When “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” Is A Good Thing (If Not Necessarily Good Grammar)

by Brian on March 23, 2012

in Work Ethic

Have I done you a disservice lately?

I don’t think so, but when there’s room for doubt, better to dispel the notion.

The point of contention is a line in “How Better Happens,” from a few weeks ago, which looked at some realizations, upon proofing OCR scans of some of my earliest novels, that became apparent only with the passage of time. Specifically, this bit:

“It’s so clear: Things got better. I got better. Mostly as a consequence of not stopping. Not stopping, and an unrelieved sense of dissatisfaction.”

That word, dissatisfaction. The implication that it’s a constant, like each day’s sunrise. Later on, the words humbling and humiliating get thrown in. Hard words, all of them. Welcome to the world.

Since then, I got an e-mail from a reader respectfully wondering if I might not be sending out an unhelpful, even damaging message: that you’re not supposed to take pride in your own work. That getting better means you have to linger in a state of perpetual misery about it. That, like the Greek myth of Tantalus, you must doom yourself to an eternity of reaching for a bunch of succulent grapes you can never touch.

Gee, I hope not. That would mean I’ve squandered an awful lot of gloomy days with a perfectly inappropriate sense of contentment.

“A Foolish Consistency Is The Hobgoblin Of Little Minds” *

Paradoxical creatures, we homo sapiens. But often to our benefit, as F. Scott Fitzgerald latched onto with this observation:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Like, say, (A) “I’m happy with my work today,” and (B) “I’m not happy with my work in the grand scheme of things.”

The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I’ve never let any piece of writing go out from underneath my roof until I felt that it was the best I could possibly make it. That it was something I would feel proud to have my name on. But my best may be my best only at that particular time.

This inevitably gets tangled up with a longer-term view: recognizing that my best could still be better in the future, and that this lies on the other side of more work, care, and attention to detail.

The only way to reach it is to not get too comfortable, or overly satisfied, with where I am today.

Satisfaction is like aspirin: A little can help, but more isn’t necessarily better, and may even make things worse. Too much self-satisfaction may lead to smugness at best; at worst, outright hubris. If you want an unforgettable depiction of the consequences of hubris, it doesn’t get much starker than Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of a notoriously ill-fated attempt at summiting Mount Everest in 1996.

I love this quote, from one of the commercial expedition leaders:

“We’ve got the big E figured out, we’ve got it totally wired. These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.”

His frozen corpse is still somewhere up on the mountain.

An extreme example? Sure. But people pull the equivalent with their personal and professional lives every day. I’ve done it myself, when I’ve lost sight of having been taught better.

“When I Was 17, It Was A Very Good Year…” **

Not everybody is fortunate enough to be able to pinpoint when and where a principle like this was instilled in them. To the extent anyone is able, I am.

As a high school senior, I had one of my two favorite teachers for College Prep Writing. He also supervised the school literary magazine, whose staff I was on that year. Mr. Quinn, his name. We already knew each other pretty well by that point. TQ, some of us called him.

For our assigned papers, TQ’s grading schema had two scores: one for content, the other for presentation. What you said, and how well you said it. A perfect score was 100/100.

Except I seemed unable to ever wriggle past 96/96. Sometimes a gut-churning 94 crept into the mix. What does it take to get 100 out of this guy, I would think, and go into each new assignment determined to make this one the one that pushed my grade to the top.

It never happened. Solid A’s, but never that perfect score. Not once. It wasn’t like Harry Potter’s world, where Dumbledore gives you the winning points just because he likes you.

Only during the last few days of my senior year did I find out what was actually going on, from my friend Leslie, that year’s lit-mag editor-in-chief. She’d been privy to the master plan for some time.

TQ was never going to give me 100, Leslie told me. He’d apparently decided this early. I could turn in the finest work he’d ever seen, and he was still never going to grade it higher than 96.

Because TQ saw something, and didn’t want me to stop striving to do better. He didn’t want me to feel complacent. Didn’t want me feeling entitled to coast.

So I never got 100 on some paper whose content I would’ve forgotten in a few months? Big deal. Instead, I came out of TQ’s class with something that could carry into the rest of my life. It was one of the best lessons I never remotely realized I was learning.

Now that’s a teacher.

“All Anyone Asks For Is A Chance To Work With Pride” ***

By all means, take pride in your work. If we’ve done our best, we should. We should love it for what it is, and maybe, sometimes, in spite of what it isn’t … yet.

But our best is only a snapshot in time. A single way station along a winding path or an uphill climb.

Can you truly say you love your work if you’re willing to let it take a breather halfway along the journey … and then stay there?

Subhead quotes:
* Ralph Waldo Emerson ** Frank Sinatra  *** W. Edwards Deming

[Photo by Avenue G]

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee Thompson March 23, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Fantastic post, as always, Brian! What a great lesson.
And I haven’t forgot about your interview questions, been finalizing an audio book and wrapping up some other projects. Will be in touch soon! Thanks, man.

Brian March 23, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Thanks, Lee. Glad you liked. And I’m looking forward to the Q&A, whenever you see your way clear.

Helen W. Mallon March 24, 2012 at 7:59 am

Hmmm….I THINK I know who wrote the comment suggesting it might not be in the best interest of your career to be one paragraph short of hanging yourself over the quality of your previous work. :-) Your clarification is a terrific essay in itself.
The best teacher I had in art school liked to say (usually after one had pulled an all-nighter) “Nice work. Now do over.” I can’t replicate his Polish accent, however.

Brian March 24, 2012 at 11:14 am

Well, it was an e-mail, rather than a comment, so unless you’re intercepting my … waaaait a minute. You’re not with the National Security Administration, are you???

Sounds like your art teacher was cut from the same cloth as TQ. Some teachers just have this innate way of making a thing like that inspiring and motivating, rather than soul-crushing.

FZA March 25, 2012 at 8:45 pm

I love these posts Brian. You seem to be channeling an inner resolve to push the rest of us, saying to us “keep going, keep going”.

One of the best epigraphs I ever read came from one of my favourite writers, Nadeem Aslam in his debut novel, SEASON OF THE RAINBIRDS. He quoted John Berger’s line: “If I’d known as a child what the life of an adult would have been, I would never have believed it. I never could have believed it would be so unfinished.”

This blog is absolutely one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read.

Reb MacRath March 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm

As expected, wonderful, and you are in top form here. Cheers.

Brian April 10, 2012 at 9:48 am

Thanks, Reb, thanks FZA. Genuine day-brighteners there.

And that’s a great quote, FZA. I love the quick jab of truth in it.

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