mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

After a brief montage, this post will be awesome..

I subscribe to a couple of National Review email newsletters, and they both linked this article about how the Karate Kid has ruined the modern world.. The idea is that the typical movie often compresses the hard work that it takes to make major changes into a quick montage with cheerful music. Weak dude, a couple shots of him working out, champion. Ugly chick, a few shots of her buying clothes and taking off her thick glasses, hottie. So we forget the actual amount of effort that it takes in real life to make major changes.

I think there is a lot of truth in this. One of the examples the author gives is losing weight, and it's one I'm quite familiar with. I was overweight until my mid-20's, when (after taking one of those "how long do you have to live" quizzes online and getting mid-50's as an answer) I made some major changes. I started exercising, watched what I ate, and in two years I dropped close to 100 pounds and 10 inches off my waist. Seven or so years later, I'm still at a pretty healthy weight. I'm not as careful as I once was about what I eat, but I spend about 2 hours a day at the gym, so it balances out.

Sometimes, people will see me eating a big meal and make some sort of comment that they wish they could eat like that - presuming that I have some magic genetics that let me eat a bunch and still fit into my pants. That's pretty much the opposite of the truth - I come from a long line of people who have shopped in the husky section. But people see the results and not the effort.

Sometimes, that includes myself. I find myself rather unsympathetic to people who are overweight, thinking "well, if I can do it so can anyone". That, of course, ignores the fact that I couldn't do it for the first quarter-century of my life - I had to change a lot of bad habits, pass up a lot of desserts, and spend a lot of time on an elliptical when I would rather have been on my couch. Changing years of bad habits is not easy, yet once you do it's sometimes hard to remember how hard it was to make those changes.

The thing I struggle with most, though, is why some things seem to work if you put enough effort into them, and others don't. Losing weight was a huge achievement for me, and I'm pretty happy with where I am financially. But my career hasn't always advanced as quickly as I've always wanted it to, and when it comes to dating my life is pretty much a black hole. Part of that may be that I'm not putting in enough effort - or the wrong effort. But I think there is an element of luck - that you need to be in the right place at the right time. And that's something hard to accept for someone who wants to reduce everything to a simple formula, the way weight loss=fewer calories consumed + more calories burned.

My parents, who have been married for, I think, 48 years, met at a dance for young adults sponsored by local churches. Presumably, if one of them had decided to stay home that night, your intrepid blogger might not be around to write this. Plenty of things in my own life have come about from things that seemed minor at the time. Nibbler, the cat who is currently asleep between my chest and the keyboard of my macbook as I write this, came into my life as the result of an offhand conversation with a student employee who had found some kittens. My current job - which I've been at for almost 10 years - came out of a summer job I took my senior year in college because I had an off-campus apartment with a 12 month lease and needed to make some money while living there.

In the Karate Kid piece, the cracked author credits a series of firings and deaths for him getting his current job. And that's the thing about life - I think there is an element of luck, of being at the right place at the right time. Bad things happen to good people - they get diagnosed with cancer, they die in car accidents - so it seems reasonable that sometimes random good things will happen to people too.

But there is a third element too - the ability to take advantage of those good things. It's not always enough to be at the right place at the right time, you also need to be able to recognize that you are and take advantage of it. The Karate Kid article cites the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers for it's discussion of the 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to master something. But there is another section where Gladwell discusses Bill Gates, and argues that much of his success was that he was in the right place at the right time - that he went to a private school that had access to a mainframe computer right at the time when the personal computer revolution was starting. But Bill wasn't the only student in that school, and there were probably at least a few schools like it at the time - but only Bill went on to start Microsoft. And much of Microsoft's initial success has less to do with his writing of MS-DOS and more to do with his decision to license it to IBM instead of selling it outright. That let him license it to other manufacturers. Had he sold it instead, he would have gotten a nice check and probably never been heard from again. Being at the right time and place got Gates a leg up, but the rest of the climb was still because of choices he made.

So I would argue that life is a combination of effort, luck, and of recognizing and exploiting that luck. I don't know what the percentage is, and suspect it varies from person to person (like the taste of Soylent Cola). For someone like myself who wants to believe that I can change, it's frustrating, because maybe I can't, but also reassuring, because maybe that's only partly my fault.