Titles are a pain

Life’s too damn short to have to think of a clever title for every journal entry. I’m done with that, just like I’m done with tying shoes (my favorites now are a pair of comfy, ugly Skechers with elastic pseudo-laces).

It’s also too damn short to sit here racking my brain trying to remember the oh-so-clever journal entry that was in my head just before I fell asleep last night. But I’m doing it anyway. Let’s see… I think my late-night thoughts were inspired by the book I had started reading about the self-help culture, called Promise Land. Ah yes, I think I was going to write about perseverance, one of the recurring mantras of self-helpsters.

How appropriate: I persevered and remembered! And how unlike me, a confirmed quitter.

Yesterday I also heard part of an interview with self-help/motivational writer Robert Greene in which he and the interviewer discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that you have to practice something for 20,000 hours to get good at it. The first problem with this discussion was the fact that anyone would take Gladwell’s notions as the gospel truth. The second problem is that Gladwell’s rule of thumb requires 10,000, not 20,000, hours. (A lot of people translate this into 10 years, which would seem to argue against the 8-year term limits imposed by many state laws.)

The third, and most troubling, issue arose when Greene said something like “If you’re in your 40s, obviously you’re not going to have 20,000 hours.” Even with this erroneously doubled figure, I still calculate that someone who applied herself assiduously would need less than 10 years to achieve mastery. She could certainly do this in her 40s or even her 60s.

That assiduous someone would never be me, of course, because I run from anything that looks like it will take a lot of time to get good at it. Why? Historically, as with my quitting law school, it’s been because I was skeptical about the permanence of life, the universe, etc. I didn’t want to spend my hours in drudgery if there was no guarantee of any time left at the end of it all in which to reap the rewards.

This skepticism about the future explains why one case that we studied, a wrongful death suit after a plane crash, made such a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t an unusual case, nor was it (I think) my first exposure to the idea of quantifying a victim’s future earnings as a component of damages. But it struck very close to home, because the victim was a law student. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fictional, futuristic notion that this woman would finish law school and then earn a certain salary for a certain number of years. (The one part of the calculation I remember clearly is that she was expected to spend $1,000 per year on clothing; as someone who spent at most $50 per year on a wardrobe mainly from thrift shops, I couldn’t relate to this at all.)

I understood that most law students do graduate, and that most go on to earn decent incomes, and that most lawyers are required to wear nice clothes (which probably influenced my decision to drop out), but I was extremely troubled by the idea of saddling a defendant with an obligation based on an imaginary outcome. Maybe the victim would have indeed finished school and gotten a highly paid job, but there’s a good chance that she wouldn’t have stayed married to her husband, the plaintiff.

This obsession with uncertainty has pretty much paralyzed me. The only skills I’ve ever mastered were those that were thrust upon me, e.g., speaking French while living in France, or those that were just too much fun to stop, e.g., playing ping-pong or working cryptoquote puzzles (or riding a bike, or walking for that matter). I think the experts I heard on the radio yesterday agreed that you shouldn’t force yourself to spend 20,000 (i.e., 10,000) hours in drudgery. You should try to master only the things that you enjoy doing anyway. Obviously I didn’t enjoy law school enough to keep it up for its own sake, but maybe I can think of something, before I turn 60, that would hold my fickle interest for the next 10 years.


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