I was a half-century old, and I’d never won a thing.
Not a book award, not a lousy toaster or a trip to Cancun or nice stationery or a dinner for two at the downtown Keg Manor. I’d fantasized about prestigious ceremonies, big cash prizes. I read John Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel speech and thought, “What would I say?” Or maybe I thought “What will I say,” because I had quite the imagination, and I was delusional.
My improvised patter began “I really didn’t expect this!” because I didn’t. In my back pocket, I’d provisioned a script for previous award ceremonies, but not this one. A speech for an award you didn’t win is a cleavage of the space-time fabric, a leak from Beyond, where the What Ifs and Might Have Beens of an alternative dimension swirl and crash and burn. I stopped writing nomination speeches because it’s wrong to screw with the universe.
When I had an office job, I learned that the people who aren’t required to travel think business trips are glamorous. They envy the version of you that Walid, the fascinating Palestinian driver, conveys in his sleek yellow cab to the Edmonton Best Western, where the cups have hygienic paper linings and your cleaning woman provides a turndown mint. Go ahead and tell your co-workers the truth—that every hotel, like every airport, is a dreadful soul-killing nowhere. Their stubborn imaginations will ignore you.
In the same way, the human mind imbues the smallest distinction with massive significance. Years ago, I imagined I’d been dealt a huge break when an essay of mine was featured on WordPress. For a couple days, my traffic surged and I felt semi-famous. My first time in national print, and my first time on big-market morning television, made me feel the same.
None of these things made any difference that I was able to discern.
No one fantasizes about getting up at five-forty-five each day to do the same thing over and over and over, but we should. That’s the only way brilliance works. Twenty years later, turns out you’re good at that one thing. Quite good, actually. Go figure.
Double-bass scales, sonnet writing, apple pie, public speaking, whatever they call the tricks that gymnasts do: you learn how to do and make these things by repetition. It’s often cited as the 10,000-hour rule, a formula popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
I met Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago at the University of Buffalo. We shook hands and I said something so banal I don’t remember it. (Hello, Malcolm?) He looked bewildered, like he just wanted to escape to a place where no one would shake his hand and make words at him. Later, I consoled myself with the thought that if we could just meet 9,999 more times we would have such a memorable evening that he’d probably ask me to co-author something.
My mother once introduced me to someone as “the next Malcolm Gladwell.” So using my powers of logic I explained that 1) Malcolm Gladwell and I are the same age, therefore I could only be “the contemporaneous Malcolm Gladwell,” and 2) Please never say that again.