Wednesday, August 10, 2005


There is a quote in the anatomy lab:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

The implication is obvious - we need to work like crazy, or else we will fail, or at least fail to make our mark on the world. From here, my thoughts go in several directions. First, the whole quote, then a close reading of the quote as written (which is boring as hell), then how it relates to my thinking (also very boring).

Turns out, the remainder of the quote is, "The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." This doesn't sound too bad, just a call to take control of your life. More significant (I think) are the speaker and the date, those being Calvin Coolidge and 1932.

Calvin Coolidge was president during the late 1920s. The stories of wealth , lack of foresight, and belief in unlimited prosperity from this period should have been ground into your mind in the 11th grade (as they were into mine). Reread Gatsby for a refresher. My PhD will not be in economics, but my understanding is that at least some of the causes of the greatness of the great depression were created or allowed to fester during Coolidge's administration. Wikipedia states, "Even in 1929, after nearly a decade of economic growth, more than half the families in America lived on the edge or below the subsistence level—too poor to share in the great consumer boom of the 1920s, too poor to buy the cars and houses and other goods the industrial economy was producing, too poor in many cases to buy even the adequate food and shelter for themselves." You may recall that the great depression began in Europe prior to it's American begining in October 1929. The European nations, understandably hard-up for cash asked Coolidge for relief and he replied, "They hired the money, didn't they?" You can see, he was not exactly a compassionate person. Telling somebody that was laid off because of a global depression and is incapable of feeding their family that they need to "Press on" is a kick in the teeth, plain and simple.

What does this actually say? I'm not talking AP English style close reading, I'm talking what's the meaning. The first sentence says that only persistence can be persistence. This in and of itself is meaningless. Nothing in the world can take the place of ice cream. Nothing in the world can take the place of road tar. Nothing in the world can take the place of some woman's dead husband on Law & Order. What is more common, unsuccessful men with talent, or bacteria in the colons of the unsuccesful men with talent? Perhaps we should read that as saying that the most common outcome for talented men is to be unsuccessful, in which case I would be better off sticking Crayons in my head Homer Simpson style than going to anatomy lab. I suppose I could always hope I'm one of the lucky ones (truly nothing in the world can take the place of luck), but unfortunately I'm pretty smart... It seems odd that an institution that exists to promote and sell (for an impressive price) education is claiming that the world is already stuffed with "educated derelicts." I'm reading the last line to say that the combination of persistence and determination combine to do... something. The concepts are omnipotent, but does that mean that potence is proportional to persistence x determination, or is it an all or nothing thing? What happens when two persistent people come into conflict?

Fortunately, this isn't a scientific pronouncement, so such close reading, while annoying, is not necessary.

This seems like a fairly benign, somehwat overwrought call to keep buggering on (or KBO as Churchill might say). It does make one want to reach for the Demotivators (this one and this one seem quite appropriate), but this in and of itself is more a reflection of my cynicism. I said before that this is "a call to take control of your life," but that's incorrect. The reason that I made that particular leap is that I conflated this recipe for success with my own. Mine is simply to internalize my locus of control. What does that mean? It means that I believe I am in control of my life. I realize that I can't control everything that happens, but I can control the probabilities that they will happen. I can't guarantee that I won't lose my keys (or cell phone, or mp3 player or any other small item), but I can do things that will greatly decrease the probability of that occuring, things like checking my pockets before I leave somewhere.

The same is true of grades. You can't control what will be on the test, but you have a pretty good idea what the questions will be, and you know how to study for them. A lot of work is required, yes, but also talent, genius, previous education, and a host of other traits - the wisdom to know when to ask for help, and the humility to actually make the request, for instance.

So what bothers me most about this statement is the idea that I am not in control off my success, and that the only way to attain success or power is to submit to a regime of persistence. As WSC might say, "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." That is, know when to stop beating your head against the wall.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Jeff, I think that this is my absolute favorite thing I've read of yours. Your personality shines through as bright as anything, it's got a sharp wit and a clear point.

I especially like your actually looking at the quote in its original context. The quote itself is so very Republican and probably was used to placate the working poor and tell them that their problems were their own darn fault, but don't worry because it doesn't mean you're not special, just that you're poor. Maybe if you work harder in my factories you'll actually make money, or at least not get laid off in the depression.

I'm also a fan of the analytic-but-cynical approach to reading what the quotation actually heck, I like the post pretty much in its entirety. Keep it up!