The Confessions of an Optimistic Underachiever

Truth be told, my high school years were difficult ones. Having been transplanted from a remote rural environment in northwestern Ohio to the sunny clime of southern California just in time to start high school, I found it difficult to adapt, in many ways, to the Members Only jacket, Izod shirt, Sperry Top-sider wearing preppy environment that was Republican Torrance, California in the early 1980s. Add to this mix the fact that I was really coming into my own as a Musician and poet, that my engineer father very vocally expressed his disappointment in my non-fascination with mathematics courses, and along that road the somehow simultaneous introduction of both Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols to my worldview’s soundtrack (OK, a little behind the hip schedule of the world, but bear in mind that there were limited resources on radio and record on the farm), and you may begin to see the potential for strife.

Quite frankly, I didn’t particularly care for most of my reality — but a catalog of the ways in which I experimented to alter that reality is not the point here.

My father, perhaps sensing a wandering on my part, and desiring that I prepare to assume a role of some kind in society, laid upon me the burden of absorbing a great number of books from his personal library. I suppose I should be thankful for this, at least on the surface, benificent gesture. As a result, I was brought into the great continuum of self-righteous empowerment that ranges from Dale Carnegie to Norman Vincent Peale and now extends out to Tony Robbins. One of the things my father did during my early teens was to become a distributor for one of these Amways of Advancement, the Success Motivation Institute of Waco, Texas. They boasted such titles (provided, on series of cassettes and volumes of binders beautifully packaged in leather cases) as “Blueprint for Success” and “The Dynamics of Personal Leadership.” Additional volumes of varying levels of import included “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, “Think and Grow Rich”, “The Sale Begins When the Customer Says No” and so on.

I participated in this process willingly enough. I prepared “Plans of Action” (POAs) and memorized all kinds of affirmations. “If you are not making the kind of progress you are capable of making, or feel you should be making, it is simply because your goals are not clearly defined (Paul J. Meyer, SMI)”. “Crystallize your Thinking”. I say memorize, but it would be false of me to assert that at least in some minor way, these platitudes were not internalized to some degree. I am who I am today, optimistic about the possibility of being, in no small part thanks to this indoctrination.

But somewhere along that same continuum, these teachings failed me. Because their primary focus was ultimately on defining success as a function of money. That’s the lesson, I think, that my father was trying to impart — that if you make enough money, you can basically do whatever you want. My father was raised on Horatio Alger and other rags-to-riches stories, and high schooled in Liberty Township, Ohio, the same place where Norman Vincent Peale cut his journalistic teeth at the Republican Courier. A careful reading of Alger, however, will demonstrate something quite different from the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps, earn your way, opportunities are created” kind of jingo for capitalism that they are imagined to be. The fact is that almost every one of Alger’s rags-to-riches heroes ends up rich through inheritance, sheer luck or magnanimous gesture. There’s little or no proof that hard work will EVER get you these things, at least provided by Horatio.

The point of this exploration is that it always seemed to me that the motivations of these self-help gurus were questionable. Dale Carnegie, for example, suggests that when entering the office of an important man, to scan the locale and create a mental catalog of that man’s interests — fishing, his family, the Cape house, and so on — not as a means for developing a connection with that executive as a human being, but merely as a tool by which to exploit that man’s inclination to slim his wallet and fatten your own. Very Sun Tzu, it must be admitted.

And the bottom line is that actually achieving a higher standard of living, as defined by annual income, stock portfolio performance and neighborhood property values, never seemed to actually make anyone that I knew personally any happier, nicer or cooler to hang out with. They had more money, ’tis true, but the reality of it was they weren’t going to spend it on me. And to keep it, nurture it, turn it into more of the same, it was unlikely they were going to spend it on themselves, either. Now, you may disagree with me here, but to value the accumulated item higher than the act of accumulation seemed to be the point of these self-empowerment programs; and the reality was that most people never actually achieved more than the accumulating act. It was “the pursuit of happiness,” and not its capture. Of course, that is a defining American principle. And that brings me to the real point of this diatribe.

Ringo Starr’s perception of the Beatles may be useful here. “For a time, we thought we were the best band in the world; and as a result, we were.”

That’s really the message of all these self-help programs, isn’t it? To enforce the notion of mental focus. As you believe a thing to be, so it becomes. As above, so below. So mote it be. And they say this country is based on Christian principles. Bah. I’ve never heard anything so pagan in all my life. Life is what you make it. Not as it is handed to you (on whatever manufacture platter you imagine). You become what you pursue. Where your heart is, your treasure likewise can be found. Now I sound like Ronald Reagan, except that I realize that the real Gipper is not external, but is yourself. Win one for yourself. Now I sound like the Dalai Lama. Seek the guru inside yourself.

So why imagine it as a world in which you have to be rich to be free? Why imagine it populated with people who think just like you? Why imagine it absent of strife (a necessary component for growth)? Why imagine that it has to be a supermodel, a Ferrari, a big house on the lake?

Why not set your sights a little higher, Horatio? Why not imagine a world where people are not judged by the content of their wallets, but the content of their hearts? Forget art for art’s sake. How about life for life’s sake?

More to follow.

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