Monday, January 05, 2009

Can you really 'be like Mike'?

So I'm in Walmart looking for something intelligent to read. That was my first mistake. If you don't enjoy Western romance novels (all of which, apparently, use Fabio as their cover model) or self-help tomes with titles like "How You Can Make $20 Million While Finding Inner Peace, Curing All of the World's Major Diseases and Also Achieving an Erection Clearly Visible on Google Earth," you're pretty much SOL. Anyway, out of the corner of my eye I see the ubiquitous Michael Phelps, swimmer extraordinaire (but definitely no Fabio), on the cover of a book. His book. No Limits: the Will to Succeed. The photo shows him in the pool, pumping his fist in the air after one of his victorious laps in Beijing.

(Boy, I'll bet a lot of thought and careful rewriting went into that one, huh? The guy came home from his Olympic heroics, what, in late August 2008? It's now January 2009and the book has already been out a month. By comparison, I spent 18 months doing research for SHAM before I turned in my first chapter. And that was just a first draft. Yeah, I know, this is a different kind of book, and they probably had much of the boilerplate roughed out before Phelps even went to China. But still....)

It was clear after just a few minutes of browsing the book that the quote on the jacket summed th
e whole thing up: "When I'm focused, there is not one single thing, person, anything that can stand in the way of my doing something. There is not. If I want something bad enough, I feel I'm gonna get there."

The folly of making Michael Phelps into an all-purpose metaphor for human aspiration with relevance and meaning in Everymanville should be fairly obvious. But let's belabor the point. If you want to take home 11 Gold Medals* in swimming, it helps to be a freak of nature whose body was ideally designed for propelling itself in water. The many physical attributes that uniquely prepare Phelps to excel at swimming (and, in fact, make him somewhat ungainly on land) have been amply documented. So in a sense, holding Phelps up as an example of "the will to win" in swimming is not dissimilar to holding up, say, Shaquille O'Neal as an example of "the will to win" in hoops, where it helps to be over 7 feet tall and built like a bridge stanchion yet surprisingly agile (at least when Shaq was younger).

Andlet's face ithow many Michael Phelpses are there? How many times in history has this happened? Try "once." The last person to even approach a Phelpsian level of dominance was Mark Spitz. That was 37 years ago, the infamous 1972 Olympics in Munich. It's a little hard to take take Phelps at his wordthat we too can mimic his level of success!when his level of success has been attained exactly twice, if you count Spitz, in almost half a century. Indeed, if Michael Phelps were not so extraordinary, so phenomenal in the quite-literal sense, would he be such a sensation? So in that respect, too, implying that we can all be Michael Phelps or come anywhere close if we just apply ourselves is not unlike putting on a seminar for budding entrepreneurs where you imply that every one of them can become Bill Gates.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't strive. Many of you, for example, would be shocked to learn how much of a role self-motivation and a basic sense of optimism play in my own daily routine. I'm just saying
againthat it isn't a push-button thing: Do this, get that! I'm saying that no matter how much you believe in yourself, the odds of ultimate success in any highly competitive milieu are very much against you, unless you already happen to be Michael Phelps or Shaquille O'Neal or Bill Gates. And what really bothers me is that despite the positivity of titles like No Limits, these opportunistic projects are tainted by insincerity and even a kind of ugly cynicism from start to finish. The publishers know that almost no one can emulate Phelps, but they don't give a damn, because they also know that Joe and Jane Public will want to buy the book regardless. The writer who's attached to the project (Alan Abrahamson) probably doesn't give a damn because he's getting a nice payday. Phelps may or may not give a damnI kind of see him as a pawn, a useful idiotbut he's getting a magnificent payday, making the most of his Warholian 15 minutes. Even the buyers of the book, I think, realize that no matter how much they believe and strive, no matter how much they feel they're gonna get there, they're probably never going to do anything remarkable in their own lives. Still, it's a self-deception that they indulge in as a form of personal fantasy. (Inspirational masturbation?) Hope endures.

I'm reminded of a post I wrote some time back after noticing a copy of Allure magazine with the very alluring Kate Beckinsale on the cover; the associated article was titled "Get Sexy." Sure, any woman can look and feel as sexy as Kate Beckinsale. I give you, free of charge, Step 1: Look like Kate Beckinsale.

* Total, so far, in his two Olympics.


Elizabeth said...

"How You Can Make $20 Million While Finding Inner Peace, Curing All of the World's Major Diseases and Also Achieving an Erection Clearly Visible on Google Earth"

Do they carry it in all Walmarts, or only in yours, Steve? Which aisle? And can I find it on-line?

Cal said...

As I believe I alluded to in a prior post, a day will come when a women will be able to look like Kate Beckinsale (or some other hottie) by the miracle of science. It may not be in any our lifetimes, but it's coming. Currently, plastic surgery and Botox on a person looks "plastic" to me. But, I think we've all heard the stories of the first two successful face transplants for a couple of women whose faces were horribly disconfigured.

Can you imagine the intellectual property issues when a beautiful woman (or man) has to somehow trademark their face? And if a certain procedure like this is banned in the U.S., a person will just be able to go to another country where it's legal.

I also remember a story on (if I remember correctly) 20/20, where a woman went through many operations to get the face and body of a Barbie doll.

I believe the same thing would happen if a pill is invented to make someone look like Michael Phelps or Barry Bonds, and be able to do the things they can do without much training.

Cosmic Connie said...

"How You Can Make $20 Million While Finding Inner Peace, Curing All of the World's Major Diseases and Also Achieving an Erection Clearly Visible on Google Earth"

Joe Vitale is working on that book, I believe. No wait, I misspoke (or mis-wrote). He's working on World Peace (with his "Attract Miracles" site), and probably planning to write a book about it. As for the erection bit, well, he DID have lunch recently with Kevin Trudeau, one of the biggest pricks in Hustledorkdom.

Oh, bad, bad Connie.

Verification word: cracups.

RevRon's Rants said...

Were I to succeed in making myself look like Kate Beckinsdale (or my sweetie, or any number of beautiful women, who shall remain nameless in the name of chivalry and self-preservation), I would most certainly be doomed to failure in all of my life's enterprises, since I would inevitably spend the majority of my time in front of a mirror. Naked. Immobile, save for the occasional reaching for a towel to wipe away the drool.

Obviously, even the achievement of a desired goal can lead to the dashing of one's other aspirations. I guess I should count myself fortunate that any dreams of achieving lesbian-hood are, alas, beyond my grasp.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: I'm quite sure you can find all of that online...particularly the last part.

Cal: Trademarking a face. Love it.

Connie: I believe that Trudeau is already visible from space.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: As I've asked once before, I believe: Have you been eating those bran muffins with a "special recipe" again?

RevRon's Rants said...

Nah... That much fiber just gives me gas. My brownies, however, are legendary! It being early on a Monday, however, I have yet to indulge even in those.

Just repeating my earlier claim to be a lesbian, trapped in a man's body! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron--and I mean this in only the most affectionate way--you are one scary-lookin' dyke-on-a-bike, my friend.

Elizabeth said...

particularly the last part

You mean Google Earth? (she said sweetly, batting her eyelashes with studied innocence)

P.S. Good Connie! :)

P.S. 2. Ron, for the love of god, please do not make yourself into Kate. Please. Please? (And Connie may agree. I think?)

Cosmic Connie said...

I misspoke (or mis-wrote). Joe V had *dinner* with Kevin Trudeau, not lunch. I'm getting careless with details, and I haven't even had any of Ron's "special" brownies, so there's no excuse.

OK, Carry on, everyone.

Elizabeth said...

I misspoke (or mis-wrote). Joe V had *dinner* with Kevin Trudeau, not lunch.


Poor Connie. Ron, get thems' brownies, STAT!

RevRon's Rants said...

"Joe V had *dinner* with Kevin Trudeau, not lunch."

Glad you cleared that up, Connie. As all guys know, a lunch date is for when you aren't sufficiently interested to leave open the option of spending too much time together. And I doubt that *either* of these guys would waste precious hustling time if there weren't a potential payoff in it somewhere.

And Eliz - Don't worry... They haven't mastered the technology required to make me look like Kate. And even if they had, I'd only want to experience it for a day or so... long enough to ogle, explore, and take a bunch of pictures (for my scrapbook, ya know!). Must admit, however, that I'm flattered by your concern. Most people would encourage me to be someone else... *anyone* else! :-)

Anonymous said...

"I also remember a story on (if I remember correctly) 20/20, where a woman went through many operations to get the face and body of a Barbie doll."

There is a woman in Texas, Sheyla Hershey, who wants the world's biggest breasts. She has over a gallon of silicone in each breast. She might have to leave the country to get them larger.

I remember the "Barbie" woman! Her name is Sarah Burge and she will be 50 this year just like her idol Barbie!

Elizabeth said...

Ron: Don't listen to them.

Ahem, yes. Now let's be serious. I think we should start behaving, or all those high-brow'd and high-minded visitors from WSJ and Skepticland may get a (completely erroneous!) impression that Steve is running some kind of an asylum here. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.*

*Individual definitions of truth may vary. And I swear that maniacal laughter your hear is not mine. Speaking of maniacal, let's go back to Michael Phelps...

Elizabeth said...

She might have to leave the country to get them larger.

Wait... Isn't there enough space in the US?

Steven Sashen said...

This might be apocryphal but, if not, it's one of my favorite quotes about emulating someone who is a statistical anomaly:

"Even I am no Einstein"
-- Albert Einstein

Steve Salerno said...

Excellent, Steven. The perfect punctuation.

Steve Salerno said...

This morning so far I have received two comments from people defending Tony Robbins. I don't know whether these comments are part of an organized backlash--this has happened once or twice before--but the tenor of the comments is very similar, so I figured I'd treat them collectively. (They were actually submitted on another thread, where this comment also appears. I'm putting it here as well because of its universal relevance.)

Regular readers know that I have no qualms about posting opposing viewpoints, even very strong ones. Unfortunately, when people elect to litter their opinions with profanity and direct personal attacks, it results in my rejecting the comment(s). So whatever else they may have to say that is, potentially, worthwhile, never gets to see the light of day.

I must comment on something one of these critics said, however: "Please do not speak unless you are speaking from personal experience." Personal experience is the last thing we should be speaking from, if we're trying to evaluate these phenomena scientifically and arrive at some sort of overarching truth. The use (or misuse) of "personal experience"--anecdotal evidence, individual testimonials, etc.--is what keeps the snake-oil hucksters in business.

Elizabeth said...

You know, I think there should be some kind of an award for those brave souls who pursue hucksters full-time (or at all). I'm thinking The Sisyphus Prize -- to be given out annually to individuals who risk their sanity in exposing the non-ending schemes of assorted charlatans and the gullibility of their followers.

Though, on the second thought, the latter pursuit merits its own separate award.

Anonymous said...

"Please do not speak unless you are speaking from personal experience."

Oh, wouldn't the world be a joy if we all did that? My personal experiences would curl most peoples' toes. Oh, I can't talk about males 'cause I'm not one. I can't have an opinion on doctors, because I don't have a medical license. I might as well turn into a mole and live under ground.

Elizabeth said...

The use (or misuse) of "personal experience"--anecdotal evidence, individual testimonials, etc.--is what keeps the snake-oil hucksters in business.

True about the misuse of personal experience, Steve.

There is value in anecdotal evidence, but people seem to forget that the "evidence" part of that term is more important than "anecdotal." One has to have reasonably solid documentation for the evidence to make it matter. "Just say so" is a poor standard, if any, for evidence.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Yes. Often during media debates, I've had people come back at me with, "Hey, you use anecdotes and individual case histories, so who are you to talk!" It's true that writers make use of such material--but I try to do it only after I've ascertained the relevant facts to the best of my ability. Then I pick someone whose story seems representative of the overall "truth"* I've already documented.

That is a very, very different scenario from picking someone whose story you simply want to be the "truth," and implying that that person's story has universal relevance and meaning. But alas, journalists do that all the time to make their marginal stories bigger than they appear to me (or really are). That's why we have the disease-of-the-month, the environmental-crisis-of-the-month, the-terrorist-threat-that's-going-to-kill-us-all, etc.

* "the truth" as best we know it. It's ever in flux, of course. I'm never so pompous as to think that my own work, with the limited resources (and time) I have to do fact-finding, represents THE Truth of all truths.

Voltaire said...

Oh wow, another hilarious post by Steve to brighten my otherwise dull day. Like Elizabeth said, I've often wondered why anyone bothers doing the thankless job of trying to expose hucksters. All it ever seems to is annoy both the hucksters and those taken in by the hucksters. I do know I try to do it though; sometimes I wonder why bother.

As far as the personal experience kind of argument goes, I wonder if the people who advance this kind of argument have any opinions about death that they've acquired by personal experience.

Steve Salerno said...

Volt: Well, they might be able to weigh in on brain-death.

RevRon's Rants said...

Just curious, Steve... In your opinion, is the acceptance of anecdotal evidence - even based in one's own experience - a sign of stupidity, even brain death?

Steve Salerno said...

Geez, Ron, I don't know. There are many intelligent people who--for whatever emotional need--latch on to something that makes them feel good (or feel like they're on the right side, in any event) regardless of whether it meets the standards of proof that they set for themselves in other areas of life and living. And of course, some folks have very limited exposure to life, so they have nothing but their own (anecdotal) experience to go on.

However, I will say this: In general, in my own career as a journalist--and bearing in mind that that is an anecdotal statement as well--people in the mainstream of life who create Universal Truths out of their own personal circumstances and beliefs have not been the brightest lights on the string.

RevRon's Rants said...

"people in the mainstream of life who create Universal Truths out of their own personal circumstances and beliefs have not been the brightest lights on the string."

Would that not include those who smugly dismiss anything that doesn't fit within the criteria of their own world-view? For each person - skeptic and non-skeptic alike - the world around them is defined by their own perspective. Whose "personal circumstances" constitute that "Universal Truth?"

I "latched onto" a positive judgment as to the efficacy of the herbal treatment that cured me of cancer (melanoma) about 17 years ago, but I only did so when it worked. If my belief in the value of the treatment is a sign of my own ignorance, I guess I'd have to accept my preference for being dismissed as "ignorant," and being alive, as opposed to being smugly and intelligently dead.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, if you're going to argue for the validity of personal anecdotal experience--that each of us has the right to say something works or doesn't work based purely on our own experience of it--then I don't know what to say. To me, that opens the door to anything and everything, including the people who swear by Sylvia Browne and/or John Edwards (often with compelling stories in support of it). I stand by my feelings/observations.

In any case, I'm glad you beat the disease.

RevRon's Rants said...

All I'm saying, Steve, is that we need to be careful about making broad-stroke, judgmental assessments and holding them forth as being universal truth. We risk not only sounding smug and arrogant; we also run the very real risk of abandoning the allegiance to accuracy that we are so quick to proclaim. Not to mention the opportunity to learn and progress.

I'm not suggesting that anecdotal evidence be given the same level of credence as we assign to information obtained via rigidly structured experimentation. But neither should we sit back and titter at the real-life experiences of others, implying that they must be "brain-dead," simply because their experiences didn't occur in a laboratory. And given the extent to which research studies are tainted by their sponsors, such smugness frankly becomes laughable.

Remember - Every single advance in knowledge began as an idea that existed outside the realm of conventional thinking. That those ideas need to be tested and proven is obvious, but it is foolhardy to dismiss an idea simply because it has yet to pass through the gauntlet of the scientific method. Contrary to what some would infer, common sense and an open mind are not mutually exclusive.