Thursday, December 20, 2012

Happy Holidays 

I don't want to be all Scrooge-like, but find "Happy Holidays" kind of annoying. That's true of "Season's Greetings," too. I believe that people say these things sincerely, but they're euphemisms, designed not to "offend" people who don't believe in the religion whose origin is celebrated at Christmas. I say "Bah, humbug!" to that.

This rant was inspired by a note from a friend in another city. He and I met a few years ago; we exchange emails and send each other links to things of mutual interest, mostly political. The other day he sent me this link . It's a video of a flash mob at some mall surprising the shoppers with Christmas carols. It's nice, well-done as far as my tin ear can appreciate, and all the listeners seem happy with it. I wrote and thanked him, as happy events are in pretty short supply lately. He wrote back that he almost hadn't sent it, since knowing I'm Jewish he was afraid that it might offend me. It didn't, of course, nor did the idea that he was thoughtful about my possible sensitivity. I told him not to worry, that others expressing their beliefs doesn't offend me.

On reflection, though, I find that's not exactly true. The beliefs that aren't offensive are those of people who sincerely hold theirs and respect other peoples' rights to do the same. Sometimes those people offer to share their beliefs but, if you decline, they wish you well and go on their way. They may be devout members of some denomination or other, confirmed atheists, or anything in between, but they have in common a decent respect for other people and their rights. The beliefs that offend me are those of the self-righteous and the bigot; I'd list a few but you can supply your own as easily.  Besides, I'd like to be as cheerful as possible right now.

In that vein, what makes me smile is people sincerely wishing me and each other a "Merry Christmas." Why on Earth would  anyone take offense at a wish for their happiness? Why would someone not want to be merry and have others be likewise? The only explanation I can find for such politically correct Grinchiness (at least now that the Puritans have mercifully disappeared) has nothing to do with either religion or its denial. It's about power, petty one-upmanship, making people uncomfortable and unhappy just to show you can. 

I say screw that. It's nasty. Let's not let them bother us.

So to all of you reading this, a very hearty and outspoken "Merry Christmas!" from your friendly neighborhood Hebrew, agnostic, secular Provocateur.

And just in case....God bless us, every one!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown CT

I hate to add to the clamor over the Newtown killings, but I must say this. 

Predictably, the vulturous media is circling the corpses of twenty murdered children and their teachers. The news personalities assume solemn expressions while competing for scraps of flesh "news" to fatten their ratings. They trot out "mental health experts" whose equally solemn pronouncements amount to nothing more than your grandparents knew, and frequently less. 

Bureaucrats rush to "protect the children" with actions like closing their school, which will make them more vulnerable to fear and depression. The mental health experts will then prescribe drugs, further reducing the children's ability to cope with real emotion. In other cities and towns, heavy police presence is prescribed to increase the appearance of security, notwithstanding that heavily armed police in elementary classrooms sends a clear message of danger. Children are young, not stupid.

Meanwhile, the liberal political and media establishment, ever alert for an opportunity to trash the Constitution, calls for banning the evil guns, despite libraries' worth of evidence that such policies are not only ineffective but harmful. These are the people who believe, in effect, that a helpless woman who is raped and murdered is somehow morally superior to one who kills her attacker; that a community destroyed in a genocide is preferable to one that defends itself; that innocents shot down by the sinfully (and I use that word deliberately) untrained NYPD are preferable to citizens defending themselves.

None of the academics spotlighted by the media seem to realize that endless rumination on this horror serves only to amplify grief, fear and anger. Neither do the media personalities realize, nor would they care if they did, that the "debate" they foster serves only to polarize positions based on emotion, not reason. They likewise care nothing that their constant calls for government action to provide a feeling of safety have created a cowardly, dependent society, one in which self-reliance and individual initiative are viewed with fearful disdain. A society in which hand-wringing replaces effective action, and tears, independent thought. A society in which helplessness is a virtue.

To use the infinitely sad deaths in Newtown to promote their vile totalitarian ideology is more despicable than I have words to describe. I wish on these opportunistic grief-mongers, these despoilers of our country, the worst curse I can imagine: That they experience personally all of the consequences of the policies they would force on others. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


"If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun."
The Dalai Lama

If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first.”
Talmud Sanhedrin 72a

"And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one."
Luke 22:36

I am a student of violence. I study its practicalities: how to inflict it effectively, decisively, and most important, how to govern my life to minimize its necessity. That last is probably the hardest part, due in no small measure to the ambiguity of the word "necessary." 

Let's think about that. For some people, call them "caponized pacifists," violence is never necessary. I once heard a man say that he would not raise his hand against another even if his wife and daughters were being raped and murdered in front of him. He was perfectly sincere, and if someday it turned out that he was wrong it wouldn't do his family any good because his efforts would be pathetically ineffectual.

Besides rationalizing cowardice, his statements were hypocritical. If you're threatened, he'd say, call the police to protect you. And how do the police do that? With violence, sadly too often executed with gross incompetence. Consider this: If violence is morally wrong, is it less wrong  to employ surrogates to carry it out? And this: If one is prepared to do violence, isn't it a moral imperative to be as skillful at it as you can possibly be?

Jewish religious philosophy does not merely permit self defense. It is commanded, because if evil is not resisted it flourishes. That is, not defending oneself to the limits of one's ability is sinful. Note that surviving such resistance is not guaranteed; that's your responsibility. Many liberal Jews, conditioned to respond to evil with passivity, appeals to authority or endless discussion will be dismayed or offended by these statements. Tough.

As bad as the cowering capon is the gun-range vigilante, the one who carries his identity in his holster. No, he's not a sociopathic gang-banger or murderous bigot, he's just a wannabe soldier or cop who lives in a heroic fantasyland. He knows Red Dawn is a bloody fairytale but wishes it were real. He buys into the sheepdog fallacy, maybe even trains seriously, but neglects that last, vital element. Given the opportunity, he looks for trouble and too often finds it. For him, "necessary" violence means "whenever I can rationalize it." He's a stereotype the anti-gunners play up to the public in their efforts to caponize the world.

Serious men and women are quiet, competent, low-key. They know how to avoid trouble or defuse it, perhaps with a quiet word or a hard look. If trouble is inevitable they end it quickly and economically, without excess drama or unnecessary injury. I can't claim to be one of these people, but that's my goal.

Which brings us to the point. One can't claim to be nonviolent unless one can be violent in the first place. If you, by reason of temperament or inability, are incapable of violence, you have no choice. You are therefore incapable of moral action. Nonviolence means you are capable of violence but in a given situation have decided not to use that capability. The preening pseudo-pacifist unable to resist evil has no more moral virtue than the eager vigilante who has no idea what he's getting himself into when he sees a threat in every group of loudmouthed kids. The truly dangerous person who quietly settles a dispute is the one who's made the moral choice. And if, in some extreme, that person has to confront evil and do violence to end it, well, that's a moral choice too.




Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Liars Figure

"Figures don't lie, but liars figure."
Attributed to Mark Twain

I retired at the right time. After spending my adult life as a social psychologist, mostly working on problems with organizational and social relevance, I read that  the field is rife with both outright fabrication of data and highly questionable research practices, which amount to the same thing. You can read summaries and commentaries here, in a special issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, which the Association for Psychological Science (APS) has made freely available. It is to the great credit of APS that they have been at the forefront of this discussion.

Why should anyone outside of the ivory tower care about any of this? Unlike biomedical research, in which fraud is also rampant, faking the results of psychological research only affects other pointy-headed academic geeks, right? Nobody dies, as they have through, say, lack of vaccination or the use of ineffective, possibly toxic, cancer treatments.

Not quite. Even if we discount the waste of grant money and other taxpayer's dollars (see "The New Plantation"), which frankly pale in comparison to other government boondoggles like Solyndra, there are reasons for concern. For one thing, social policies are built on or justified by this research. In social psychology quite a bit of effort is devoted to finding "biases" of various sorts. It is vastly easier to publish an article claiming to document some racial, ethic or sex-based bias than one showing even-handed judgement. This makes the case for all sorts of interventions, from affirmative action to "diversity" programs. Besides the direct waste of time and resources these involve, they are toxic to both organizations and the people they purport to help. Who benefits? Race-baiting politicians, "minority spokesmen," and bureaucratic drones. And, naturally, the academics, who reap grants, tenure, promotion and so forth. I'm willing to bet that a close examination of these studies would reveal many cases of highly selective reporting, questionable statistical treatments, discarding of "incorrect" data and other methodological sins sufficient to keep a battalion of imps busy punishing the authors in some deep circle of the Inferno.

Then there's the new cottage industry of finding fault with conservatives. Like bias, it's fashionable to discover various unfortunate tendencies among the right-wing. They're "not open to experience," overly concerned with "purity," "rigid," and so forth. This in contrast with liberals and progressives, who are, well, progressive. One wonders how much data-massaging, cherry-picking, and other fraudulent manipulations are involved. Nobody knows because nobody asks about the validity of popular results. Conservative-bashing is very popular in social psychology. 

I don't know the situation in organizational psychology because nobody's looked at the literature that closely. I'm willing to bet that it isn't much different---a few cases of outright fraud and a great deal of data manipulation to the same ends. Here, though, the implications may be worse, because the use of questionable selection methods and ineffective or toxic interventions have immediate effects on people's lives. Foolish management policies may be laughable in Dilbert but they're very different when one has to live under them or, worse, be unemployed because of them. It's even more dire when police and the military are affected by the same nonsense. Then, people do die.

All of this affects me personally because I'm not sure how much of my theoretical work, based on a lot of others' published research, has been tarnished by fraud. Then there's the advice I've given to people who train military, police and armed citizens (and that I've told my own students of self-defense), likewise based on published research. Most of it is fundamentals, phenomena and principles that seem well-validated over many years and volumes of research. The operative word here is "seem." Suddenly, I don't know. When people go into harm's way they need the very best we can give. I'm not sure I'm doing that any more.

I have no solutions. The authors in the Perspectives issue offer some, but I'm dubious. Incentives for fraud are built into the structure of academia; they can't be removed while it stands. The great edifice of knowledge to which I thought I had contributed a brick or two turns out to be a shaky lashup at best, a scrapyard outhouse at worst. 

The hell with it. I'm going to the range, where at least the holes I shoot in my targets mean something.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Tobacco is a dirty weed:
I like it.
It satisfies no normal need:
I like it.
It makes you thin, it makes you lean,
It takes the hair right off your bean.
It's the worst darn stuff I've ever seen:
I like it.

G.L. Hemminger, 1915

I'm a smoker, which these days is akin to being a leper, circa 1300 AD. I'd say that smokers are the new disadvantaged minority (every society has them) but that would cheapen the very real suffering of all the people who endured bigotry because of their race, religion, ancestry, ethnicity---that is, pretty much everyone at some time or place in history. I'm not a victim of Big Tobacco, either, nor do I want to be treated as such. Smoking is simply a choice I made, one that I continue to make every morning.

Why? Why risk the health consequences and endure social rejection when I could easily join the happy, smoke-free herd? Or why not switch to cigars and at least enjoy the aura of prosperity and sophistication that comes with, say, a Don Juan Capistrano Churchill #3?
Or use a pipe and buy into the image of the tweedy old-fashioned intellectual? 

Simple. I don't want to. I like my cigarettes. I enjoy the pleasure of a smoke and a cup of coffee when I want to relax. If that means I have to get up and walk outside from time to time, that's OK. Everything has a price. Living in a free society means you get to decide what's worth the going rate and what isn't.

There are some side benefits that come with smoking, too. Ironically, some of these exist because of the disdain in which smoking is held. For example, you often get to be alone when you smoke. When party conversation becomes tiresome, or when children's antics are a bit too much (which they can be no matter how much you love them) you've got a handy excuse for a break. When meetings reach the eye-rolling stage, ditto. It's also a great way to get rid of pompous, bigoted jerkoffs (Neal Boortz comes to mind) who insist on lecturing you about the faults in your character, contrasting them with their own moral and intellectual superiority. Just light up and they go away.

Smoking comes with responsibilities, of course, like every other choice. You want to be polite, not litter, and be careful about embers and such. Sometimes you have to come to accommodations with your spouse, as I did. Even when outdoors, with strangers, you should ask if they mind. It's just the right thing to do, even if the drunks and dopers feel free to inflict the consequences of their more popular vices on the rest of us, willy-nilly.* 

It's getting harder to be a smoker; lately there are more and more "Joe Camel" laws and rules to deal with. Campuses and shopping malls proudly proclaim themselves "smoke free" for reasons having nothing to do with health and everything to do with political correctness. It'd be fun and instructive to have a "smoke-in" at some campus, but it won't happen. Smokers typically take this crap with cringing obedience because, like most people, many are cowards, afraid of the bad opinion of others who care nothing for them in any case. Screw that. 

Maybe now that marijuana legalization is popular we smokers can fit in by rolling our own and pretending to get high.

Excuse me now. My coffee's ready and it's time for a break.

* For instance, read a little of this. If you want to be serious, try this.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Part 2

I've only owned two cars  that were purely mine. The second one was purchased on election day. This is about the first, mostly.

In the summer of 1989 there occurred a unique confluence of three forces that led me to buy the car I'd wanted all my life. The first was that the old family car I'd been driving to work, a Mazda 626, was getting old and shabby. It was safe and reliable, but there were too many things that needed fixing. The second was that I had some money, thanks to my one and only big consulting job. It took six months of nights, weekends and whatever time my contract with Georgia Tech allowed, but I had a five-figure fee after taxes. The third was that Mazda introduced the Miata. It was the car I'd doodled in eigth grade when I should have been studying algebra. It was the closest thing to a motorcycle you could drive and not get wet in the rain. It was all the fun and spirit of the MGs, Triumphs, Lotuses and Fiats without the constant roadside repairs.

In August I took a test drive, found to the salesman's surprise that I fit, just barely, and made a deal for October delivery. It saved me the summer feeding-frenzy surcharge and not coincidentally arrived on the twenty year anniversary of my CB750. That seemed fitting. It was just the basic car, white, with power steering and brakes, the standard radio and roll-up windows, but I had to add a limited slip differential. Performance is worth extra. There was room for two and a couple of duffel bags. Exactly right.

I loved it. It was like a well-trained border collie, agile, eager to please, happy without being silly. Quick and responsive rather than fast. I told people that you could drive over a dime and tell if it was heads or tails. I could shift up or down with my fingertips.

It wasn't stock long. The first addition was a seriously loud horn, because Atlanta's idiot drivers can't be bothered with mirrors. Next ,100 watt high beams. Gotta see. Then a variety of strut and frame braces, to help it turn. A trick intake and aftermarket exhaust, for a few extra horsepower. Koni shocks, naturally, then some really nice Panasport 15" wheels.
All of this took time, many years during which I was divorced, remarried, bought another house, had various successes and crises. Like the 750, the Miata was a constant. Finally, after 15 years and 170,000 miles, the engine was just tired.

I'd been planning for that. A new crate motor sat in the garage, along with a supercharger, racing clutch and boxes of other parts accumulated over time. Over a week when we were out of town my friends at Rspeed built me, finally, my perfect car. Just enough power, just enough brakes, just enough of everything. 

Well, except that it was still 15 years old, and as the next eight passed it needed more frequent attention. There was A/C renovation, then a radiator, an alternator, more A/C issues, and then about a month ago there was white smoke from the exhaust. Head gasket, we supposed, but no. Cracked block. No explanation for it.

I could have replaced the engine; the transmission needed replacement as well because after 255,000 miles it was notchy and sometimes balky going into gear. But then there was everything else that would need attention. It could all be fixed---they last forever if you keep
replacing parts, remember--but then it would be a hobby, not a car. A car, you can depend on. A hobby is leisure time amusement.

So I sold it to my friends, who'll rebuild my Miata well. Someone will buy it to drive weekends and enjoy the vintage experience. I didn't buy a new Miata, because while they're faster and more sophisticated they don't have the spirit of the original. I got a Subaru WRX, not the ultra STI but the more restrained (and $10K cheaper) base model. It's vastly different from my Miata, more an obedient, trustworthy pit bull than a border collie. It comes with lots of electronic magic to make the windows go up and down, lock and unlock the doors, change channels, bands and volume on the radio. It has a compass in the rear-view mirror, an electronic one that can be calibrated via an arcane ceremony. I could plug in my iPod and control it remotely, if I had an iPod. Ditto my cell phone, if I had a Bluetooth model rather than the equivalent of a tin can with a very long string.  It has traction control, ABS, all-wheel drive and 17" wheels with sticky tires so you can skate on the edge of the laws of physics. It makes (with the factory exhaust I couldn't help but buy) 280 turbocharged horsepower, 130 more than my blower-boosted Miata.It has lots more room, so I don't have to play Tetris every time there's more than a briefcase to load.  It also weighs a thousand pounds more. Nothing's free.

It doesn't look like the cars I drew in 1958. It looks like the space fighters in my sci-fi magazines. Futuristic. Serious. A car for the 21st century. As I write this there are 750 miles on the odometer. In 250 more it'll be broken in, and we'll see what 280 horsepower and more computer tricks than the Space Shuttle feels like. It's a fine car, honestly. It's just that I can't help wishing that there was room in the 21st century for something simple and lighthearted.

I'm guessing it won't be that kind of century.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Free Speech

If you care at all about the Constitution, and what education was once supposed to be, you
need to read this.  Then get off your butt and do something about it. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Part 1

I've owned two iconic vehicles in my life, both for many years. Both are now gone and it feels...strange. As if part of my identity is missing. Silly, true. Your identity shouldn't be based on products, stuff, labels. You are what you do. As I told my young sons when they absolutely had to have the latest popular widget, "Things don't make people cool. People make things cool." Still, part of who we are is in what we choose to own, what we spend our time and effort on. Others react to that, and their reactions, for better or worse, help shape our vision of ourselves. 

That's preamble. Here's the first story:

My first "big" bike was a Honda CB750, the original superbike, bought new in October 1969. It's hard to describe the sensation of riding it, the power, the sheer competence of the thing. Some people will understand that it felt like channelling Mike Hailwood,* the world champion racer  and as close to being a boyhood hero as I ever had. 

Over the years I modified the bike, of course. Nobody owns a stock motorcycle. First there was a Windjammer fairing; that was its touring incarnation, and it took me from Florida to the North Georgia mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway for the first time. One of the guys I rode with is still a close friend. Then came the "Gentleman's Express," as Cycle magazine later called the type. Another friend (a gifted mechanic who later became a master machinist) and I built it in my garage. Well, he built it. I handed him tools, lifted things, and sometimes turned a wrench. On went dual-disc brakes, Koni shocks, high-compression pistons, a Yoshimura cam, Kerker pipe, oil cooler, low handlebar from an ATC 90, more neat stuff. It took me about a week to get the carburetors jetted; back then you did it with wide-open top gear backroad runs, pulling the sparkplugs to "read" them for signs of proper combustion. Then you physically changed the jets, in all four carburetors, and did the whole routine again. Lots of burnt fingers were involved.

I raced it a couple of times before deciding it wasn't disposable, as racebikes have to be. Then came the paint, black with gold stripes on the tank and sidecovers, recalling classic Vincents and Nortons. It was perfect. It was "the 750;" no other descriptor was necessary.
It took me to work almost daily. It took me and sometimes, much more carefully, my sons on backroad rides, always reliable and always with some of the original excitement. Much, much later it took my future second wife Linda and me on our first date. Sure, I had other bikes, faster, more modern, more exotic, but the 750 was a constant.

Time passes, though, and things age. It's true, as an acquaintance once said, that machines last forever as long as you keep replacing parts. It's also true that the older they get the more often those parts need replacing, and sometimes you only find that out when they fail on the road. 

I'll skip the details of how I shipped the 750 to a restoration shop in California, at the personal recommendation of the then-editor of Cycle World, whose own early CB750 had been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum. Let's just say they weren't as careful with mine as they had been with his, and their carelessness ruined the engine. It happened long enough after I got it back that I knew there was no point to a lawsuit even though that engine was the key to the bike's collector value. I bought a later bike somebody had intended to restore but never completed, and a local shop built an engine with a big-bore kit and the best parts of both. They did the job right but somehow it wasn't the same, and I rode the 750 less and less
after that.

Some years later I met, completely by chance, a local custom bike and car builder. While he showed me his highly modified CB550, sort of a younger brother to mine, I mentioned the 750 and that I was thinking of selling it. He looked at the bike, my documentation, the boxes of original parts and spares, and we made a deal. Shortly afterwards he took it to the annual rally at Sturgis, where street racing is part of the ambiance. The 750 blew off a lot of Harleys, he said. I told him I wasn't surprised, and that I was glad it was being used as it should be.

I guess it was a year later that he called---Cafe' Racer TV wanted to film him building a custom for an unnamed customer, and was I OK with him doing the 750? I told him it was his bike and I had no say. He'd told them the bike's story, though, and they wanted me to be there, I suppose to video my reaction.  So I went, was interviewed, showed them a few of my old photos, then they filmed me watching while a bunch of guys dismantled the 750 and started cutting on the frame, reshaping it to their vision.

It's vastly different now, much more racer-ish. The workmanship is outstanding, with little jewel-like details here and there.  Regardless of all the internet controversy the show generated the guys that built it are good people and fine craftsmen. But their vision isn't mine. I rode the reshaped 750 at the Barber track in Birmingham, invited as part of the TV show, and it doesn't work as a performance bike. I realized then that it was never supposed to. It's now art, the embodied idea of a cafe' racer. When it was mine the paint wasn't perfect and a lot of parts were homemade, but it worked, as several guys found out on the mountain backroads. That was a couple of decades ago when I was a pretty good rider, and no longer matters. The 750 isn't about riding any more. It's about being seen. 

I don't regret selling it. The 750 was what it was and now it's something else. Machinery exists to serve human purposes; mine are different today and so is my equipment. The memories are there, though, and whenever I need to I can hear that magic four-cylinder wail punching us out of a third gear righthander, feel a little weave in the bars as the power comes on, sense the outside sole of my boot scraping the pavement, then the powershift to fourth onto a tree-lined straight...

It's enough.

* "Mike the Bike" raced exotic multi-cylinder Hondas and MV Augustas in the European GP series through the 60's. I was in college, a little too old for hero worship. So what? 
The Cycle World poster of him on the 250 GP Honda has hung over my desk since 1970.
I met Hailwood  in 1977 at a race in New Zealand, where he was strolling around the pits like any other spectator. I spoke with him, shook his hand but forgot to ask for an autograph.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Poem for the Election

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I spent last weekend at an Advanced Urban Carbine class, building skill in and knowledge of  the defensive use of rifles.* The class was taught by John Farnam, with the assistance of Richard Wright and Bill Doar.** As are all of John's classes, it was effortful and challenging.
Instruction was encouraging, but standards were high because life is unforgiving and there's usually only one chance to get things right. There was a test, as there is in all of John's classes; not incredibly difficult but hard enough. It's pass/fail and you get multiple chances at it, but there's no part credit and no excuses. Again, kind of like life. Most students passed, a few didn't. I didn't. I didn't get the commemorative pin John gives to those who pass, nor is there a consoling participation ribbon. That I almost passed--I was .38 sec. too slow--is irrelevant. So my weekend was a failure, right?

Not exactly. I got to try some new exercises with a rifle I'd never used in a demanding situation, and improved some old skills also. Now there's more to practice, to get competent should the need arise. I got to spend time with good folks, and share information about important things like staying alive under difficult circumstances. I found some limits that age and lousy eyesight impose, and ways around them.  I'll be better next time. 

Which brings me to the point, because this essay isn't a "What I did last summer" assignment. I spent forty-plus years teaching undergraduates and mentoring grad students. I've seen lots of colleagues come and go during those years,too. Far too many of them have defined success by some kind of award---a grade, a degree, a publication, a grant. They directed their efforts toward a prize, narrowly defined, rather than what the prize was supposed to represent. As students they asked "What's on the test?" instead of "What are the important ideas?" As grad students and professors they asked "What's publishable?" or "What's fundable?" They chose the safe, easy questions, the popular topics, the politically correct positions on controversies. They chose to spend their lives, personal and professional, not failing, and they called that success.

It's not. Real success requires failure, because real success means that you're pushing beyond the comfortable and familiar. In academia it means inventing questions nobody has thought to ask before, and answering them in ways others haven't explored. In sports it may be a new way of training, or a different technique. In business, a new product or service. You get the idea. Success is the result of taking on a challenge just far enough out of the safe, familiar and socially approved that it forces the extra effort that creativity depends on. Most often, one fails, but in that failure there's information, if you choose to use it instead of making excuses. 

I've found, too, that there's no shortage of people willing to help if your effort is there. Some of my best work was the result of following the advice a journal editor gave when he rejected a manuscript, one that represented many months' work. The modest success I had in motorcycle racing came in no small part from listening to people who knew better than I, and had no patience for excuses. In shooting and self-defense,it's the same.***

We do our children, our students,our colleagues and friends no favors when we protect them from failure. They, and we, need to fail, learn from it, then get up and try again, until we and they succeed. And then, what's the reward? We all get to set the standard a little higher, so we can fail a few more times until we succeed again. Sure, there are trophies and honors and maybe big money, too. All that's fine, but they're not the real goals. The real goal is being better. Better than you were yesterday, better than the next guy, better than the doubters thought you could be. Just---better.

Quote of the week:

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."


* For those of you who aren't gun people, yes, there are many circumstances in which assault rifles are the best choice for self defense. Ask any Korean from LA.
**John and his wife Vicki are highly respected instructors and good friends of ours. So are Richard and Bill.  For those of you who don't know them, this doesn't mean they were easy on me, nor that I would expect them to be.
*** I'm still astonished by and grateful to all the very accomplished people who share their expertise with me for the asking. You know who you are. Thanks once again.