When Your Best May Not Be Good Enough
Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum
You came along and everything started to hum
Still it's a real good bet, the best is yet to come
The best is yet to come, and won't that be fine
You think you've seen the sun, but you ain't seen it shine
Wait till the warm-up is underway
Wait till out lips have met
Wait till you see that sunshine day
You ain't seen nothin' yet
The best is yet to come, and won't that be fine
The best is yet to come, come the day that you're mine
"The Best Is Yet To Come" - Frank Sinatra
After 52 years of oftentimes severe self-analysis, I still don't know if I have ever been there. Have I ever hit the top of my game, in any area, with any consistency?
On the other hand, I've encountered disappointment first-hand, a lot. From a mate, a wife, a family member, a colleague or a friend. But I can't categorically state whether or not they ever saw my 'A' game, whether they ever got to experience me at my best. How does one even measure that? Do we have some internal mechanism or odometer that tells us when we are reaching our personal apex or zenith, when we have hit our happy zone and are tapping our potential? Does that needle ever dance far enough to the right to signify 'excellence'?
Are there a different set of standards for how we measure our degree of excellence, depending on what area we want assessed?
How about our athletic potential? Does a bell go off when we've hit our personal Michael Jordan level of the athletic Pantheon? With legitimate professional athletes, a championship ring is a clear cut talisman that concretely delineates success from failure and signifies greatness. In life, we weekend warrior athletes must rely on the more mundane 'final score' of the pickup hoops game at the Y, or the Saturday afternoon softball game. A simple individual win or loss determines success on our more pedantic level of competitive sports. No rings given out at the Y, I surmise.
Can we possibly reach a certain salary level, professionally, where it's considered by this arbitrary device inside us as 'enough'? Or do we measure professional success equally, or even more so, by the flashiness of the title, or our migration up the masthead? I tend to think money conveys status and success more succinctly than title or level of responsibility. Not for everyone of course, but for most. This obviously lends itself to a more superficial, materialistic view of success, which is unfortunate, but idealism is not often found in the equation when people are defining themselves.
And love. When do we know we've learned how to successfully navigate this least-defined, almost nebulous human emotional destination? Married for ten years? Twenty? Fifty? I've known people from all three of those categories who've been divorced. Longevity can often be nothing more than two people succumbing to a sense of resignation and acceptance of mediocrity. Even a simple, pragmatic, "the devil you know" choice over the devil you don't, can keep a marriage afloat. I've seen it.
At the very least, there is an arbitrary aspect to self-judgment, not to mention the very real potential for myopia.
Is the word "arbitrary" the key here? Is the concept of our 'best' so fluid and slippery as to be almost futile to try and gauge or measure, not un-like fishing by hand; simply impossible to grasp firmly?
I think it is.
I think the evidence is enormous that the moment we rest on our laurels and think we've done our best, life rises up to smack that smug grin off our face. Self-acceptance and approval appear to have a defined shelf-life. It's ok to celebrate your accomplishments, to even dwell on the good, positive aspects of your life, but if you stop the forward progress, I believe you risk losing it all.
And this is coming from one of the least "driven" people you could ever know. I have been skeptical of two rather important terms for most of my adult life: ambition and potential.
How's that for a working definition of 'slacker'?
So why would I, a relatively sharp, shrewd, even smart (assed?) high-school- educated bloke eschew those two words that have a direct connection to 'meritocracy', ironically one of my favorite words?
A valid question that I have posed to myself at those reflective, last- inch-of-the-drink moments on solitary evenings in front of the fireplace, with hound and Sinatra in attendance.
My answers, and yes, plural, over the years still come off to me as rationalizations for my simple lack of drive to excel. But they are worthy of recounting here, nonetheless.
Ambition is a word I've always closely associated with potential. Can one have ambition without the prior acknowledgment that potential exists? I think not. That's not enough of an excuse to reject the concept, of course, but I grew to associate ambition with greed and the vain desire to accumulate material things and prestige and stature. You may think that is not the universal definition of the word. Do you know what is?
Ambition: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power
Hmmmm. Smacks of vanity and greed to me.
On the other hand, a friend says ambition is "setting oneself a goal and pursuing it". Boy, do I wish I'd embraced that far less cynical interpretation of the word when I was younger. But I didn't.
Potential: My embrace of this word, or rejection, depending on the period of my life, was based on my initial outlook on what it meant to me. It was a superficial, abstract, dangling-bait-on-a-hook label in front of you, placed there by others to lure you up some vague ladder of success, and also a constant source of stress and pressure for you to pursue it, whatever "it" was, and to whatever level your potential was deemed to be. I grew to dislike the word, because whenever it was thrown my way, and it was quite often when I was younger, it felt more like a yoke than a goal to pursue. Maybe had I been able to ascertain myself that I had potential instead of having the label assigned to me, and then define what it meant in my own terms, I may not have rejected it as a concept. The word has a slightly more benign, less self-absorbed definition than ambition. By the time I first read this definition, I had already developed distaste for it.
Potential: existing in possibility: capable of development into actuality
By the time I first read this definition, I had already developed distaste for it. Granted, that is my own hang-up.
Even today, I can punch sizeable holes in both of my life-long approaches to those words. These two idealistic concepts, which are more often than not deemed admirable human qualities, have, by my rejection of them, forced me to contemplate "what if", always a mental mine-field. When I realize the resulting paucity of results from my reticence with both concepts, you bet it opens the floodgates to regret.
Yet I started out this piece under the regret-laden title, counter-balanced with the hopeful lyrics I have heard Frank croon many, many times.
I am not resigned to anything at this juncture in my life. I am open to re-evaluating my approach to my potential. In the field of writing, fortunately, one's potential only slightly diminishes with age, unlike athletics, where there is a much more clear-cut ceiling and window of opportunity.
Yes, I have pissed away some good years, but the potential for a burst of ambition remains.