Tag Archives: success
The Edison Contradiction, Or Why Great Achievers Are So Often Unethical People, And Civilization Is Still Better Off For It
I was watching the (scary, excellent) Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House,” and it took four episodes to notice that the housekeeper was played by Annabeth Gish. She was not considered stellar enough to include in the opening credits, and her name slipped by quickly at the end. But it was good to see her name.
Annabeth Gish! She’s nearing 50 now, but back in 1988 she was a stunning teenager being groomed for can’t miss stardom. The Hollywood PR machine worked diligently to present her as can’t miss Hollywood royalty, the descendants of silent movie legends Dorothy and Lillian Gish, the latter actress being both alive and actively singing Annabeth’s praises. (In truth, they were unrelated, two random Gishes in the wind.) Annabeth was awarded top billing in a major studio coming-of-age comedy, “Mystic Pizza.” The movie was a critical and box office hit, too, but Gish’s career promise was slammed in the face by a two-by-four named Julia Roberts, who had the “it” factor in such abundance that Gish, despite a more prominent role and a competent performance, seemed palid and outmatched by comparison. She never got a starring role in a major film again, because, as was immediately apparent, Annabeth Gish wasn’t a star. She was just a smart, attractive, hard-working young actress, and that was all she would ever be until she became a a smart, attractive, hard-working middle-aged actress.
Most of us have to face the reality that our greatest aspirations and potential not only won’t be realized, but that we will never approach them. When that awful moment of enlightenment arrives, the ethical response is to just keep charging ahead, trying to get better, work harder, be a good co-worker, colleague, neighbor, friend, parent, spouse, family member, whatever it takes. That moment is disappointing, sure, but it need not be devastating, nor should it be seen as a brand of failure. We succeed in life, and become ethical human beings, not by becoming the best, most powerful, most famous, but by doing the best we can do. What levels of success others achieve is not our standard, except to recognize a fellow Earth occupant’s good work.
Annabeth Gish, like Moonlight Graham says in “Field of Dreams,” came “this close” to her dream and then watched it brush past her “like a stranger in a crowd.” I know what it feels like; you probably do too. I’ve had the proverbial brass ring this close to my grasp, only to have the Merry-Go-Round sweep past, and to see someone else take the prize. That’s just life—my father’s favorite expression. You win by going on, not looking back, not being poisoned by regret. self-recriminations or fury at the universe.
Annabelle Gish has won. She has almost hundred TV and movie credits, and is still a working actress: A new film, “The Rum of the World,” is in pre-production. She’s been happily married for 15 years—no easy accomplishment in her field—and has two sons. She does charity work, and can look at her life so far as being positive and productive, even if she isn’t among the elite of her profession, or any profession. If we are lucky, and learn the right lessons from life’s mistakes, traps and bad jokes, most of us are Annabeth Gish. You’re Annabeth Gish. I’m Annabeth Gish. Annabeth Gish is Annabeth Gish.
Good for her.
The second of the Comments of the Day sparked by my musings on Megyn Kelly’s descision to move from a job where she excelled to a completely different assignment at which, at least so far, she is crashing and burning like the Hindenburg. The first, by Extradimensional Cephalopod, was very different, an abstract analysis of the phenomenon that bedevils Kelly, and many of us. The second, a personal account of the dilemma in action, is no less enlightening, but very different.
The comment also reminded me that I have never posted about the Japanese concept of Ikigai, and I should have. There is no English equivalent for the word: ikigai combines the Japanese words ikiru, meaning “to live”, and kai, meaning “the realization of what one hopes for.” Together the words encompass the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life. Ikigai also invokes a mental and spiritual state where individuals feel that their lives have value—to them, to loved ones, to society.
Ikigai odes not spring from actions we are forced to take, but from natural, voluntary and spontaneous actions. In his article titled “Ikigai — jibun no kanosei, kaikasaseru katei” (“Ikigai: the process of allowing the self’s possibilities to blossom”) Japanese wrter Kobayashi Tsukasa says that “people can feel real ikigai only when, on the basis of personal maturity, the satisfaction of various desires, love and happiness, encounters with others, and a sense of the value of life, they proceed toward self-realization.”
Here is Alex’s Comment of the Day on the post, Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay:
This topic is close to my heart, so time for some confessions and public reflections.
As I’ve previously mentioned I’m a software engineer, over a decade of experience, and modesty aside, a darned good one at what I do. The main areas of work I’ve been involved in are speech recognition, accessibility and development runtimes (think along the lines of the Java runtime). It was not necessarily world transforming work, but it had an impact and passionate following by our users. Pay was good if slightly low for the experience I had, and as of late I was getting tired of the work and wanted to try something new – also, a reasonable salary increase was not going to hurt.
So I start my job hunt, both internally and externally. At the end it comes down to two very good offers: One working for a social media giant with at a still-to-be-determined role with extremely good pay and no clear route for advancement. The other working closer to hardware (I’m an EE but never worked on it professionally) with lower pay (still an improvement over my previous job) at a clearly defined role with an advancement development plan and with the goal of putting people in space.
Putting it like this it sounds like a home run, but with a family in the line – I’m a single earner with three kids – the financial sides are a big consideration. There were so many things to balance: money, prospects for advancement, happiness, commute time, personal fulfillment, and yes, societal value of my work. It was not an easy decision, there were difficult conversations with my wife and even more than a year later some days I wonder if this was the right call (I went with the space company…Yay!) Continue reading
I have been following Megyn Kelly’s ongoing career crash with interest and reflection. She spurned a more lucrative contract from Fox News to jump to NBC, where she was made the star of a “Today Show” shake-up. Critics have been brutal; ratings have plunged. Reportedly celebrities refuse to be booked for interviews with her–they are all progressives, you see, and fear they will get cooties from Megyn, or something. Conservatives are mocking her as a turncoat getting her just desserts, and the Left already hated her. She has no constituency now; literally none.
You never know; Megyn might rebound. Nevertheless, she is a cautionary tale with ethics implications. Kelly has an unusual set of skills and talents. She is actress/model beautiful in face and physique; she is very intelligent; she has a great broadcast voice. She is a lawyer as well as a journalist, articulate, and has guts. There are many paths she could take that would make use of her abilities and achieve fame, wealth, popularity or power.
This is fortunate fortunate, but it also is a trap. Choices involve the risk of error, failure, lost opportunities and disappointment. Those who have a limited number of skills also have a limited number of choices, or none at all. There is some serenity in this. My entire professional life has been spent jumping back and forth, in and out among the many areas that interest and engage me, and in which I have had some measurable talent and success. In the end, and I am far closer to the end than the beginning, mine will be substantially a life of underachievement and waste, in great part because I never made a committed choice, or made the wrong ones.
My heroes have always been those remarkable, versatile people who somehow contrived to make major contributions to culture, society and civilization in multiple fields. Theodore Roosevelt, a historian, naturalist, and political leader. Clarence Darrow, a lawyer, writer, and philosopher. Hedy Lamarr, the sexy actress and pin-up who developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, a bomb-sight,and whose inventions are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technology. Paul Winchell, the popular ventriloquist, kids show host, and voice actor (Tigger!) who also invented medical equipment. Marlene Dietrich, who acted, sang, spied, and defied Hitler. John Glenn, a fighter pilot, astronaut, and U.S. Senator. Richard Gil, a tenured Harvard Professor of Economics, and a principal bass with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Michael Crichton, a novelist, film director and MD, with the gift of philological insights. Ronald Reagan, a movie star and a President of the United States. But their path is perilous. Continue reading
Slate’s article by Jordan Weissmann, its senior business and economics correspondent, about the largest donation ever made to Harvard University is one of those monstrosities that has great value as an ethics test. If you think his argument is reasonable, then you need help.
Essentially, the Slate piece is the ultimate example of an unethical argument I have focused on before, which can be summarized as, “If you give to what you care about rather than what I care about, then your donation is unethical.”
Unless your contribution is to ISIS, or isn’t really a contribution but an attempt to buy access for your own purposes (like with, to pick an example out of the air, a donation to the Clinton Foundation), there is nothing unethical about a $400,000,000 donation, which is what John Paulson just gave to Harvard University’s endowment for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The school will be renamed after Paulson, which Weissman also finds repugnant. The title of the piece: “Billionaire’s Ego Donates $400 Million to Harvard.”
Let me pause here to note that I refuse to give my money to Harvard, which solicits me regularly. The university is rich, I’m not, and I prefer to give my charitable gifts to Georgetown Law Center, specifically to the student theatrical organization I founded there, which like all theater groups, needs funds. I am sure Weissman finds my contribution unethical as well, because, really, what good are the arts compared to what he has decreed is worth giving to as the “more pressing causes in the world”? As he sees it, that is, but that’s all that matters.
Let me go through Weissman’s many objections that cause him to sneer at Paulson’s charity:
1. “Gestures to Ivy League schools …inevitably have as much to do with the giver’s ego as their sense of altruism.” Yes, and so do almost all philanthropic donations, regardless of source and objective. The motto in fundraising (I was a professional fundraiser for a decade) is that donors give money for their purposes, not yours. People who give a lot of money to good causes like to have some recognition, and they deserve it. Apparently Weissman believes that the only ethical donations are anonymous ones, because that’s modest. I’m impressed by anonymous gifts, though they often have selfish motivations as well: the donors don’t want to be hounded by more fundraisers. Nevertheless, that lack of modesty is so trivial as a flaw in large charitable contributions that to harp on it is perverse. Successful people tend to have egos that are often in proportion to their accomplishments. The construct of the left is, we know, that accomplishments and success are just randomly distributed fruits of privilege, ergo the self-esteem that often results from such success is as unsavory as the privilege that generates it.
This is, to be blunt, un-American crap.
2. Harvard “does not strictly need more money, especially compared to the financially strapped colleges that typically educate lower-income students.” First of all, this is demonstrably false. Harvard does need more money if it is going to expand and improve its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, secure that school’s financial health in perpetuity, and do so without sacrificing other objectives it deems important. Harvard also educates lower-income students, the best and brightest of them, and thus the best resources money can buy are expended on the students most likely to make the best use of them for the benefit of society. Weissman believes this is wrong, and that the 400,000,000 should be given to lesser schools, with less of a track record of spending money wisely, while educating less promising students.
I am in sympathy with that argument to some extent. The marginal utility of all that money is less at Harvard than anywhere else, and I can envision the donation having a far more sweeping impact elsewhere: giving it to Sweet Briar, for example. That does not mean there is anything wrong in any way with bolstering Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The donation is an unequivocal, absolute good.
The money could have been spent “better”? That’s your opinion. It’s not your money. Shut up. Continue reading
You know how hard it is for the co-creator of “Pennant Pursuit, the Boston Red Sox Trivia Game” to write this.
It can’t be avoided though. The New York Yankees have, and not for the first time, upon reflection, demolished the oft-stated accusation that Major League Baseball is no longer a sport, but a business. This was always a false dichotomy, for from the days of rag-tag 19th Century baseball to the present, The Great American Pastime That Does Not Require You To Cheer Young Athletes Guaranteeing That They Will Spend Their Retirement In A Brain-Damage Haze has always been both, with each side constantly yielding to the other.
Coming off a disappointing season (the all-time most successful team in pro sports history missed the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years) and faced with an aging, injured, question mark-filled roster despite the highest payroll in the game ($228,995,945; the Houston Astros, in contrast, spend about 24 million, or less that the Yankees paid their steroid cheating third-baseman), and faced with baseball’s team salary luxury tax, which charges teams with a payroll exceeding 189 million for every dollar over it, the Yankees discarded their announced business plan of cutting back on salaries to avoid the tax threshold, and instead went on a spending binge. They snapped up most of the top free agent stars peddling their wares this winter, committing themselves to a staggering boost in contract obligations that will approach a half-billion dollars by the time the dust clears. Continue reading