Sep 1, 2008

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The Danger of Diluting Excellence

          I read this article last week about a nine year old little leaguer in Connecticut who was banned from pitching in his league because he could effectively throw a 40 mile an hour fast ball that other kids couldn’t hit.  So rather than have little Johnny feel bad about striking out when ever thet faced him, they issued an edict that he couldn’t pitch in the league.  If he wanted to pitch, he had to play with the older kids.

     When are people going to get that for every kid who gets to feel good about being mediocre another kid will feel guilty because for some inexplicable reason he found the fast lane to excellence?  And if there is anything I can speak of from personal experience  it is this.

     When I was 10 I tried out for a little league team in Brooklyn.  The way these things worked back then is there were skills clinics where the kids ran through the paces of fielding, throwing, and hitting.  The coaches watched and graded the kids and picked teams.  Maybe someone made a mistake, I’ll never know, but I got graded as an exceptional infielder.  Good enough to play with the kids two years older than me.  So off I went to my first practice, feeling proud and excited andalittle nervous.  I went alone.  The other kids heard I was younger.  The team had won the championship the year before so the coach must have known what  he was doing.  Most of the kids were back from the prior year but their second baseman had moved.  I was supposed to replace him.  I was a tall kid and while I may have had the physical ability to play with older kids, I did not have the emotional wherewithal to step into the hostile environment of being not just the new kid but the younger, “kid to watch”.  I got chided for any mistake.  Pitches were thrown a little tight, the first baseman didn’t stretch as far for my errants throws.  Maybe it all would have worked itself out over  the course of the season and there would have been one of those Disney after-school special endings where I hit the game winning home run in the playoffs and won over the hearts and mnds of the older bullies but I didn’t get to the end of the season.  I quit and never really had the passion to play baseball for a long while.  The lesson I got was that it was dangerous to stand out ahead of the pack.

  Fast forward to junior high in Canarsie, Brooklyn.  I was in an excellerated program.  I had already skipped 2nd grade and was now skipping 8th.  All the warning lights started going off again.  There was no upside to being the smartest kid in my school, so i dumbed myself down and bent over backwards to be the class clown andgetmyself sent off to detention whenever possible.  At first I was chum for the tougher kids but I solved that by finding a very tall quiet kid who was also in detention.  I blind sided him, knocked him down and beat the shit out of him.  In hindsight it was a despicable thing to do but the other kids stopped looking at tmeasthe “smart” kid.  From there on in I’d always do just enough to get by.  I tested very well so it made things easy but when we moved to Long Island and they wanted to put me in the Honors classes I fought tooth and nail and ensured that I would always remain in gen pop.  It was safer and more comfortable to be prt of the herd and no one was making a compelling argument for striving for excellence.

    In my early 20’s life was easy and I couldn’t help but feel guilty about it.  Rather than celebrate my wins I’d downplay them.  It seemed that in the work place people got rewarded not for brilliance but for simply not making a mistake.  And in watching all the mediocrity I felt superior and in feeling superior I felt guilty. The lesson of rewarding mediocrity kept showing up.   It took a really long time for me to feel that I didn’t need to appologize for my success.  Of course once I freed myself from the need to fit in by being mediocre, I replaced that with a sense of responsibility.  If I was a shining star it meant I had to take on the responsibiltyforthe well being of all those around me who just didn’t fully grasp life’s game book.

      Incredibly it wasn’t until late in my adult life, when I got involved in my mens’ organization, MDI, and I started to spend time with men who were markedly different than me that I got that success in one area of life was not a guarantee for success across the board.  I started to realize that I didn’t need to appologizeformy success because there were a lot of very subtle tasks that I was miles away from mastering.  I started to embrace the joy of reveling both in my failure and in my abundance.  I got that as long as I wasn’t rubbing other men’s noses in my accomplishments others we glad to share in the thrills of my victories.  I stopped feeling alone and different and at 40 suddenly felt like one of the guys, prone to fuck ups just like the next guy but capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat every now and then.  And it only took me 30 years to get there.

So let the kid pitch.  Rather than insisting that he slide down to the level of those around him, encourage him to share with his teamates the secrets that allow him to be gifted.  Instill in him the joy of celebrating his success with others rather than having hims ask “why me?”  “Why can’t I  just be like everyone else?”   Because in the celebration he’ll quickly see that he gets ice cream on his chin just like the next kid and if he drinks too much soda he too will get a belly ache.

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