The Evolved Self Eats Crappy Food (Sometimes)
I started to read this article by Benjamin Hardy on why most people will never be successful.
It caught my attention by leading with a negation of the equation “money=success”—a negation with which I concur.
A few lines further on, though, this bit rolled in:
To be successful, you can’t continue being with low frequency people for long periods of time.
You can’t continue eating crappy food, regardless of your spouse’s or colleague’s food choices.
Your days must consistency(sic) be spent on high quality activities.
To which I say:
The article in question goes on to prescribe a reasonably-okay definition of success centered on the verb balancing, but by then, Hardy had lost my buy-in.
Because success doesn’t necessarily mean never eating crappy food. Nor does it necessarily mean completely eschewing “low-frequency people” (whatever that means). Part of success is being able to roll with the punches (or, as autocorrupt appropriately suggests, “the lunches”)—to accept without judgment that the occasional bag of Doritos can be good for the soul, and that humility is a critical faculty.
Added a “More” tag because holy philibusters this is long.
In short: sometimes, balancing the “spiritual, relational, financial, and physical” means dismounting from one’s high horse to relax and eat French fries with low-frequency people.
Sometimes, likewise, pursuing “high-quality activities” means sacrificing the financial part of things for a time.
I could be making good money doing any number of things right now—things that would decimate the time I have to work on dance. If I did those things instead of dancing, we could be in a much more “balanced” place financially.
But to do those things, I would have to sacrifice something else: dance. Sure, maybe not entirely—but dance is a harsh mistress and a demanding muse. Early on, you decide whether it’s just a hobby or you’re going to go all-in.
And if you go all-in, especially under non-standard circumstances, you accept that you’re going to make sacrifices. Sometimes enormous ones.
As a dancer, I have a limited window in which to make something of myself. That means spending as much time as I possibly can in the pursuit of dance. Deciding to do it now might be a fever dream, but I would bitterly regret failing to try.
I would, in other words, not succeed in a very real sense.
I’d be pretty surprised if Hardy article regarded, say, Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, or the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon all of them) as unsuccessful. But I think all three of those guys did a fair bit of hanging out with “low-frequency” people. I suspect that at least some of that involved fellowship over crappy food.
I’d be pretty surprised if he regarded, say, Michelangelo or DaVinci as unsuccessful. Both those guys focused so relentlessly on their creative work, though, that they sometimes made really dumb blunders in all all kinds of areas. (They probably also sometimes forgot to eat, or wound up eating eating the Renaissance equivalent of “fast food at your desk.”)
I’d be pretty surprised if Hardy regarded, say, Rudolf Nureyev as unsuccessful.
Frankly, though, Nureyev more or less lived on alcohol and drama. His life was wildly unbalanced. He destroyed his body at a ridiculous rate. Evidently, by the time he was 35, he could barely walk (which just shows you how powerful dance is; he continued dancing almost up until the time of his death). But Nureyev was driven by a superhuman passion, and he more or less single-handedly redefined the world’s vision of ballet for an entire generation and continues to be a touchstone for generations that have followed.
Nureyev might have lived longer and, in fact, might have enjoyed critical acclaim longer if he hadn’t been a man of implacable passions that drove him to ridiculous lengths.
But, oh, what the world would have lost, had he been a little tamer and less audacious.
I’m not saying saying that great artists must always also be great disasters—Eric Bruhn wasn’t, Andrew Wyeth wasn’t. Bach certainly wasn’t (Mozart, on the other hand…).
Rather, I’m saying that sometimes one part of a being evolves at a different rate than other parts. Sometimes, the holy fire of art consumes consumes the artist as it burns.
Sometimes—as, I think, in the case of Nureyev—the conflagration is too great for its frail human vessel (and all human vessels are frail).
Should we say that a great artist was unsuccessful simply because he lived his life off-balance and was consumed by the fire of his art?
I rather think not.
I completely agree with what I suspect is the heart of Hardy’s message.
When your days are filled with only those core essentials that mean the world to you — and you’re succeeding in those few areas — you absolutely will dominate in “all” areas of your life. Because the only things in your life are the things you highly value. Everything else has slowly been weeded-out. You are living intentionally and congruently. You have momentum and balance.You’re being who you truly want to be, every single day.
But the devil, it seems, is in the details.
Hardy loses me again when he starts to write about how hard it’s going to be.
Here’s the truth: it isn’t always hard. If you’re on fire and living this life driven by passion and purpose and it seems easy, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Don’t borrow trouble when the wind is in your sails (and don’t mix your metaphors when a rising tide is worth two in the bush).
If you can find the thing that sets you on fire and are able to tear down your life and rebuild your life around it, it can feel pretty easy, actually. Terrifying, I’ll grant, but easy.
Because a driving passion is like a really, really good compass. You will know you have found it when you rarely even have to think about whether or not to shove everything else out of the way. And that can make things feel pretty easy.
Yes, there are days that getting out of bed is a challenge—but then I ask myself, “Laziness, or ballet?”
Yes, I sometimes remember that I could contribute more financially if I backed off on my pursuit of dance—but then I ask myself, “Stability now, or regret later?” That answer, too, rings clear as glass.
And though I love my husband dearly, if someone offered me a dance job in Outer Mongolia, I’d go in a heartbeat. I know that D and I would figure things out. The choice would make itself. Sometimes the muse says, “Jump!” and the answer isn’t, “How high?” but “How far?”
On a more mundane level, I love riding bikes, but I do so under strictly-controlled circumstances now, because ballet. I love horses, but I’m content to wait until I reach a point in my life at which taking the time (and money) to devote to them won’t mean impinging upon my dance goals.
If I die tomorrow, I’ll die knowing that I was fervently working in the service of a great passion, and I might be sad that I haven’t done everything I hoped to do, but I wouldn’t regret the things that I’ve chosen to save for the future so I can give all of myself to this one thing now.
Ballet always wins because it has set my soul on fire. Ballet wins over everything, because I am evidently insane driven by a passion that feels bigger than the vessel that contains it.
It isn’t always possible to drop everything and pursue The One Thing, though, and that’s okay, too.
I’m lucky: I’m fairly young, I’m married to a guy who can cover all the bills, and we don’t have kids. If I were single, I would be able to work the kind of crap job that fits in around my ever-more-demanding dance schedule and I’d only have myself to worry about, so I’d still be able to do what I’m doing(1).
- I’m the kind of person who enjoys living very simply and owning almost nothing, so housework approaches zero when I live alone.
If I was a single parent, though, I might make different choices, and that would be okay. That, too, would be part of finding the balance. I might have to search for a different passion. I believe I would find one.
Likewise, I suspect that, for many people, there isn’t an obvious One Thing—especially if the One Thing turns out to be something the surrounding culture takes for granted, like raising a family, being a homemaker, or making the best grilled-cheese sandwich in the universe. We don’t see those things as worthy of single-minded pursuit.
I believe that they are.
My old roommate had a story that he used to illustrate exactly that point. It went something like this:
Imagine that you’re a line cook, and the Great Gift that the Universe has given you is that if making a great grilled-cheese sandwich. You might feel that your gift is insignificant. The culture around you certainly does. You might not want to put your whole self into it. But the Universe can be a pushy bastard, so there you are.
One day, unbeknownst to you, an emergency-room doc comes into the diner where you work. She’s in the depths of a great despair. She doesn’t know how she can make it through her shift. She’s planning on calling in after lunch and quitting her job; going into something less stressful.
She breathes in the scent of your delicious grilled cheese and orders one. You make it for her.
The taste transports her back to her childhood and reminds her of good times she had at home on a snow day—building a snow fort during would-be school hours, flinging snowballs at the neighbor kids, then rushing back inside to thaw—back when the world seemed safe and warm.
She thinks about the first first time she tried to make grilled cheese and how she didn’t know you were supposed to butter the bread and the sandwiches stuck to the pan and she almost almost cried until her grandmother laughed and laughed at how you could turn the pan upside-down and they wouldn’t fall out and she saw for herself how funny it was.
All these happy memories rise up into her conscious mind, and she feels herself smiling, and she decides she can go back and at least finish this shift. If it’s still really bad, she can always quit after.
And she pays up and says, “Thanks” and “How ’bout those Cubs?” and “This weather, am I right?” and heads back into the fray, where she saves two lives.
Maybe she keeps working in the ER, or maybe she decides she’d rather be a trash collector. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that your grilled cheese gave her what she needed to get get through the rest of the day, and because of it two lives were saved that maybe wouldn’t have been.
And you know what? You saved those lives just as much as she did.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to be your Best Self.
The problem lies in being overly prescriptive about what a Best Self looks like. When we systematically eschew whole categories of people and experiences, we risk unwittingly nailing shut some windows of grace in our lives.
In Hasidism and Modern Man, Martin Buber reminds us that we find the Holy Sparks in unexpected places. We do ourselves a disservice by attaching greater significance to crappy food than it deserves and by looking askance at people who don’t appear to be driven by singular passions.
The Holy Sparks reside there, too: even in French Fries, even in boring old Uncle Maury who seems pretty aimless and watches so much TV.
We risk missing them when we resolve never to let French fries and Uncle Murray muddy the clear waters of our lives.
Likewise, when we discount great swathes of humanity as “low-frequency,” we risk losing the humility that human life requires. Every last one of us is only a few steps from the grave, and those of us who are doing “well” by whatever measure are never doing so entirely by our own efforts.
If ever someone lives the life of a dancer, it is only because
that person is a complete masochist and there are thousands of people who would rather sit and watch dance than spend grueling hours learning theatrical dance (and because that dancer-person is a complete masochist). That’s fine.
If ever one person pursues her passion with success, it’s because there are other people who value that passion, who might even be (gasp!) “low-frequency” people.
Even a passionate homemaker is usually given leave to focus on his home by some income stream independent of his own efforts.
We are all buoyed up by a sea of humanity. When we define success for ourselves, we do well to recognize that.
As for me, I’m not sure whether it not I’m the kind of person Hardy regards as a success—and I don’t really care one way or or the other.
Yes, I am Central Casting Troubled Ballet Boy. Yes, I am stumbling forward, getting things wrong, screwing things up all the time.
But I am also living a life driven by a singular passion, laser-focused on a long-term goal. I am doing so “with fear and trembling,” and (I hope) with as much humor and humility as ardor and arrogance.
I like to think that my soul is evolving, though of course there are days on which that looks pretty doubtful.
In the end, though, if there are a few things dance has taught me, they are these:
- We are part of something much greater than our own selves—but that doesn’t mean our own selves don’t matter. We are drops in the ocean, but the ocean is nothing without those drops. To misuse a phrase, “The strength of the corps is the dancer, and the strength of of the dancer is the corps.”
- There will always be someone better than you. Learn from them.
- There will always be someone worse than you. Help them learn.
- Pride goeth before the fall.
- Self-knowledge cometh after the fall (sometimes, so do bruises).
- Diligence, humour, and humility (almost) always prevail.
- Sometimes you have to adjust your sense of what it means to “prevail.”
- You can’t, and you can’t, and you can’t—until one day, inexplicably, you can.
And, if I may be so bold, I’ll add:
- All things in moderation, including moderation
- Sometimes, French fries are just the right thing.