Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When Everyone's Special...

...no one  is.

The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies, not just one of my favorite Pixar movies. Not that I couldn't say that about a lot of Pixar movies. But that's beside the point.

This is another post I started quite a while ago, but I think it flows pretty well out of my last post. Really, I'll give my soap box back at some point.

There are two themes in The Incredibles that attract me to it. The first of those is being who you are. Not hiding yourself away and pretending to be other than you are, but that's not what this post is about. This post is about the second theme, the one that has to do with society exalting mediocrity so that everyone can be "special."

It's somewhat of a paradox, too, because we are a society that exalts the "popular" while simultaneously trying to devalue everyone else so that we're all the same. The conflict arises because it boils down to "winners" (like Charlie Sheen >heh<) and "losers." If you're the hot commodity, you're a winner. Everyone else is a loser.

But we live in a society (mostly confined to North American at the moment but spreading) that doesn't believe in having "losers." A society that says everyone can be a winner... no, everyone is a winner. A society that tries to protect the feelings of, well, everyone (and saying "it's all subjective" is the ultimate defense against qualitative judgments of any kind). A society that doesn't believe in pointing out that anything is bad or wrong. A society that says "everything is good all the time." [See my post about the book Bright-sided for more on this.]

Let's use a sports analogy, shall we?

Because my daughter was playing softball (you can read that story here), my wife and I have been doing lots if digging and searching around for information about teams and leagues and all of that sort of thing. Meaning, my wife has been doing lots of research and passing the interesting bits on to me. One of the articles I read that really stood out to me is the rise of Little Leagues that do not have winners. Well, that's not true; they don't have losers. Everyone gets to be a winner. There are no outs. There are no scores. Everyone gets to hit the ball and run the bases. Why? Because we, as parents, need to protect our children from being "losers." And having hurt feelings.

But it doesn't fool the kids. And it doesn't help the kids. The kids want there to be winners, and they're willing to accept the prospect of losing, because they want the chance to win. They want the chance to win.

But none of us want our kids to be "losers," so we take that prospect away from them. We want to make them all winners, but the problem is that you can't have winners if you don't also have losers.

In many ways, I feel like this whole self-publishing game is becoming like these little leagues. We're not allowed to say anything negative, because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. No one is "allowed" to be a loser, and, if there are no losers, everyone gets to be a "winner." Even if that's not true. And we all know it's not true, but, if no one says anything bad, we can keep pretending.

There's this book I want to read, The Fourth Turning, that's all about this stuff from a generational perspective. We own the book, but it's out on loan (because I didn't get to it fast enough after my wife read it). Of course, loaned books can't usually be said to be owned books very often. That's my perspective anyway. Loaning it out is equivalent to giving it away.

At any rate, my generation, in the book, is known as the "unprotected" generation and looking at how I grew up, I tend to agree. We were the generation of latchkey kids (and I started being one by age 7). The current generation, the millennials, the generation my generation is raising, is known as the "protected" generation, and it is a direct response to the self-involvement of our own parents by trying to be over involved in our own kids' lives. It should be the "over protected" generation. [I've been reading a lot about how our aversion to allow our kids to experience risk is not so good for their internal development. Sure, they don't get broken bones, but they never learn how to take risks or, sometimes, even think for themselves.] And there was this other article about the first of the millennials entering the job market and how they need constant supervision and feedback (because they've never really learned how to be independent).

Anyway... I'm straying a bit, and it's getting late, so I need to wrap this up.

The point is this:
There are people in the world like Dash and Mr. Incredible. Not people with super powers, but people that standout above all the rest. We really don't get anywhere by trying to force everyone into a mold of sameness. The problem we have is that we don't want to acknowledge that there are some people that really need to either find something else to do or work harder at whatever it is before they can be good enough.

Like my brother playing basketball in high school. He was a short, white boy. Shorter than me, and I'm only 5'8". But my brother could play and play well, and it's what he wanted most to do. He had to work hard at it. And he did. Hours every day. And I bet you're expecting me to tell you some miracle story about his hard work and perseverance, but I'm not going to. He did make his high school team. He was the only white boy on the team one year. Mostly, he just warmed the bench, though. Why? Because, as good as he was, he wasn't better than the other boys on his team. Mostly because he just wasn't tall enough. And that's a suck thing to be that good but still not to be able to compete. Eventually, he had to come to the conclusion that he wasn't going to be able to do that thing, basketball, and he went to other things.

But he did try. He gave it his all to see if he could make it, but he just couldn't pull it off. But he still plays for fun, so it's not like it was taken away from him.

To bring this back to writing, I'm going to switch movies. There's a quote at the end of Ratatouille that I love, but I'm only going to paraphrase it for you, "Not everyone can be a great writer, but a great writer can come from anyone." I do think everyone should have the opportunity to take their shot at being a great writer. Or a great anything. However, I don't think everyone can do it. I don't think most people can do it. Which is not to say that you shouldn't try. But, if you're going to try, work hard at it. And take the criticism (both bad and good (because to critique something is not just pointing out the bad)) people give you while you are busy working hard, and use it to get better.

Some people won't be tall enough. Some won't be fast enough. Some will just never get the break they need. Some will never get good enough because we don't tell them they need to work on their grammar so as to avoid hurting someone's feelings. And that's really the worst thing that can happen. To not become a winner because no one ever bothered to tell you that you were losing.

Everyone can't be special, because when everyone's special, no one is.


  1. "To not become a winner because no one ever bothered to tell you that you were losing."

    I. LOVE. THIS. Well done, Andrew.

  2. Yeah, my kid played in a basketball league when he was pretty young, third grade I think. His team, which had one incredible player, then my son, who was competent, and a bunch of typical kids who couldn't dribble or shoot, managed to dominate the league they were in. Of course, they took their undefeated team into the final game on their schedule (you know, no playoffs, because, well, you know) and got way behind. However, in the second half of that game, his team made a stunning comeback and managed to tie the game as the clock expired.

    That's when we learned there would be no overtime either. It made things too competitive. So they called the game, crowned the teams co-winners, and invited us back the following year.

    I hated that league, and so did my son. It was an environment where losers were praised and winners were treated like they were bullies.

    But, he plays in high school now (football, not basketball) and they dropped that attitude pretty quick along the way. It's win win win or else there. Believe me, it's super competitive.

  3. >Everyone can't be special, because when everyone's special, no one is.

    True. But coming to grips with your own mediocrity isn't easy.

    I can't find it in me to blame people who fight to define themselves as good at something.

    They shouldn't try to drag everyone down to same-ness, I agree. But hanging on to a shred of "speshul snowflake"-ness in a sea of ordinary? It's hanging onto your sense of self, on some level.

  4. I was on a championship basketball team in 5th grade mostly because my dad was the coach. I think I played maybe two minutes all year and I doubt I ever took a shot. Which was fine with me because I hated basketball. Baseball was more fun though I wasn't great at that either. I did slightly better at softball though my brother had an unfair advantage at that because he's left-handed and the right field fence on our field was at probably 100-150 feet whereas the left field fence was probably like 500 feet or something. So basically lefties were really special because they had a really short porch there.

    Anyway, Kurt Vonnegut in some of his stories like "The Sirens of Titan" depicted societies where everyone was equal because everyone would have a "handicap" to make them less good. So if someone was really fast they'd wear a bunch of weights or something like that.

  5. Thanks for this, Andrew. Sure, reality bites. But what I don't understand is how people think they can somehow magically protect kids from EVER LEARNING THAT. Because, um, people die, and stuff. I'm not saying we should teach that stupid stiff-upper-lip shit any more, either - I'm a fan of being totally honest with kids about what is cool and awesome about life and what is really awful and unfair. Because life has both things. And kids know that. It's idiotic adults who try and convince them that they're "speshul snowflakes" - most of the time, I think, genuine encouragement when your kid (or, hell, your friend, or spouse!)is excited about something and honest sympathy when shit doesn't work out is the best help we can give and lesson we can teach. I mean, what the hell do I know. But it's worked for me.

  6. Sam: It's something that really bothers me, and it bothers me that teachers play into that whole thing. Not because they're worried so much about hurting a student's feelings but because they don't want to deal with the parents when it happens.

    Rusty: It does change in high school, but it does a great disservice to the kids that play in these leagues but don't go on to high school sports. There's this idea that quality doesn't matter, because no one can lose.

    L.: Sure, everyone should hang onto their self worth and their own specialness, but they should be striving to make themselves better not getting upset because someone says "you're not as special as you think you are."

    Grumpy: I need to read that story. Really, I just need to pick up some more Vonnegut.

    Jericha: Yeah, we've had, probably, more than our share of death in our family over the past couple of years, and it can be hard for kids to come to grips with it, but I think it's better in the end. Don't lie to your kids and tell them something is good enough when it's not. Push kids (people) to excel rather than allowing them to think whatever it is they've done is good enough (when it obviously isn't).

  7. Yep, I see this generation difference too. Both my parents worked when I was a kid, and I was either sent to daycare or was on my own at home after school. I walked everywhere on my own.

    When I had my son I chose to stay home, and I was crazy over-protective of him when he was little. I'm better now about letting him be on his own, but it's still a little scary for me to let go. He's, uh, fifteen now, by the way, and I finally let him out of my sight. God, I hope he doesn't end up living at home when he's thirty. :)

    Also, I do agree that at times there's an effort or attitude that seeks to equate all writers, which is great for friendship, but probably isn't very realistic or honest in the long run.

  8. What a thought-provoking post, Andrew.

    I think part of the 'everyone's a winner' mentality comes from our egalitarian mindset. We want everyone to be equal. But you can't be both equal and free. If you give people freedom, you give them the freedom to rise above others. It's natural. (Heh, it's how capitalism works)

    But you're right, if there are no loser, there're no winners. Everyone's got to be a loser at something. It's admitting it and moving on that makes you the winner.

  9. Agree one hundred percent! Never allowing losers doesn't teach kids anything. It only makes them less prepared for when they get out in the real world and the harsh reality is there are winners and losers. You're right, when everyone is special, no one is special.

  10. L.G.: Well, you know, that staying at home till 30 is more and more common, too, in part because parents aren't really giving their kids the skills to be independent.

    Lauren: Yeah, there's a definitely a part that equates "all men are created equal" to "all men are equal," which just isn't true. But that's probably a separate post.

    Alex: Yeah... I know all these parents at my kids' school that over-facilitate their kids' homework; as in, they sit down with them and help them with all of it all the time. It's just bad.

  11. Interesting. I've noticed this awful trend, of course, but hadn't read anything on the reasons why. Interestingly enough, in my parents' house this has hit only one of us. I need to sit down and analyze what was different with my oldest brother. I let my kids fail. I help them pick themselves up afterwards, but I let them learn. It's a great disservice to these kids who aren't allowed to fail at something. Each person is good at something, so there is absolutely no reason to make them believe they are good at something they aren't. That doesn't allow them to go out and find that thing they ARE actually good at, to develop it properly. And what will our work force be like with a bunch of useless people with the thought process that the world owes them and should take care of them?

    Yeesh, I could go on and on, but this is a comment, not a blog post!

  12. Shannon: Virtually all the parents I've known through the years in connection to my kids' school have been these overly protective parents. It's pretty horrible.