Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Under Achievers

Norm has an interesting, tongue-in-cheek, rumination on the subject of failure today:

...Failure, Pelling suggests, can be creative, leading one on to better things later. And it's people's failures more than their successes that define them. Also, we like under-achievers.

The question this raises in my mind is whether more encouragement should be given to failing. Should we not value it more and teach people how to fail - not merely in the sense of instructing them in coming to terms with failure, but in the sense of urging them actually to strive for failure? And should we not, ourselves, try to fail more than we are accustomed to doing? But the problem is, if we tried to fail, would we be failing when we failed?

As a mother stalked by the nightmare of an under-achieving child, I have my own thought about the matter.

In the recently released Indiana Jones, Indie meets a young man with whom he becomes friends and partners-in-crime. The young man tells him that he had dropped out of school because all he wanted to do in life is fix old motorcycles. Indie sees nothing wrong in this modest ambition. Later, when he finds out the same young man is his son, the first thing he does is ask the mother, reprovingly: Why did you let him drop out of school?

We like under-achievers as long as they are not our own children.

Also, we only like those under-achievers who later in life get to become great successes, in spite of their formal lack of education. An under-achiever who has fulfilled his or her promise of mediocrity is only appealing in the sense that he or she does not threaten our amour-propre. He or she is either no more successful than us, and that's a reassuring thought that we are not alone in our plodding mediocrity, or he/she are less successful than us, which makes us feel simultaneously superior and charitable .

The whole thing reminds me of "The Verger", a short story by Somereset Maugham:

"I could do that all right, said Albert uncertainly. "But 'ow should I know what I was signin'?" "I suppose you can read," said the manager a trifle sharply.

Mr. Foreman gave him a disarming smile.

"Well, sir, that's just it. I can't. I know it sounds funny-like but there it is, I can't read or write, only me name, an' I only learnt to do that when I went into business."

The manager was so surprised that he jumped up from his chair.

"That's the most extraordinary thing I ever heard."

"You see it's like this, sir, I never 'ad the opportunity until it was too late and then some'ow I wouldn't. I got obstinate-like."

The manager stared at him as though he were a prehistoric monster.

"And do you mean to say that you've built up this important business and amassed a fortune of thirty thousand pounds without being able to read or write? Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?"

"I can tell you that sir," said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still aristocratic features. "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square."

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