Sunday Night Reflections: There are no shortcuts, only short lives.

August 26, 2018

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A few years back I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. In it, Rovelli gives an overview of the major discoveries in physics in a text that is very accessible. For me, one of the lasting passages was his discussion of human beings. He explains how deeply connected we are to the earth and everything around us. He sums it up in a general way by stating “we don’t live on earth, we are the earth.”

I found that beautiful, but not for the reasons one might think. It didn’t evoke any feelings of kumbaya. Rather, it relies that there is a certain beauty in the order of life. If we are the earth, that means we are the joy and destruction, the nurturing and abandonment that completely rounds out the full extent of the human experience. That understanding allows me to come into fall acceptance of truths that are good and the bad. After all, the earth produces hurricanes and rainbows, and the emotions of love and hate activate the same brain circuitry.

There are other truths that are more societal in the Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Point or the Jordan Peterson 12 Rules for Life kind of way. These truths are so unavoidable that they might as well be as real as gravity or the sound barrier. One of those truths is that the pathway to achieving anything meaningful has never involved shortcuts and as mere mortals we all live relatively short lives.

Embracing my younger cousin after a speaking engagement. My cousin David Cook is to the right.

Embracing my younger cousin after a speaking engagement. My cousin David Cook is to the right.

I have very deep affection for my younger cousin. Some time ago we took a walk and he told me that one of his teachers bumped his grade up to a C when he had actually earned a D. My cousin has many incredible qualities, but he’s never responded well to school. That was part of the reason he felt great about getting a grade he hadn’t earned. I, on the other hand, took incredible offense to the gesture. He thought his teacher was a great person for that. I felt the teacher had completely disrespected someone I love dearly. I was not a supporter of George W. Bush, but this is what he meant when he said “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

There are many reasons this gesture was a disservice to my cousin, but more than anything I want him to have experiences that prepare him for the world. To be prepared, he needs to understand the world doesn’t reward poor performance, there are no participation trophies, we have to work hard and one of the greatest satisfactions you can ever experience is giving your all to a difficult task and seeing your ideas manifest themselves in the world. Most importantly, it’s absolutely necessary for him to understand that there are no shortcuts, there are only short lives.

None of my successful friends would say their accomplishments came without considerable sacrifices. Getting good at something has always required a few key elements: persisting through being bad at it, having the discipline to develop your craft and forgoing other desires in service of pursuing your ambitions. Even as the world around us changes these rules still apply.

I was born and raised in San Francisco, an area of the country that has come to be associate with words like innovate, disruptive and entrepreneurship. But your Lyft ain’t nothing but a taxi and your dating app ain’t nothing but single’s bar. What we’ve gained in convenience has made us less capable of going out to experience the discomfort that is necessary to achieve anything meaningful. In that sense, we’re all like my cousin hoping the world will give us a C after we’ve given D effort.

One of my favorite movies is Fight Club. During the film one of the main characters says “on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Advances in medicine and technology has done wonders to expand life expectancy, which is a good thing. But what is a 125 years or even 200 years on a plant that is 4.583 billion years old?

Accepting that “we are the earth” comes with a sense of liberation to abandon oneself to the order of things. With it, one actually gains more independence to pursue what is meaningful. In pursuit of that meaning there are truths we cannot avoid. Those truths include, but are not limited to the fact that I rely upon gravity and oxygen, there is no cavalry coming to save day and there no shortcuts to success, but with the short lives we’ve been given it will have all been worth it if we’ve given it to a difficult task.

Stevon Cook