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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

If Wishes Were Horses...

"The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We all admire greatness and the "larger than life" appeal of those who personify the extraordinary. The demonstration of great skill and ability in a particular craft is wonderful to behold; inspiring big dreams in many. We watch Michael Jordan and other great basketball players and envision ourselves dribbling,  rising up,  and putting the ball through that hoop with the same dynamic skill and elegance that made them heroes to us. The game becomes a metaphor for life... We "want to be like Mike". We dream of possessing that degree of skill and the praise and other rewards that come with it. We want the spotlight of recognition to shine on us and blaze a trail before us wherever we go. We desire greatness.

As a teenage student of the martial arts, I was inspired by the greatness of Bruce Lee. As I went to training each day, I came to appreciate the hard work and dedication that it takes to acquire the skills he demonstrated. The casual dreamer knows nothing about this. They see the flash and glamour surrounding the great practitioners, but they have no clue what the physical and spiritual demands of endurance are. Many long to execute a flying-reverse-turning-kick, but have no clue how it feels to be hit in the solar plexus.  "No pain, no gain" is more than rhythmic poetry... It is a reality of life.

My martial arts instructor was a no nonsense type whose apparently serious demeanor masked a wicked sense of humor. One evening a very enthusiastic young man came into the dojo declaring his intention to become a student of the fighting arts. He wanted "to learn how to fly" like some character he had just seen in a kung fu movie. Without any sympathy for his delusions of greatness my instructor pointed to the roof of the building next to our school and told him to climb up there and jump off. Not finding any facilitation of his unrealistic expectation, he left the dojo sulking... never to return.

Imitation is indeed the greatest form of flattery, and we live in a culture of consummate flatterers. Exploiting the lazy gullibility of those who want the accolades but not the hard work that goes into becoming skillful, many charlatans prosper among us. They want to, usually for a hefty price, teach us the "secrets of success". Many books are written and many seminars held by the many self proclaimed gurus who pretend to impart these secrets to the faithful while they separate them from their money. The secret of the gurus' success is the gullibility of those who would rather learn "secrets" than dedicate themselves to the arduous discipline that true achievement is built on. The path of dedication and industry is thus slighted for the far more traveled highway of deceitfulness.

The definition of a secret is : knowledge that is kept from all, except the privileged or initiated. The implication is that one has to be a part of a select society or group in order to be privy to the 'hidden things". The prospect of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things through dedication and hard work is thus replaced by a cult of exploited fascination in which the gullible fall prey to the wiles of skillful deceivers. How does Lebron James become the "King" of his craft? Was Michael Jordan born with the ability to fly? Are Barack and Michele Obama just lucky? Are Bill and Melinda Gates members of some secret society?  The answer to these questions is a resounding NO.  Do great writers have to work hard at their craft? Does great poetry require dedicated effort in addition to exceptional inspiration? The one thing that those who achieve greatness in their chosen areas of activity have in common is dedication coupled with industry. Talent alone does not guarantee success. Many talented persons fail... some spectacularly.

Those who have studied the matter tell us that it takes at least 10,000 hours...at minimum... to achieve mastery in any craft. In the achievement of greatness, there is no substitute for unrelenting effort. To be successful one must begin by debunking the idea that there is some magic formula that one can attach oneself to. We can dream... But then we must wake up and apply ourselves to the hard work that prepares us to accomplish extraordinary things. Hence the value of Longfellow's insight. Those who would excel find time to practice and perfect their craft, while those who only dream...sleep on. It is a truth well stated that if wishes were horses beggars would be expert equestrians.

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