Remembering to Imagine

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I had just moved my bedroom to the basement of the townhouse we lived in. The lights were off as I lie on the mattress listening to the radio. I can’t remember what I was thinking of, but it probably had something to do with my next day at school, Grade 12 at White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville, Ontario.

As a song ended, the announcer came on the air to deliver the fateful news that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside of his home at the Dakota Apartments in New York City. Details were sketchy at that exact moment, so the announcer simply put on the song Imagine.

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For every way that the death of Elvis Presley affected my mother just three years earlier, the murder of John Lennon felt that much bigger for me.

Not quite old enough to have been impacted by Beatlemania the first time through, I had fond memories of The Beatles cartoon, the movie Help, and the bajillion songs that the four band mates had produced together and in solo ventures. To this day, I cannot see Ringo Starr without thinking back to the movies Caveman or The Magic Christian.

But with the murder of John Lennon, my fondness became a mania as I started to realize what I had largely missed in only listening to pop radio and watching late night movies. I set out immediately to learn everything I could about the man and the band. If nothing else, this instantly made birthday and Christmas present buying so much easier for those around me.

Within a few years, the can-do-no-wrong mania tempered into an acknowledgement that these were not gods, but brilliant artists with all the flaws that go with being humans under a microscope.

I don’t like a lot of the music John Lennon produced, but what I do like, I adore. The man was an absolute prick at the best of times, and yet I could see where some of that came from as I learned his life story. Had we ever known each other, I seriously doubt he and I would have been friends. Our personalities simply would not have meshed.

But none of that takes away from the wonders of his music and his poetry.

Thirty-four years later, I still have reason to weep in the dark for my loss, but thankfully, 34 years later, I still have your art to refill the broken heart.

Success Stories

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About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a science writers’ workshop outside Boston. In one of the sessions, the speaker spoke on the risks of anecdotal evidence using the following example:

Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals, but also seem to have an inherent sense of humanity (for lack of a better word) as evidenced by the number of stories where dolphins have saved the lives of stranded sailors and fishermen by pushing them toward shore.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with this conclusion based on this evidence, which I will address later in this post.

 

In learning the craft of my arts—whether business/marketing, science writing or screenwriting—I have relied on various authors to teach me the benefits of specific approaches. And one of the most popular ways to describe these benefits is through the use of success stories.

My most recent read was The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, a quite enjoyable book that ties nicely with my current thinking on my Art. (Nothing like rationalizing your own opinions with support from books you know to agree with you—but that’s another blog post.)

As Malcolm Gladwell so deftly does for business endeavours, Robinson weaves his discussion of the cross-over point between talent and passion with numerous success stories, most of which take the form of:

  • Young person faces adversity when she goes against the norm
  • Struggling to find her way, she is marginalized by the local community and authorities
  • Through personal tenacity and/or the support and guidance of a mentor, she blossoms in her Art
  • She is now worth bajillions of dollars and/or helps gazillions of people/animals

Who is Robinson talking about? Paul McCartney, Arianna Huffington, Richard Branson, and several others less famous.

These stories are inspiring and uplifting. Everybody enjoys an “against all odds” story.

Tell the same anecdote about a farm boy on Tatooine and you have Star Wars. An addled boxer in Philadelphia, you have Rocky. An addled boxer in New York, you have Raging Bull. Another addled boxer in New York, you have Cinderella Man. Anyways…

One thing that bothers me about these stories, however, is that they establish a linear relationship between individuality and success (which I can buy) at a success rate of approximately 100% (where it all falls down).

What about the individuals who followed a parallel process and didn’t become Paul McCartney, Richard Branson or Arianna Huffington? Who bucked the trend, stood up for themselves and were run over by society?

Failure is an option, friends. It shouldn’t be glossed over. You can theoretically do everything right and still not achieve the success you were looking for.

Again, I agree with the theses these (wow, that’s an odd juxtaposition) books describe—that following our individual strengths/talents/passions and relying on inner fortitude rather than simply conforming to society’s will is our best chance at happiness as individuals—but I balk at anything that smacks of guarantees or promotes unrealistic expectations of success.

Where is the balance? Where are the cautionary tales?

I don’t think any of the authors set out to perpetrate a scam. They’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or sell you snake oil. They’re truly trying to inspire people with feel-good stories, which is commendable. Their audiences, however, are typically so full of hope, so looking for a beacon, that they are apt to see these anecdotes through rouge-hued specs and so mistake proof-of-possibility for proof-of-concept.

It’s a case of reader be aspirational but realistic. Your efforts may not work the first time through, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.

 

And the problem with the dolphin anecdote:

We will almost never hear about the times the dolphins pushed the stranded sea-farers further out to sea rather than to shore, because those people probably drowned. Thus, the anecdotal evidence is skewed in favour of success stories.

(Image is the property of its owner and is used here without permission.)