Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On quotes, confidence and Cliff Lee.

Yesterday I stumbled across this wonderful Wiki full of famous last words. (I don't mean that in the jocular, metaphorical way; the page showcases actual death-bed quotes and the like.) The site would be impressive to anyone, I think, but as a journalist I sat there awestruck, ever-conscious of the massive amount of legwork that such ready compilations save people like myself. Think back a generation or so and imagine how much time it would've taken to research and produce, say, a term paper presenting the final words of a few dozen of history's most famous figures and the circumstances in which those words were uttered. OK, maybe that's not the very best example, as such topics have always been popular themes for "list" books, which were available long before Amazon. But you get my drift...and I'll give you a better example anyway. In the bad old days, pieces on governmental activities were a back-breaking bitch to write. They involved repeated phone calls, trips to the library and/or government reading rooms, appointments for one-on-one interviews, possibly even FOIA requests. Today 95% of that info is all in one place, waiting for you, right there on the Web. So is just about every other fact you could possibly want. Some of those facts are even true.

But seriously, folks—ta-da-dum!—it occurred to me that this phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining the love affair between Americans and self-help. Today, everybody wants (and expects) a link or a page or something quick,
easy and convenient that provides push-button solutions, not just in matters of famous quotes or this year's operating budget for a given federal agency, but in matters of personal transformation as well. The self-help buyer wants to become a New-&-Improved Me—typically she* wants more self-confidence, more positivity—and she wants it now, from a book or a seminar or a few coaching sessions. Or maybe a sweat lodge.

What's more, having undergone that program, that "transformation," self-help buyers expect the world to embrace them ipso facto as, well, new-and-improved. With their just-bought positivity (which, in fairness, we begin trying to bolt onto kids as early as kindergarten), they hope the world will open its arms to them, accepting their newfound confidence as an unmistakable sign of competence. This creates further problems because as a culture, we tend to evaluate others by the same yardstick: We want to be led by people who project confidence and positivity, regardless of whether (a) they have earned the right to feel that way about themselves and/or (b) their confidence has any direct bearing on helping us find our own way to a better place. If there is disillusionment today with Barack Obama, even on the part of some who supported him wildly, it is because those people are asking themselves some tough questions related to (b): They're beginning to wonder if the vast confidence that Obama inspired with all that talk about "change" and "yes we can" has any demonstrable relationship to his ability to find workable solutions and, in a larger sense, govern.

See, we've somehow gotten to this curious juncture in American life where swagger is mistaken for success. And in a sense, it is indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least for a
time: The people with the swagger inspire confidence in the rest of us, ergo they become successful—we make them so. The trouble is, sooner or later you reach a point where someone has to be able to actually do something. Things can't run (well) on flash forever; ultimately you need some substance. And that's where it all breaks down. This is emblematic of the crisis we face in American life, not just in politics but in industry and finance and at your local McDonald's and everywhere else: We have plenty of people who know how to seem excellent (because you can acquire the trappings of excellence with relative ease); just not enough who know how to be excellent.

We promote people, we elect people presidents
we follow charlatans into sweat lodgesbecause they project confidence and bearing. They have the right swagger and the right line; they offer us that promise of instant transformation and/or a secret passage to the promised land.

And you know what? I worry that we learned nothing from what happened a year ago in Sedona. If we're more skeptical now, it's a limited skepticism that focuses on James Ray himself. Mass numbers of your neighbors still follow the rest of Gurudom to Fiji or wherever, to "sweat lodges" of each particular guru's own devising. Hell, a few of the Sedona participants interviewed on my ABC special said they'd still attend a James Ray event, given the chance! I didn't know those admissions were coming when I taped my various segments of the piece; I heard them for the first time along with the rest of you on TV. I was speechless.

This is what happens when you have large numbers of people who dwell in a realm without objective truths or measurements. A realm built entirely on mystique and, again, the lure of instant salvation.

Not to end on what some will regard as a silly, insubstantial note, but this is why I'm glad there is baseball. I was thinking this last night, in fact, as I admired Texas rent-a-pitcher** Cliff Lee's brilliant, wall-to-wall domination of the star-studded, $207 million New York Yankees. (Between the quotes and Cliff Lee, yesterday was an eye-opening day for me, as you can see.) I'm glad there are still enterprises, baseball being one, where talking the talk isn't enough: You have to put up or shut up. In baseball, as in few other societal idioms, the benchmarks are objective, for the most part. "Success" is not a function of parsed words or sly rationalization or airy, ambiguous catch-phrases about the Universe. For all of baseball's swagger and machismo, for all the cliches spewed in those insipid post-game interviews, you have to be able to get people out (or, conversely, deliver key base-hits) in front of millions who are dissecting your performance from every angle, by increasingly complex*** and revealing metrics. In Lee's case, you have to be able to put an 87-mph back-door slider on the outside corner and make some of the best hitters in the world flail at it. Then you have to do it again, and again, and again, for nine innings. Then you have to be able to repeat that 30 times a season. And if you do all that, then you have a right to be confident.

Laugh if you will, but I watch Cliff Lee and I think: Thank God there are places where actual mastery of something still matters.

* I'm not just being inclusionary or femme-friendly here; rather I'm recognizing the demographics of self-help, which skew strongly towards women.
** In baseball parlance, and most simply put, a “rent-a-pitcher” is a star pitcher on the last year of his contract who's acquired during the closing months of a season in order to help a contending team make a major, all-out push for the playoffs. The expectation is that the pitcher will move on to another team—often the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers—once the season ends and his agent throws him into the free market, where his cost will escalate far beyond what the "renting" team can afford to pay in long-term money.
*** Even if you're not a fan, scroll down and take a gander at some of these invented stats, just for the hell of it. The whole thing is hilarious.

8 comments:

Steve Salerno said...

A CHAGRINED ADMISSION FROM THE DOOFUS WHO MODERATES THIS BLOG.

I don't know whether it's that I encountered a feature that Blogger has recently added, or whether I just wandered there by mistake for the first time, but it appears that during the course of my aimless meanderings I have inadvertently deleted all of the comments that were made on this post as well as the next one. Blogger tells me that I cannot "undo" this, so I can only swallow hard, apologize for having zapped the fruits of your hard labors, and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Damn....

Steve Salerno said...

Once again, I am posting these "recovered" comments thanks to the kindness and initiative of our friend DimSkip.

Oct 19, 2010 (3 days ago)
by Mike Cane

Regarding that whole baseball thing, substitute "swagger" for "steroids." At least I know Ty Cobb's record was *for real*.

Steve Salerno said...

Oct 19, 2010 (3 days ago)
 by Steve Salerno

 Mike: Not that I want to open a whole other can of Winstrol here, but I never saw the big deal about roids; certainly I couldn't work up a profound case of outrage, as many fans (and media types) did. If you haven't yet read my LA Times piece, "Let Barry Be," written right before the height of it, you might give it a try:
http://tinyurl.com/26e2n55

Steve Salerno said...

Oct 19, 2010 (3 days ago)
 
by Dimension Skipper

 
On the more general subject of having to produce actual results of real consequence... How can we even tell anymore?...
 
Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science
By David H. Freedman, The Atlantic (Nov 2010)
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269
 
Intro blurb: "Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice? Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science."
__________
 
WV: Pudini... Harry Houdini's much lesser known younger brother, whose act primarily involved escaping from various containers filled with really thick pudding.
 

Steve Salerno said...

Oct 20, 2010 (2 days ago)
 
by Voltaire

 
Oh, Steve, don't you see the opportunity? Can't you see the lemonade in the lemons you're crying about? Join the huckster revolution and get rich on all these people unhinged from reality. What are you waiting for?
 
Just kidding; I don't really think you could become a Self Help guru and keep a straight face or sleep at night. That's the problem I have: I see all this craziness going on and realize I could really "prophet" from it, But my conscience won't let me.

Steve Salerno said...

Oct 21, 2010 (yesterday)
 by NormDPlume

 
I grew up in Boca Raton, Fl. And that is only important in that every east coast scam artist has to bluff his/her way through Boca Raton/Palm beach on their way to the Big Leagues of Beverly Hills. Heck, I even knew Scott Rothstein personally before his scammed his first $ billion. A business associate I know asked me three years ago about Scott "Mini Madoff" Rothstein and my response was "If I knew how to make 25% a year legitimately, why would I bother sharing my secret with anyone - especially you??" I know snake oil salesmen.
 
And the snake oil salesmen can learn a lot from Cliff Lee. Did you see him shut down the Rays before the Yankees? Most of his strikeouts were the humiliating kind: the kind where the bat was still sitting on the batter's shoulder because he was sitting on the down-and-away junk and Lee crossed him up with the inside fastball. The batters study film; the batting coaches explain a pitcher's "tendencies" and routine so the batter knows what to expect. And then a crafty old goat like Lee kills the batter's confidence by setting the guy up for a pitch that never comes. Pretty soon the batters lose confidence, and they start taking weak, flailing swings to get even a piece of the ball. The swagger disappears from the batter's box, and the pitcher has all the momentum. the batters guess, and they guess wrong. And then they have to take the walk of shame to the dugout.
 
Pitchers don't swagger; batters swagger. And batters sulk. The best a pitcher can do is smirk. The self help buyers tend to swagger - hey, I didn't die in that sweat lodge; it's a badge of courage for me. I'm a winner. Remember the guy with that shocking attitude? The sham self-help peddlers tend to smirk.
 
Hide your wallet from those who swagger and smirk - what they are selling probably won't be that valuable to you. That walk to the dugout can be pretty tough after you have struck out.
 

Steve Salerno said...

Oct 21, 2010 (yesterday)
 by NormDPlume

 
I grew up in Boca Raton, Fl. And that is only important in that every east coast scam artist has to bluff his/her way through Boca Raton/Palm beach on their way to the Big Leagues of Beverly Hills. Heck, I even knew Scott Rothstein personally before his scammed his first $ billion. A business associate I know asked me three years ago about Scott "Mini Madoff" Rothstein and my response was "If I knew how to make 25% a year legitimately, why would I bother sharing my secret with anyone - especially you??" I know snake oil salesmen.
 
And the snake oil salesmen can learn a lot from Cliff Lee. Did you see him shut down the Rays before the Yankees? Most of his strikeouts were the humiliating kind: the kind where the bat was still sitting on the batter's shoulder because he was sitting on the down-and-away junk and Lee crossed him up with the inside fastball. The batters study film; the batting coaches explain a pitcher's "tendencies" and routine so the batter knows what to expect. And then a crafty old goat like Lee kills the batter's confidence by setting the guy up for a pitch that never comes. Pretty soon the batters lose confidence, and they start taking weak, flailing swings to get even a piece of the ball. The swagger disappears from the batter's box, and the pitcher has all the momentum. the batters guess, and they guess wrong. And then they have to take the walk of shame to the dugout.
 
Pitchers don't swagger; batters swagger. And batters sulk. The best a pitcher can do is smirk. The self help buyers tend to swagger - hey, I didn't die in that sweat lodge; it's a badge of courage for me. I'm a winner. Remember the guy with that shocking attitude? The sham self-help peddlers tend to smirk.
 
Hide your wallet from those who swagger and smirk - what they are selling probably won't be that valuable to you. That walk to the dugout can be pretty tough after you have struck out.
 

Steve Salerno said...

Oct 21, 2010 (yesterday)
 
by Steve Salerno

 
NDP: Nice analysis--I like the way you extended the baseball metaphor and carried it forward. Not so sure pitchers don't swagger, too, at least some of 'em. Your overall point, however, is taken, and well worth thinking about.