are gathered around you. The ones you consider the A supremes in your field. Salk, Ramsay, Conrad…you get the idea.
So you’re standing there but you’re not anxious. No sweaty palms or butterflies. You feel like where you are is where you should be. That you belong among the greats.
Now ask yourself, “How did I get here? Who did I have to be to achieve this? What did it take?”
I’ve often wondered if I could be considered great at something. I’m not talking “pretty good” or “alright”. Those are labels you give to folks who are just a step above mediocre. I’m talkin’ GREAT — like in all caps. Eyes popping out of heads kind of awesome. Could that be me?
And great at what? There are an insane number of things I could potentially be among the best at. So as my mind drifts along the sea of endless opportunities, my thoughts go like this: “What about mastering the harmonica or podcasting or rock climbing? Could I be like Stallone in Cliffhanger…wait, scratch that. He died in that one. But Stallone in Rocky…there’s a winner. If I invested my time in any of those subjects would one of them be my destiny? Is there some hidden and untapped talent I was born to do?
What’s My Destiny, Mama?
If I trained my ass off, Olympian-style for a marathon, on race day would people say, WOAH, wait a minute who’s this guy? Where did he come from? And they’re all standing there, a human chute to the finish line, pointing with their mouths open in awe of greatness. Could that be me?
If I began the path to becoming a full-stack-designer, would I find I’m a natural and wind up snagging some high-profile contracts? Top internet companies ringing me up to be part of their team.
Is there something else out there just waiting for me to try? My calling that I’ve yet to hear. Or should I double down on one of my current interests or hobbies and take it to another level? Top-Gun-buzzing-the-tower full commital?
You see, I’ve been in an extremely unique position over the past 15 years — working on a project (joinwichealth.org) that I actually quite love. Despite that, I still question my place, sometimes wondering if I could be of better service working someplace else. And then I think, why am I not satisfied with what I have and how far I’ve come professionally? I mean, I get to work with some amazing people on a project that is genuinely making a difference in people’s lives. This should be good enough. But then that insatiable hunger of pushing myself further and wanting more for my own personal development, creeps in and leaves me restless. Damn that insatiable hunger.
Too Many Damn Figs.
And that my friends, leads me to Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. It’s a powerful excerpt that eloquently rephrases my ramblings above.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Well that’s unsettling. How easy it is to get so caught up in choosing what to do with my life — the focus of my potential greatness, that I literally do nothing at all. I never even give myself a chance to persevere because I never start.
I spend my days dreaming of what could be. Flipping through Instagram or reading Medium posts from those who’ve made it or at least are giving it a try. And that keeps me going, you know? It’s like a shot of vicarious endorphins that keeps the possibility of success tangible but just out of reach. At the same time it can often keep me all caught up in my head, like I’m living someone else’s dream instead of fighting for my own.
And so I just continue clawing my way to nowhere.
That Is The Way Of Things.
Just do it. Put up or shut up. Do or do not. There is no try. It’s all the same. I’ve heard it for years from so many different characters (Cheers, Gary Vaynerchuk) so at this point it’s like c’mon man, get with it already. It doesn’t get any simpler. You can honestly hone it down to two words.
Now that’s simple, but man, it ain’t easy. Remember all those figs in the tree? Well, looking up at all those figs is like walking down the cereal aisle on an empty stomach. And the best way I can handle that overwhelm is to just close my eyes, take a breath, and let my self go to where it knows it should (come home my precious Cocoa Krispies).
Shut up. I know that sounds all hippy-dippy-new-age-like, but I’m a believer that somewhere deep down in the hollow of my soul I know which direction I should be traveling. Which fig to grab or go for. But yeah, choosing and committing to that path is unnerving. I’m putting myself out there for the world to bodyslam me or throw me into the Camel Clutch. But choosing sets the world in motion. My world. So I yank that one fig with daring certainty and fierce conviction, not some gentle, wussy, hesitant pluck. And all the other figgies eyeballing me? Nothing but distractions. Forget ‘em.
And speaking of…action requires dodging distraction. I mean, look what we’re up against these days. When I’m not buried in Netflix, Twitter, and Madden Mobile, I get to constantly feel like I’m neglecting something of importance — all those constant updates feeling like modern day crack cocaine. Simultaneously making me happy and weighing me with a crippling guilt. Similar to how a large peanut buster parfait makes someone feel who’s struggling to keep a healthy weight. Life is so unfair.
Ok, so I make it this far. I select a focus, manage to dodge the distractions, and now it’s time to bring it home, right? Raise the roof on this mother. But that’ll never happen if I don’t keep coming — keep creating, keep moving. It’s not a one-time fire, but a continual spark that’s necessary. And I’ll tell you this — an unwilling visionary is worth about as much as a cold burger. You can see the potential but you know it’s going to disappoint.
For me the whole process is a constant fight. I don’t find it easy at all. And it shouldn’t be. Because the ones who make it, who push through…resist, overcome. They deserve greatness. That’s the reward. In whatever form it comes.
Yes We Can.
So these are the kinds of things on my mind and it’s a little embarrassing given my age. Forty-two years puts me on the downslide. But here I am searching for truth in my own little personal playground. Climbing up when I feel like I should be sliding down.
But putting these words out there, this post on Medium, that’s where it begins. And it’s more for me than you, my online friend. It’s a way to voice my thoughts and give them eternal life on the internet. Help transform the jumbled ideas in my head into an actionable vision (Thanks, Medium, for the free online therapy).
So knowing that greatness doesn’t find you by accident and that it’s something you become on purpose, I ask myself, “Can I be one of the greats?”
With resounding certainty I answer, “Hell yes. We all can.”
But will we?
Well, let’s grab a fig and find out.