I had the pleasure of hanging out with a new friend today when I asked him to meet me at a local coffee shop, to talk shop, writing culture specifically. Lately I’ve found myself pulled toward writing and subsequently writing culture, something I know nothing about. We talked about so many things, but found commonality with the inferior, wherein we excelled over others talents in some life interest of ours, but also found it was highly contextual. He found that he was a talented and great writer in the context of his college classes, but when he stepped outside of those boundaries, into the real world so to speak, he was an unrecognizable minnow in a sea of whale sharks. His talents were dwarfed by so many others. I sympathized in my experiences with graphic design, where in the incredibly limited world of my local two year technical college I was a veritable Kandinsky, but outside those stuffy classrooms I quickly realized my potential was drastically limited. I was essentially nothing, reaching desperately for talent and coming up penniless. My graphic design future has come to a screeching halt, if only due to the realization that I am simply not great in the practice.
This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life.
I’ve always wanted to be great at something. Something. Anything. I wanted to always be the best, even if “best” was a dream in the unreachable skies. I have an “all or nothing” personality that many have pointed out to me as a flaw and others as an asset, of which I prefer the latter, but understand the former. I’ve always wanted to be the best and if I couldn’t be the best, I’d sometimes settle for great. Good was ok, but only ok. With ok, my motivation wanes.
I think I’ve progressed with this as I’ve aged, coming to understand what success really means in the story of life and drawing out the most value from my interests, doing for the sake of doing, if I’m not even the best, or great, or just ok. That doesn’t mean I don’t try mind you.
When I was young I was a good soccer player. Whether David Bender played that season or not, I was sometimes the best, but as I got older and my little soccer world expanded, I only became good, sometimes ignorable. That was fine in the end, but my motivation waned. I was simply never great at soccer. And that was just one sport.
As I entered the world of greater freedom that is post-collegiate life I dabbled in so many interests, trying to find something that helped me stand out among the sacaphony of voices that fills our social spheres. I was consumed by politics, but was never academic or articulate enough. I created a relatively popular bike publication, but it certainly didn’t hold to my lasting standards (and it actually quite embarrassing when I look back on it).
In the work world I tried my hand at graphic design, but that fell plenty short. I was never the greatest barista, nor did I care too much for that title. I was the ONLY bike messenger, so that sort of “best” is ill-won. I often wrote poetry, I knew that was a failed endeavor before I attempted to put anything legitimate out, even if I enjoy the process.
So trying to comprehend and immerse myself in writing culture is another pre-failed endeavor, I know, but going through these previous attempts, I also know that I’m not in this to be the best anymore. I’m not even in this to be great. I’m just in this because it speaks to me directly and gives me value. I simply enjoy it and that is enough.
Then there is running. I’ve run since I was an incredibly young child, for fun and for competition. Running, far and relatively fast, is a talent I discovered at a very young age, so young that it became a fundamental part of my being as it stayed with me as I grew physically, mentally and emotionally. It defined me more than anything else. No matter what other interests I took up, beneath it all everyone knew I could run. I could always fall back on it. I won the races in school. I was beating the 8th graders when I was in 4th grade. I won city-wide track meets for my age division. I entered community races and won my age group before I even understood awards were given out for such a thing. It has always been something that helped me stand out.
And for a long time I turned my back on the interest for no other reason than I didn’t understand what to do with it. I was out of high school and didn’t know how to compete in college. Maybe I feared no longer being a valued and necessary part of the team. Maybe I just didn’t understand my potential. I moved on to other things. There was all that college freedom, skateboarding, internet relay chat, politics, etc. I was distracted away from competitive running no matter how fundamental it was to my being. I never left completely though.
The sweet smell of fresh cut grass ONLY reminded me of x-country season. Trails leading into woods ONLY reminded me of our high school course. Talk of running had me bringing up all kinds of stories.
It was the ONE thing that I could say I was good at.
And in my adult life I struggle even more, trying to find SOMETHING I’m good at, even great at. I’ve tried in so much and always come up short. I want to excel. I want to be valuable. I want to be great. And I rediscovered running. The one interest that brought me the closest.
And, with a great humility, I began running again, not knowing the talent I held inside. For a couple years in I still did not know the ability I had and where it placed me as a runner, even when I was winning my age group, then smaller community races and even placing in more populated races. I just thought I was doing pretty good. And I was, but as I became to understand competitive running culture more and more I realized that I wasn’t just running well, or good, but downright great. Again, with great humility, I started to realize that I was not only putting myself in a position of relative greatness, even if only by my own standards, but that I have the potential to do something great on a larger cultural scale. I’m not talking breaking records here or anything, but at the very least, doing something not many people get to do in their lives.
And in this realization I have become driven more intensely than I have over any other point in my life. I have found my attempt to be great and, again with humility, been able to define my effort as great.
Too bad this type of greatness doesn’t pay.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way deluded to think I’m the “best” or anywhere close to the best. There are tens of thousands in the world that do what I do (Is that right? More? Less?), but even so, we are a drop in the bucket. We have the special gift of biological talent coupled with the drive to actually make the effort, initiated by circumstantial luck that led us to discover this talent of ours. We are great at what we do, but equally as lucky to be in this position.
All this is to say…I’m dying here.
This is why NOT being able to run right now is absolutely killing me. I’m at this position in my life where my ability to run like this is more towards the end of my athletic spectrum than it is the beginning. I’m not a high school prodigy, a college champion or a potential world-class athlete. I’m an almost mid 30’s distance runner, which means I have about one open window to make the olympic marathon trials. If I don’t do it this time around, there is a good chance I won’t be physically capable to do it later. It’s hard to say, but this is my prime chance and I have to make the most of it. But right now, I’m broken.
That path to greatness (my standards mind you) has been blocked a million fallen trees, for the time being. My identity has taken a blow and that hurts. This is my goal in life right now, to fulfill this attempt at personal greatness, maybe the ONE thing I’ll ever do that I can consider truly great. This is all I want. This one perfect act that I can always fall back on in the future, to say to myself, if no one else, “You set yourself apart. You did that.” Ego-driven, yes. I won’t deny it. It’s part of my (our?) nature, that brought me to this point in the first place. But now my standard of greatness is on pause as I wait for seemingly uncontrollable circumstances to take place when I can get back to fulfilling that one honest goal of mine.
To set myself apart. To be great.