I just saw one of those beautiful, inspirational posters; the kind that are supposed to put positive thoughts into your head so you can overcome all obstacles and be successful. This one was an overhead of a particularly spectacular and difficult golf hole and the caption was “Challenge: The harder the course, the more rewarding the triumph.”
While I agree that’s true, there’s also another side to that statement. Sometimes the challenge is too great and, if there are unreasonable expectations it can be devastating not to be up to it. For instance, having high expectations of your child in areas where her level of expertise does not warrant it is probably not the greatest way to bring out her best performance.
Actually, I have a specific example from my life that happened close to 40 years ago. It still bothers me to recall the level of frustration and disappointment I experienced when I was asked to do something I really wasn’t prepared for and, given the urgency of the matter, just didn’t have enough time to come up to speed on . . . especially without any guidance at all. Clearly, it didn’t destroy me, but I was a bit scarred by the experience.
A bit of background. I have never been to College or University; I have no Baccalaureate degree. However, eight years after graduation from High School I was able to gain admission to a California State Bar certified law school. I did this entirely on the strength of my LSAT scores and my submission of a letter I still think only served to prove I was capable of a high degree of sophisticated bullshit.
Nevertheless, I was admitted and, before you ask, yes – I graduated and received a Juris Doctorate in the Summer of 1976. This incident I’m going to relate took place – if memory serves – late in my second year or early in my third. All I really recall clearly is the sting of defeat I encountered. All else is fuzzy and nondescript.
My activity in the anti-Vietnam War movement had brought me into close contact with some of the leadership of the left; people like Tom Hayden, Dorothy Healy, Frank Wilkinson, and Jane Fonda. I had earned a place of trust due to my involvement not only in organizing and conducting demonstrations and various other types of gatherings centered around the struggle for peace and justice, but also because I had played a rather large role in providing security for many who lived with physical threats during that time. I did a lot of event security and I did some armed bodyguard work.
When I was looking for work to help me get through law school, I believe it was Dorothy who introduced me to Ben Margolis and John McTernan of the firm Margolis, McTernan, Scope, Sacks, and Epstein. They offered me an opportunity I just didn’t feel I could possibly pass up. They were representing one party in a lawsuit involving the screenplay for the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I can’t even remember who we were representing*, but I do recall the job I was given. They asked me to prepare a Motion for Summary Judgement.
I readily took up the challenge and dutifully got to work. The only problem, as I recall, was they expected I could do this without any guidance or assistance. I was on my own and . . . I wasn’t up to the task. I was not terribly fond of the law of Civil Procedure and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t a very good student. I had screwed around a lot while in school, getting by on my native intelligence and aforementioned ability to sling it. I struggled mightily but just couldn’t figure out how to make the Motion acceptable to the partners. Unfortunately, I don’t recall too many of the details but I’m quite certain it wasn’t too long before I was relieved of the assignment.
I was crestfallen. I had let people I respected down. It was devastating; so much so that I still recall the pain. Fortunately, I was not a child and my self-esteem was reasonably intact and strong enough to guide me through the ensuing trauma. I haven’t lost too much sleep over it, though I have never quite gotten over the feeling of abject failure in the face of my shortcoming.
The point I’m getting at here by sharing one of the more embarrassing moments of my life, is that sometimes challenges are truly a bridge too far. There is such a thing as overreaching. I like those motivational posters. However, to use a golf example to go along with the metaphor, if I finally reach an insanely difficult par three green after hitting three shots in the water and taking three strokes to get out of a deep, steep green-side bunker (which means I’m putting for an 11, and that’s assuming I one-putt) I don’t believe the word “triumph” would fall easily from my lips when describing how I felt as the ball finally hit the bottom of the cup.
* I did a little research and I think we were representing Ken Kesey, the author of the book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He was quite unhappy with the screenplay. We may, however, have been representing the writer. I can’t be sure and most of the players are now dead. Actually, it’s just not worth the time it would take to be certain and it ain’t that important to my post, but I hope it was Ken. I like thinking that, even though I let him down. He never knew