This is not a bouncy, carpe diem sort of post. It’s a hymn to the common man, of which I count myself the commonest. You have been warned.
So TEDx Bountiful was Wednesday, and thanks to the inimitable Jill Peterson, I had tickets. It was a well-produced event, with a great lineup of speakers, all of whom delivered the goods. My initial recap is here.
TED left me with a problem. I really want to speak at a TED. Like, that’s on my proverbial bucket list. Have to do it before I die. But like having dinner with Orel Hershiser and writing a best selling novel, I can figure what’s in it for me, but not what’s in it for the other people involved. I know why I want to speak at TED; it’s because I have a terrible fear that I’m not really worth much, and if I speak at TED then that will be some evidence that I have value.
But what’s in it for the people there? I do give a good speech. I can promise it will be enjoyable. From an entertainment standpoint, then, it won’t be terrible. But what do I say that will be TED-like? Because here’s what I heard seventeen times Wednesday:
I had a terrible, life-changing catastrophe that left me bereft of purpose and made me change the course of my life, and I abandoned my huge house and my perfect life in which I was miserable and struck out on my own to create this amazing adventure.
It’s a great story. I love it. Underdog, story of redemption, all that really great stuff. It makes a spectacular after-school special, or maybe a VH1 documentary.
But it really has nothing to do with me.
I’m the other son, the one that the Prodigal Son is not about. I’m Salieri, the decent composer that just isn’t Mozart. I’m the band that produced several sort of mediocre albums, got better over time, and finally did a couple of tunes that cracked the top 40. No drugs, no women, just solidly coming to work for two dozen years and going home to read the paper and watch the game on TV. No divorces. No riches lost through wasting time and blowing cash on fast cars. No big highs, no big lows, just a fairly steady upward progression. You will never, ever see this on VH1. And why?
Because its a crappy story, that’s why. It’s mostly true, but totally boring.
I grew up in solidly middle-class suburban Fairfax, VA. My parents were married well before I was conceived, and are still happily together. I have a brother (living) and five sisters (ditto). I got good, but not outstanding grades. I went to college, where I got good, but not outstanding grades. I married a woman from solidly middle-class Kentucky, and we are still blissfully together after 21 years. We live in solidly middle-class Utah, in a decent but far-from-grand home in which our kids have to share bedrooms. We have never gone hungry, never been evicted. While none of our business ventures have ever landed me on the cover of a magazine, none of them have failed entirely at supporting a growing family. I’m a hymn-singing Mormon that goes to church every single week and directs the church choir. I’ve never been arrested. None of my immediate family has ever been arrested.
Jeanette and I have eight children, which is unusual but not worth magazine copyspace. All those children are living. We have a grand total of two overnight hospital stays in the close to one hundred child years in our home. They get excellent grades but are not valedictorians. They dance ballroom on a team that’s pretty good. They sing in community choirs and walk in the town parade. They go to church every week and they don’t get in trouble.
The only exceptional thing about our family, about me, is our utter unexceptionalism. We are good people, but not saints. We show up when we’re supposed to and do what we should most of the time. We are very happy and things are going pretty well. There is just no story there.
The funny thing is, when I talk to people about this, about half the time they sigh and say “man, that sounds perfect.” This is the ideal you hear about, the white picket fence and the kids and the Christmas carols. This is what people say they want. I have news for you, though. If they want it, they don’t act much like it. The stories they consume in movies and books are about disasters overcome triumphantly, not mostly-smooth sailing. Heck, those are the stories we ALL consume, myself absolutely included.
At TED Wednesday, and all over the world at self-help and improvement seminars, we hear great things about everyone being the best them in the world, how everyone is a perfect creation all in themselves. “I am enough,” I am told. But what we celebrate and ooh and aah over is not the everyday, because the everyday isn’t up there on stage. The everyday is home, getting ready for pack meeting. The everyday is trying to get the appraisal emailed to the borrower so the loan can close. “Follow your muse,” indeed. My muse? She’s singing my three-year-old to sleep.
The Muse, she does come to me, and she weaves tales of what could be, same as she does to you. I’m a good singer and a good actor. But Broadway is not for me, because I chose something else that will not allow it. I can write. I do write. With great effort, I’ve been able to write a couple of books. To be successful as an author, I have to write a lot more than I do. When? During basketball practice? Loan closings? Rotary? Lehi Core meetings? Opera gigs? Leadership and Scholarship Classes? Because I have all that and more. Not by accident. On purpose. The life I chose has those things in it the way bread has yeast. But bread does not have ice cream in it. One chooses, and often one cannot have both.
The exceptional is a demanding mistress. She requires time and single-minded focus. That focus means that other things don’t happen. If you’re going to be Yo Yo Ma, you are NOT going to be Jeremy Jackman. That’s reality. I made choices. I’m pleased with the choices I made. But those choices have required that I say no to far, far more things than I say yes to, and this is true for you, too, regardless of the things you say to yourself in the mirror. I chose things that require a quiet, all-but-invisible daily work. My wife chose those things, and most of my good neighbors. That means that we also chose NOT to be the people you think of when planning features in magazines. So be it.
Most of the work of the world is done by people like me. We’re the ones that love to watch the TED Talks. We admire and applaud you that are one in a million, because we are the other 999,999 that make your individual awesomeness awesome. It occurs to me powerfully that there have to be a lot of us regular folk, living our quiet lives, for there to be anyone that can be single-minded enough to excel without starving to death. That living, however, almost always means that we will of necessity not be exceptional at Technology, Entertainment, or Design.
So that’s why this speaking at TED thing isn’t happening, I think. What would I say? I have dreams of my own that may or may not come true, but all of them – ALL of them – are either on this path that my love and I are walking right now, or I am not going to reach them. I have nine of the dearest people in the world expecting me for dinner. None of my dreams are more important to me than that. That’s a message, of a sort.
But I don’t think people will want to call it up on YouTube.