Aphorisms Schmaphorisms, Part 2 - George Washington's secret to getting what you SHOULD want in life.

What is wrong with these "positive aphorisms"?

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” – Thomas Edison

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

“The difference in winning and losing is most often…not quitting.” – Walt Disney

“Success is falling nine times and getting up ten.” – Jon Bon Jovi

Not every so-called “positive aphorism” is entirely made of horse-feathers and snake-oil. (I am, but that’s a different story. Wait, no, I’m made of snips and snails and puppy-dogs' tails. I keep forgetting that.)


Again, it’s a free blog, no research included, but as I dimly recall (in a room brightened by electric lights) Edison did not invent the idea of something or other glowing in vacuum. (Or maybe he did, but that’s not the point.) He tried something like 23 kajillion filaments as I dimly (in a brightly lit room) recall, before he got it right. 

Well, I’d bet it was over a thousand. Most only stayed lit a few seconds before fizzing out.

Perhaps myth, but I think he even tried a hair from the beard of a red-headed Scotsman. He finally settled on...again, I dimly recall - something like carbon encrusted cotton thread.

I probably have that all wrong, but that's not the point. He kept trying. That’s the point.

Or is it?

In this one particular sense, these aphorisms are perfectly adequate. Even brilliantly, shiningly, useful.

* * *

I think it’s fair to point something else out before the bright shininess of these aphorisms blinds you to something deeper and truer. I read those aphorisms on a day I had dinner across from some guy - not very old - who had a hedge fund, and 25 employees. 

Mr. Bigshot, you’d figure. Well...

After “trading” for another company, and then starting his own fund, he spent eighteen months with no clients, getting so low on cash that he once got a new credit card so he could immediately get a cash advance to pay his overdue rent. That sounds like an almost pathological dedication (except that it’s extremely healthy. Again, free blog, no thesaurus included.) (Full disclaimer - he had a girlfriend with a job at the time, which obviously helped.) 

Still, it’s not easy to do what he did.  He left a cushy job, a well paid job, taking nothing but his “problem with authority” and innate talent for the “pure capitalism” of “trading”.  Talent or no, most people wouldn’t have the guts to leave the “security” of a “job” behind, and go, with dedication, eighteen months without a single client. On his very limited budget, for example, he flew to England for a meeting, only to have it cancelled an hour beforehand.

Multiply that by eighteen months, and see how you’d feel.

A story which would seem, again, on the surface, to support the aphoristic quotes above. He kept trying and trying and trying, “one more time without loss of enthusiasm”. 

Exactly, right? 

Here’s the clarification, though:

This guy, this trader guy, was doing the thing he “had to do”. He was breaking the rules most people, today, live by. He was not following the program set out for him by anybody, or anything, else. 

He was following his innermost desire.

“And...?”  you say? Well, this:

It’s easy to imagine someone getting a job as a widget salesman. Let’s call him Willy. Willy Loman, say.  It’s easy to imagine his boss telling him to remember the noble words of Thomas Churchill (to conflate, a bit), to “try one more time without loss of enthusiasm”, and for Willy to believe he was on some kind of noble, life-affirming path, when in fact, with each door he knocks on, each time he tries “one more time without a loss of enthusiasm”, he is crushing the dried shards of the remnants of his scuttled soul.

This isn’t simply a passing concern of mine. It’s fundamental. 

I can get well into the five figures to give a single speech to a corporate group. I’ve refused not only that, but complimentary helicopter rides and five star hotels. I won’t prostitute my ideals, nor George Washington’s ideals and name, to imply support for the forces that destroy, by-the-by, some humans, but, of more fundamental importance, destroy the very thing that makes at least some of us human. (Each ant, you know, only makes six decisions. Computer simulations show this.  Yet, combined, they can build anthills that stretch across an entire continent. We are not ants. Nor is it worth being one to create the largest anthill.) 

(Ants don’t make operas.)

My book, The Education of George Washington, is about how George Washington’s lack of (very much) formal education enabled him, when he was only fifteen or sixteen, to begin to engage fully with his deepest passions and talents. This is what led to his living a great life. 

Yet we live in a world in which almost every aspect of society is designed to make us do just the opposite, to prevent people from finding the same thing George Washington found, in themselves. 

* * *

My friend, the other day, said that Sanskrit is a much more complicated language than any modern one. “Progress!” I said. “Clarity and simplicity are sublime.” (I didn’t, to be honest, say it with such sublime clarity, at the time.)
As the conversation went on, though, I realised she also meant that Sanskrit is a more subtle language than any modern one. As anyone conversant in more than one language knows, there are thoughts that only can be expressed in certain languages. There is simply no way to express these thoughts in other languages. Thus, as most of us can at least infer, language affects, deeply, the way we view the world. Multilingual people see the world in a more variegated and subtle way than those of us who are merely, or mostly, monolingual. And so, my friend said, speakers of Sanskrit automatically saw the world in a more complex and subtle way than, for example, a speaker of modern English would.

“So what?” I replied. “Even the simplest computer today, connected to the internet, is vastly more powerful than any computer ten years ago, even one connected to the ten-year old internet. We’re the same. We live in an interconnected society. Progress, progress, progress! People only need to be able to do a limited number of things, to advance society, as a whole. In the 1880s, one man could make an entire automobile. But it wasn’t a very good one. Now, cars speak to us - they’re beginning to drive themselves! Yet no single person needs to know how to do more than make a steering wheel. Society, though, progresses.”

“So, society is more complicated”, she said, “but we’re getting simpler?”

* * *

A few hours later, a message on my phone popped up telling me the Wagner Festival was going to begin in a few days. I have no idea how my phone knew I’d be interested.

But it got me thinking. Wagner didn’t just know how to write the violin parts. He had the whole thing in his head, including the spirit behind, underneath, and around the soul stirring music he created. 

No matter how far the merely commercial aspects of society progress, there still have to be great people, broad people, wide people, for culture to move forward. Or else our brains, and even souls, are warped by the sick and slick minds of people like Mark Zuckerberg.

Ants don’t write operas. Nor, no doubt, can they appreciate them very much. (My Aunt Myrtle, on the other hand...well, no, sorry....)

So my point is “try one more time without loss of enthusiasm”, but unless you avoid the “education” society offers, and instead  - or, possibly, in addition - get the “educere” George Washington got, you’ll just be a cog in a machine. 

Maybe a cog who can afford lots of widgets. 

But you’ll die like Willy Loman, barely scratching the surface of your dried and shrivelled soul.

 - Austin Washington

PS Willy Loman, btw... (this is half of what I'm talking about. What not to be. But not what I'm really talking about. What to be.)