Monday, June 01, 2009

A burning desire to succeed?

Here's former pitching great and current ESPN baseball commentator Orel Hershiser, tonight, on the mental side of pitching: "I can remember games where I'd give up five runs in the first inning. Everything that I worried about the night before would happen. And then I'd pitch five shutout innings after that because I didn't care anymore [emphasis added]."

Hmm. So is the key to wi
nning "you gotta want it," as Tommy Lasorda and most of the rest of Sportsthink Nation would have you believe?

Or is it that you just don't give a damn...?


So earlier this afternoon I'm working out and, as is customary in most of today's sissified suburban gyms, the migraine-inducing background music consists of a seamless stream of energizing techno or throbbing rock anthems wit
h urgent, positive themes. I'm in between sets so I'm paying a bit closer attention than usual, and I'm struck by the lyrics of this song:

Baby you can walk on water
Baby you can fly lik
e a bird
You can walk through a fire

Without even getting hurt...
You can do what you want
It's up to you...


Yeah, I get it. It's a metaphor. You're "not supposed to take it literal," as an old sage on my baseball team likes to say. But can a metaphor in any sense be uplifting if the underlying thought being expressed is, in fact, absurd? Can anyone walk on water? Under normal circumstances, can you walk through a fire without getting burned? So why is that a "feel-good" song? More to the point, how do you in any sense make difficult tasks seem less daunting by framing them in terms of impossible tasks? For the life of me, I fail to comprehend the utility of a metaphor (or a self-help principle) that pumps you up to face certain challenges by telling you that you can do things that WE ALL KNOW THAT NO ONE CAN FACTUALLY DO.

"Don't worry, honey! After all, it's no different from walking on water!"

And, I mean, let's face's "up to you" to merely decide that you can walk through a fire without getting burned? Tell ya what: Go ahead, give it a shot. While you're at it, give that little Icarus routine a try, too. Report back and let me know how it goes. Or maybe I'll just call the burn unit or the ICU and ask them to disconnect your throat tube for a moment so you can share your final thoughts.


Noadi said...

I live in Maine, I can walk on water almost half the year. Not a big deal.

I don't know about baseball but I used to play percussion in a band (had to give it up due to a wrist injury) and there is this certain feeling I'd get during some performances. It's almost like floating through it, muscle memory from all the hours of practice and adrenaline just takes over. For me it was all about getting into the music and forgetting about any worries but I think maybe it was the same sort of thing for this pitcher, he stopped worrying about how he was doing and just did it.

Matt Dick said...

Steve, I think you've gone so far that you're essentially asking us to abandon metaphor as a mechanism of language. I think that's silly. When someone says you can walk through fire, they don't mean "you can walk on fire". That's what makes it a metaphor.

When Kipling wrote that we were to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run, he wasn't actually asking us to run every second of every minute of our entire lives, and holding this (admittedly probably bad song writer) to a more stringent, metaphor-free, standard than we hold Kipling is not valuable.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt, I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with you in this instance.

Pumping people up via metaphors that make the impossible (and I mean literally impossible) sound possible is stupid, vapid, or whatever other disparaging term one wants to use. Let me be clear here: I am NOT calling YOU stupid. Far from it. I am saying that the use of metaphor to express an impossibility in the cause of being "inspirational" is a form of self-deluding nonsense.

In fact, metaphors used in that manner are actually counter-inspirational. Let's walk this through for a moment. If I tell you "you can walk through fire"--when you plainly know that you cannot walk through fire--then isn't it reasonable for you to assume that you probably can't do the other thing I'm telling you that you can do, either? To me, it's as silly (and patronizing) as telling kids that their work is "excellent" when they can plainly see--via comparison to a class-mates' work--that their own work is far from excellent. So, next time you tell them their work is excellent--even if it now is--they may very well doubt you. At the very least you cause them to lose some sense of reality and proportion.

Ergo, if you tell someone "You can be president if you want, so why not try?," that person might wonder, "Is this just some more of that 'you can walk through fire' b.s.--or should I really give it a try?" I'm not saying that any of this reasoning occurs at the conscious level, but I think the message comes through loud and clear.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking a break from building my sun-proof waxed wings, Steve, to report to you that (and maybe you have seen it already) the unthinkable happened: Newsweek took on Oprah, accusing her of, among other things, promoting quacks and scams:

In somewhat related news, I don't know if your PBS stations are doing their pledge drives now, but mine is -- and the main attraction and selling point this time is Wayne Dyer's new (old) shtick, "Excuses Begone!" (if I recall the title correctly). I caught some of it last night, just in time to hear Dyer promote Byron Katie as "the most amazing human being on Earth" (paraphrased). No kidding.

Dyer was so impressed with himself that he admitted, to the wide-eyed PBS commentator, to being inspired by watching his own performance on stage -- and you too can be so inspired if you choose to "express your financial support" (nice, eh?) to the station and get all the Dyer-related goodies they'll send you. (The more you pay, the more inspired you'll get, from what I understand.)

Watching His Awesomeness Dyer prance around and spout motivational banalities repackaged as anointed wisdom was enlightening indeed (plus it gave my offspring a chance to make snarky remarks about their mother and, if I'm not mistaken, make some gestures questioning my mental health).

Actually, it was not much watching Dyer himself as his audience -- well-heeled (how much are the tickets to his presentations?), middle-aged, and middle-to-upper class. All enraptured, their eyes misty and/or glassy, mouths half-open, all ready to take in his words wholesale and change their lives on the spot, right then and there.

Which makes me think that, 1. the tickets must be expensive enough to justify this rapture, and 2. poor people do not have the need for transforming their lives and/or such rarefied and exalted wisdom. Which is likely because they have to work 2+ jobs to stay alive and don't have time to think up excuses and/or seek out people like Dyer to tell them how to live their lives.

Which, in turn, reminds me, again, that self-help addiction and the movement behind it are decidedly a Western middle-class phenomenon, invented and fueled by people who suffer from an excess of income and free time, contributing to their boredom and malaise. Cue Oprah.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Steve, this was not that awful "No Boundaries" song, which was being promoted on the last two nights of American Idol, was it?

I agree with you that such metaphors are cringe-inducing. Bad writing, full of cliches, of the kind that goes right over our heads and/or instead of inspiring anyone, makes one contemplate suicidal and homicidal thoughts. Or at least release one's inner snark.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, you know, it's interesting. I don't think Newsweek (or any other major medium) would have taken on Oprah a few years ago, when she was the closest thing America had to a secular Pope. But she's come down a few steps on the esteem ladder in recent times, beginning with the James Frey debacle and continuing, or so I like to think, through her sponsorship of increasingly "out-there" regimens like The Secret and Eckhart Tolle. And then recently there was her admission of her own personal inability to conquer her weight problems.

Imagine that: THE guru of Empowerment Unlimited has a problem she can't kick!

I also think there's another factor in play here. It wasn't that long ago that high-powered black celebs were all but untouchable (with the exception of rap stars, who were always viewed as outlanders). But Obama's election has--ironically--made blacks fair game. Now that we've cracked through the color barrier and we're all cheerfully post-racial, we're allowed to judge people simply as people, such that black power brokers who screw up--or merely have all-too-human foibles--are no longer off-limits. Which is why, as many have observed, the election of Barack Obama may not exactly signal the end of all forms of affirmative action...but it's surely the beginning of the end.

Anonymous said...

So what's this about Oprah buddying up with the ultra rich to decide how many of us they want running around?

Yekaterina said...

My ten year old came home from school yesterday crying because she got a 65% on her Spanish test and said to me, "I don't understand, I studied so much and tried so hard! Yet when I take tests in Catalan class, which I could care less about, I get good grades." I told her about this post and we had a nice discussion.

It may be that some people thrive on "you gotta want it" and others get more out of toning down their stress level.

Steve Salerno said...

Ykat, in a very simple and even touching way, you make what may very well be THE salient point of this blog and, indeed, the entire self-help controversy: There are no "easy buttons" for any of this, which is to say, no hard-and-fast rules that apply to everyone across the board; no "7 keys" or "10 steps" that everyone can turn to with a high degree of confidence. The very same mental outlook that does wonders for Gene may be emotional poison for John, and vice versa. The very same verbal tactic that comes across as persuasive and thoughtful when used by Lena may come across as arrogant and off-putting when used by Laura. In fact, the very same tactic used by the very same person may come across in an entirely different way on different days in different settings, among different people.

I think it's fairly safe to say that just about every single one of the 6.5 billion people on earth needs his own customized self-help book--which means that the pat answers delivered in those "one size fits all" tomes that beckon from the bookshelves are (a) mostly b.s. and (b) useless if not counterproductive for the great mass of us.