Perspective is everything.
We create unreasonable and unrealistic expectations for our own lives and those of others and this can really distort the perspective we bring to life. As much as we can, we try to block out the difficulties and setbacks. This shouldn’t be happening! Why is this happening to me? We normally treat life’s difficulties as unwelcome anomalies when in fact they are an integral part of life for all of us. Suffering in its many forms, the ultimate expression being death, is certain and nothing can change this as much as we might try to soften the blows of a mortal life.
Recall the hero Achilles, the heel etc? There are different versions of the story, but the Alexandrian writer Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica gives us one version where Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, tries to immortalise her mortal son by placing him in fire so that ‘loathsome old age‘ will be kept from his body. (4.869-72). He is held by the heel and this part is left untreated as it were as she is interrupted by Achilles’ mortal father Peleus who is understandably a little concerned at what he finds. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. Achilles, arguably the greatest of the Greek heroes must endure the suffering that life holds – dishonour, loss, grief, and death. Indeed, his name itself is very close to the ancient Greek word for pain, αχος (achos). And in much of his great epic, the Iliad, Achilles really struggles with the suffering he encounters, so much so that he makes everyone else suffer as well.
I wanted to write about this because it’s a different take on the usual way we look at the hero’s story which is often reduced down to a series of achievements. It’s a story that emphasizes success. Think of Jason stealing the Golden Fleece, Achilles’ victory over Hektor at Troy, or Batman saving Gotham. This is fine for inspiration perhaps, but it does little to help face the reality of life’s journey. In our world of constant consumption and instant gratification hard work has become underrated. We want the trappings of success but few want to do the hard yards necessary to make it happen. When we look a bit closer at the hero’s quest, or the story of most people who have achieved success, from a slightly different perspective we see how they are repeatedly put into hugely difficult situations and made to face trials and tests which push them to the limit and sometimes beyond.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to life and business recently. Several times I’ve made the mistake of setting out on business ventures completely unprepared for the challenges. I’ve made the assumption that my excitement about the service I’ve been offering will easily translate into a steady flow of ideal customers. I might find initial success but then the excitement fades with a string of rejections. It will be a familiar story to many I think. The problem has been that my expectations have been unrealistic. I haven’t expected things to be tough, and as a consequence I’ve been unprepared to tackle the challenges that lie throughout the road to success.
I learned a lot about this in an experiential sense over years of post-graduate study. Ten years to be exact. And they were successful years by any measure. A Doctorate and two Masters degrees, numerous awards and scholarships, and I’ve published half a dozen articles and my first book and much else besides. Not bad for a kid who some teachers at primary school thought was a bit slow. Did I have something to prove? Maybe. You bet.
Most people make the faulty assumption that it’s about being smart. Brains come into it, sure. For the PhD you basically have to come up with a significant contribution to your field and requires analyzing that field in depth and everything written on it. Mine was on Homer’s Iliad, something which people have been critiquing for over 2,000 years. Setting out, the inevitable difficulties seemed far away, unimportant. I don’t remember people stressing how hard it was going to be – maybe they did and I just blocked it out in my enthusiasm. But it was hard, mind breakingly so, literally, not all the time but for a significant proportion of it, and the experience taught me a few things about success and life generally. There were also great times, times when the work just flowed and I’d leave the office at the end of the day with a bounce in my step, feeling blessed. A cycling comparison is begging here. The good times are like a beautiful descent down the side of a mountain, the bike gliding through long sweeping corners and not a car to be found. They don’t require any real effort. But as you get better at ‘the work’, the good times become those days when you overcome the deepest resistance and get that first 50 words done – the 50 that might grow to a string of tough but immensely satisfying days. These days are like climbs – getting into a good tempo, neither rushed nor too easy, but a steady pace knocking down one click at a time, going into and staying with the pain – appreciating it.
So my experience changed as my approach matured. In the beginning when I was struggling with the thesis I would give myself a hard time because I wasn’t living up to the image of constant effortless success. Negative self-talk might have sounded like: “If I was good at this I wouldn’t be finding it so hard – therefore I mustn’t be good at this, so what’s the point?” So many days I wanted to give up.
The more I expected to have to really work, and as I adjusted my expectations, goals and habits, I found myself being able to make the countless individual steps one at a time. Rather than telling myself I had to finish a new chapter the end of the week, I might start with drafting the next paragraph or finding the missing details for that footnote. Put lots of these together and pretty soon you find yourself achieving a lot. I used to call the ‘workmanlike approach.’ The thing is, by doing this I really felt like I was starting to get some mastery not just over the task but over myself. In the end, that was what stood out most of all for me. It was perhaps the single best reason, other than my love of the poem, for going through with it to the end.
If I had relied on the easy days to make all my progress I wouldn’t have finished. This is like trying to win the Tour de France by sprints and downhill alone, when it’s the big climbs and the time trials that sort out the pack. In the end it was my ability to work through the tough stages, to get up when I had fallen down, and to so with both determination and intelligence that got me through.
I’m looking back on this experience now because I know this truth is what I need to keep in mind, whatever I do next.
Ironically perhaps, acceptance of the difficulties – neither liking nor disliking them – can awaken a more universally humanistic way of living founded on deep compassion. It’s precisely this compassionate spirit that is awakened in Achilles at the end of the Iliad. His anger is confronted with the supplication of Priam, the old king of Troy who has come to ransom the body of his son Hektor, who was killed by Achilles earlier. In Priam he recognizes both the inevitable loss his own father will have to endure when he dies (Achilles is prophesised to die at Troy and his death is assured when he choses to kill Hektor). At the same time Priam’s loss and grief remind him of the loss of his best friend, Patroklos. And so he takes Priam by the hand and tells him of the mixed lot that Zeus bestows on mortals, bestowing gifts of fortune and evil, even on the greatest of kings. They come in different forms for everyone, but there are ‘evils’ like loss and failure that we all experience.
Moving forward mindful of this won’t make it easier but you’ll be more likely to succeed and perhaps help a few others do the same.