The Fun Dome (#64): The Achievement Machine

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Grace sending it.

“On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

— Douglas MacArthur

I had to scream this quote for a year when I was institutionalized in Colorado Springs in the late 1980’s. It was supposed to make me feel better about mandatory intramural sports like wrestling or swimming and soccer. I had no interest in wrestling or swimming or soccer. Still have a wonky left knee thanks to mandatory wrestling class.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in sports. Specifically, running, cycling, and cross-country skiing. Life sports that I’ve been able to continue long after I left school. I learned more from sports than I did from books. I learned how to work with my teammates. I learned how to prepare. How to patiently try to master a skill. How to put in the time and practice over a period of years. Honing skills so you can perform in the race, the meet, the competition. It was a tangible thing. You could see your times get faster over the same course. You could see yourself beat people that you couldn’t beat the previous month, the previous year.

Raised by two Maine Yankees, I was also expected to do my schoolwork. That was job one. I was expected to prepare and perform. I enjoyed getting good grades. I respected the precision and the “right answer” that math and science had. But it’s pretty hard to actually love calculus. I didn’t love differential equations. I did love diagonal striding up a steep hill when everyone around me had to herringbone.

I went from a backwoods kid in New Hampshire to state champion cross-country skier to flying high performance jet aircraft in combat. I’ll spare you the details. Take my word for it: I was an Achievement Machine. I was bred and built to outwork everyone around me. I might not be talented, but my sports taught me I could still beat those more talented. Prepare. Practice. Perform. In the military, I heard: Prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance.

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Sam leaving it all out there.

At one point, a young pilot I was instructing was rolling his eyes while I tried to explain something about instrument flying. This is the flying you must do when you can’t see because of the thick weather. I asked him what the problem was. He said, “Instrument flying is for heavy drivers. We’re supposed to be good at contact flying.” Contact flying is the flying you do by looking outside the window. Sometimes, you call this “flying by seat of your pants.”

In a fit of hubris, I said something grouchy and arrogant like, “Instrument flying isn’t just for heavy drivers. You’re a fighter pilot. That means you’re better at EVERYTHING than EVERYBODY else.” Angry Shmo the Achievement Machine.

This is all nauseating, I know. Bear with me.

Ten years in, I quit the Air Force. Buy my book someday to find out why. From fifty thousand feet, you might look down and think that I hit some kind of wall. You would be right. What was I trying to achieve? What was my goal? Kicking ass for the sake of kicking ass is an empty proposition. (I never went to Weapons School, so I didn’t actually excel where it mattered, but that’s another story.) I used my accomplishments in life like a weapon. Against…something.

Fast-forward twenty years. I have a son and a daughter. They both cross-country ski. They both play piano. They both go to school. Indeed, school is job one in our house. I expect them to kick ass, and they know it. Like The Great Santini says, “Meechum kids eat nails while other kids are sucking on cotton candy.” My kids know this quote because I take all my parenting advice from Robert Duval.

I coached my kids in cross-country skiing via the KidSki program at Snowflake. Sure, there were a dozen other kids standing around, but I was always coaching a group that had my kids in it. And of course, we ski together as a family. Right now, my daughter skis under the coaching of Kara Salmela, Olympian. So, the kids can ski.

I keep telling myself that all I ever wanted my kids to learn from sports (from anything, really) is that preparation translates to performance. Preparation means work. Shelley and I have tried to drive home the idea of work ethic. Whether it’s with their instructor in piano, Denise Lindquist, or with their ski coaches, Bonnie Fuller-Kask, Dave Kask, Kara Salmela, and Siiri Morse, or with their schoolwork, the principle is the same.

But, I think my kids have already broken the code. They understand that preparation and practice mean performance. So am I creating another generation of soulless Achievement Machines? Robots that kick EVERYONE’S ass at EVERYTHING? Just because? What’s the point?

I read a book a few years back called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. He noticed that everybody on the Canadian junior national hockey team was born in the same month. That whole chapter explained how the advantage of being 11 months older than someone the “same age” as you could translate into opportunities later on. The older kid goes to the NHL. The younger kid pumps gas.

When I first read it, each new chapter explained how I was simply a result of my circumstances. That I had no input in what I became. I was a cork floating on the ocean of my surroundings. At least that’s the way I read it at first. It made me angry. I worked hard. I was responsible for everything that happened to me. I was an Achievement Machine because of my efforts. My work. Me. Me. Me.

I stewed on that book for a year. I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t discounting the effort people make. It’s in this same book where he talks about the 10,000 hours you need to put into your craft to become The Beatles or Bill Gates or Wayne Gretzky. But it made a very strong argument that waves of people, whole populations in society, are faced with opportunities. The trick is to be ready when those opportunities appear. Both parts are there: Work and Opportunity. Gladwell made me think a lot more about opportunity as a factor in what someone becomes. I spent some time looking at my own life lately. It turns out my life took dramatic turns based on the smallest events imaginable. Many of those were blind luck. Sure, there’s Work. But you do it so you can be ready for Opportunity.

So, yeah. Part of me wants my kids to be little Terminators. But maybe, almost 50 years old, I’m wiser. (I said, maybe.) I should be able to help them avoid my mistakes. I don’t want them to do well so they can wield their accomplishments like a club. I want them to be ready for an opportunity. Maybe one I can’t think of yet. Maybe an opportunity that will provide them with fulfillment and joy. I want them to have choices in life. I suppose I’m just like every other parent that way. It always takes me a thousand words to state the obvious.

Gladwell writes about success from the perspective of a Michael Jordan or a Bill Gates. I want my children to find success in the context of a healthy, well-rounded life. They may not become a famous, world-renowned figure. They may not need to win forever all the time. I’ve evolved from: Preparation + Practice = Performance. I now believe there should be a Purpose for that Performance.

All I’m trying to say is that they should keep their options open by performing well until they find their passions in life. Because I sure didn’t know my Purpose in life as a teenager. I suppose Purpose is unique to every human being. Sports started me on the path to figuring out why the heck I’m here. I hope sports will help them solve the same existential question.

Meanwhile, I still take refuge in sports. My achievement this year will be not to fall out of Wave Three to Wave Four at the Birkie. I will take the opportunity not to be a jerk about it, no matter what happens.

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About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Sports and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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