“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it” ~ H.E. Luccock
“It’s hard to detect good luck – it looks so much like something you’ve earned” ~ F. A. Clark
Hi, and welcome back to DeMeStified.
We are clearly in the age of the big screen. Not that movies are a new invention; just that they seem to have taken on a new dimension in recent times.
Every writer aspires to create characters that live on in the minds of viewers long after the movie has run its course. That used to be the holy grail, except that it no longer suffices. The bar has now gone up a few notches.
The new goal is to permeate the viewer’s everyday life and sift into pop culture. No way you haven’t noticed how easily newer movies influence otherwise unrelated conversations. They basically market themselves through peer conversations. Excellent strategy.
Still some of my all-time favourites are from way back in the analog days. Of those, very few can be mentioned in the same breath as the Godfather trilogy. That’s one movie I confess to watching more than once. I even went and got the video game. I’m that much of a fan. Still, in all my time of watching and playing, only recently have I noticed the Godfather logo.
Nothing captures the essence more beautifully: a single hand, running the world by string. Perched atop the food chain, he determines who makes profit and who essentially runs a charity. He installs and deposes. Chooses who sleeps in a bed and who sleeps with the fishes. Laughable, incredible – and strangely very common.
The power, influence and invincibility make the top job extremely alluring. In that world of grime and crime, the dream is to become a ‘made man’ (recognised associate of the boss) and eventually work your way up to the top job. Even if loyalty would eventually be butchered down the alley of ambition, people typically wore their badges with pride. “Associate of Crappi Bullshitzni”, “Enforcer for the Gluttoni family”, ”Member of the Al Comazo Syndicate”. Everyone could be traced to his boss, mentor or enabler. Less so in today’s world.
It’s a new age, dearly beloved – the era of the ‘island-fad’. Here, everyone seems desperate to deny any affiliation or support received on the way up. With a bit of thought, the crude logic behind this ideology may be obvious, but never more than the underlying hypocrisy.
Remember when Usain Bolt set a new 100m world record in 2008? Well, less than a month later, Tyson Gay ran it almost half a percentage point faster. Still, he was not adjudged to have broken the record. Why? Blame it on something called “wind assistance”. Gay was measured to have received twice as much help from the wind as Bolt had when he set the record. So, putting it simply, the wind made the difference – not Tyson Gay.
Such nit-picking is absolutely critical in the world of sports and competition. That’s the only way to keep everyone on equal footing year-on-year and from venue to venue.
That’s also why doping is particularly frowned upon. In the world of sports, any advantage derived must either be the product of talent and rigour, or be seen to have been fairly earned. (God forbid I mention luck). So, it only makes sense that you’re constantly able to show that you have enjoyed no unfair advantage.
The wind must be seen to have aided all equally. Any ‘supplements’ must be approved and seen to boost all without bias. No special brews or juices. Against this backdrop, one could understand the rush to denounce any perceived advantage.
The problem with applying this logic to real life can be summarised in one line: “life is not a competition”. In the real world, perception of advantage has never been enough to reverse any victories. Makes one wonder why the mad desperation to be islanded? If it were so simple, why is everyone so desperate to be ‘self-made’?
Might it also have something to do with our tendency as humans to hoard all credit and push any blame? I wager there are more ‘self-made’ folks than admittedly self-destructing ones. It’s easily someone else’s fault when things go wrong. Don’t tell me you haven’t been there? Good grades were earned; the poor ones were ‘given’ by the lecturer. When the strategy works, we’re savvy. When it fails, the market is bearish, the currency is unstable, or the policies are unfair. You see the pattern? Great is I; crappy is them.
I acknowledge the logic behind attempting to blur out any advantage. But I also understand that receiving support and assistance is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the crux of being human. Ray Hudson once said a certain footballer was so smart he helped change his own diapers as a kid. Premium banter; no more. No one ever goes it alone. We were never designed to exist in isolation. That’s why people lose their minds in solitary confinement. I wonder, then, if we could truly be ‘self-made’.
Biologically, the irony is obvious. Socially, the error is glaring – unless we’re Tarzan, and the animals don’t count. Per circumstance, imagine being alpha, omega and sigma of all else in between. That’s the logical equivalent of a painting grabbing the brush and redoing the artist’s universe. It is simply impossible to account for all variables – except in a controlled experiment. That’s the very origin of ‘unknown-unknowns’. Sometimes, the unknown works to our advantage; other times, it doesn’t. How can we then control what we don’t know about? More topically, how could we take credit for what we had no control over?
Maybe we’re passionate, extremely hardworking and routinely go the extra mile. But, can anyone really be more passionate than a Jehovah’s Witness trying to win you over? Could we ever work harder than the typical bricklayer? Any clue how much physical training the average boxer undergoes in the build-up to a fight? Tyson used to run four miles, walk ten, do over two thousand sit-ups and nine rounds of sparring (among other crazy stuff) on the average day. In the end, he won some and lost some.
We may regularly put in a decent shift, but the outcome could never be down to our input alone. Results have been known to vary. The “know-all, be-all” assessment of what goes into victory would, therefore, always be narrow and incomplete.
I’m nowhere near being ‘made’. Hopefully, the day comes sooner than later. Still, in my short time so far, I’ve had help. I’ve known love – in the purest and rarest of forms. It’ll be rather shameful to deny or discount that for headlines.
One time, I was going through a particularly rocky patch. It was a place so dark it felt like peering into the abyss. The only certainty was the stench of the dragon’s breath as it poised to rip my head off. Guess who showed up? A supposedly lowly neighbourhood security guy – offering to pay my electricity bills! There was no better way to remind me that someone somewhere was rooting for me. That simple offer put some wind back in my sails.
I dare not forget the many folks who have housed and fed me over the years; some of them, on more than one occasion. One took me in right after school, housed, fed and paid all the bills for four straight months. To this day, he’s never mentioned it to another soul. In spite of his own troubles at the time, he kept assuring me of better days ahead. His words were all that kept me from resetting to zero. Then, there’s the one who took out a loan to pay the last part of my school fees.
Of course, the help may not always come pleasantly packaged. It took a senior colleague essentially banishing me from the office for me to accept a far more lucrative offer at another firm. At the time, I worked a five-grand-a-month gig in Lagos; genuinely believing I could scale up from there. Unnerving as it was at the time, that banishment did me a world of good.
If we managed to sidestep the perfectly human tendency to be at the centre of it all, we’d realise how infinitesimal we really are in the grand scheme of things. It’s a sobering reflection that many fear to look upon. Wale Adenuga calls it being ‘pencils in the hand of the creator’. I like to think of it more as being puppets on a string. One way or the other, whether we’re aware or not, someone is pulling our stings – for good or otherwise.
When we apply to that dream job, we effectively place those strings in the hands of our line managers, chief executives and board of directors. Consequences for the decisions they make will essentially trickle down to us.
Sometimes our strings are pulled so subtly we don’t even realise it. For example, our parents are almost solely responsible for our (first) religion. Our immediate environments could easily form a chunk of our worldview (if not deliberately re-engineered). Our genotypes (which we hand no hand in choosing) could be the deciding factor in the choice between potential partners.
Some other times, the strings are snatched without our consent. Some new government policy could make or cost you a few millions overnight. Some lunatic could declare war on your country – and displace thousands in a flash. Several people have been wrongfully arrested or hit by stray bullets.
The point here is not to discredit any success we may have earned – particularly for anyone who’s had the odds stacked against them. I know firsthand what it means to swim against the tide. My simple aim is to highlight that there are more factors outside our control than within. As such, no one can ever truly be self-made. Claiming otherwise smacks either of blatant disregard for the many components that make up our lives – or of megalomania.