Gnomicon 241

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  241
Tuesday 8 January 2013
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Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded
genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of
educated failures. Persistence and determination
alone are omnipotent.

Calvin Coolidge (4 Jul 1872 – 5 Jan 1933)

In an era of BIG government like ours, this thirtieth president (1923-1929) of the United States does not ride high in the estimation of the pundits.  But I am not here to argue for or against his complicity – such as it may have been – in bringing on the Great Depression due to the ‘hands-off’ laissez-faire style of government that flourished on his watch during the roaring twenties – perhaps not entirely unlike the reigning deregulatory ethos that (no doubt) causally preceded our own current varieties of unpleasantness, not least that ‘cliff’ we have now for the moment apparently not tumbled off into catastrophes of one sort or another.

Be all that as it may, it is the spirit of the epigraph that I wish briefly to address. What about all those ‘unsuccessful people with talent’ and those proverbial characters of ‘unrewarded genius’ and – most deliciously – the ‘educated failures’ you can see sticking sadly around and lounging lazily about from Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to Harvard Square in Cambridge?  Few things are more disheartening.

A quick breakdown of the word ‘persistence’ into its component semantic parts tells the story right there:  the verbal sist (‘make stand, fix, plant’) with its intensifying prefix per (‘through [and through], all the way to the end’) – taking an unmovable stand, as it were.  Nothing will shake you loose, bring you to move from your goal.

If you went to school a long time, you met a lot of people who were obviously a lot smarter than you (and you may even have wished you had their smarts instead of your own inadequate supply of same).  And you wonder what happened to them – they sort of never showed up again even after gliding through the program faster than anybody else and with everybody’s expectation of great things to come from them.  We’ve probably all known a few people like that – I may have forgotten their names, but I can still see them in my mind’s eye doing something beyond scintillating in that seminar back then or reading a brilliant paper at that graduate colloquium the next year, and so forth and so on.

Then it was as though the degree were the final and only validation they ever needed, and professionally they were never heard from again.  I found it puzzling, and I still do.

And it certainly doesn’t have be a question of an academic environment for this situation to play itself out:  I’m sure the same is true from the design studio, the baseball diamond, the art atelier, the brokerage house … that shining rocket shooting into the heavens only to fizzle, burn and drop in silent ignominy back to sullen earth.


I once had a discussion with my Father about this phenomenon, and, nodding in strong agreement with himself as he succinctly explained it, said, “Stick-with-it-ness.  Some guys just were cursed from first-grade onward with having everything they do go their way without any effort, and when they get out in the real world it rarely happens that way.  So they just give up.  They don’t have the long view, and they just don’t know how to deal with failure.”  Or something to that effect.

I am reminded here of something I once read about venture capitalist. When they interview people who are seeking start-up capital for some project or other, before they even ask about the proposed company, the first question is:  “How many businesses have you failed at?”  That didn’t make much sense to me when I read it, but over the years it has come to make a great deal of sense.

Ask any author how many times a manuscript was submitted until some editor finally realized what she had on her incompetent hands!  The first novel John Grisham wrote endured twenty-five rejection letters before it was finally taken;  Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) garnered over a hundred rejection notices before it got published (and has sold over five million copies); the sci-fi cult novel Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert got shot down some twenty times before it was published; and so forth …

These kinds of accounts are legion.  They alone more than validate the very important, salient point Coolidge made.

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