Living A Life of Significance

TEDx KnoxvilleIn the middle of November, I gave a talk at TEDx Knoxville. My friend Alex Lavidge organized the event and invited me to speak. I was very excited and could still remember the first TED talk I had ever watched. It introduced me to William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi who used a book about windmills to build one that generated free electricity for his family.

That was in spring of 2008 when I was finishing up an M.A. in English, and I remember pushing back from my desk and having what I imagine is a common response from people watching TED videos:

“Wow. What am I doing with my life?”

After accepting Alex’s invitation to speak, I had another predictable reaction: “Wow. Don’t blow this, Austin.”

In keeping with TED’s “ideas that spread” motif, I needed some idea that would change minds and transform lives—cause a star to be born in some distant galaxy. I ransacked my brain the way a burglar might search for jewelry.

If you’ve ever walked into a room and flipped the light switch only to hear the pop as the filament breaks then you’ll understand what happened in my brain. The light bulb didn’t turn on. I failed to uncover anything brilliant. All I found were great, big piles of other people’s ideas. “Oh no!” I thought. “Am I just a large, pink, featherless parrot repeating what other people have said?”

After a couple of days passed, I realized what I should to talk about: failure.

At the Pecha Kucha Knoxville back in June when Alex and I had both presented, I had shared a simple observation based on something I’d read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: to become an expert at anything takes at least ten years or ten thousand hours. If an artist wants to do work that matters, she needs to forget about perfection and focus simply on finishing projects, no matter how imperfect.

If I took my own advice, then I didn’t need to worry about bestowing some ray of profound insight on the TEDx crowd? Why, I haven’t put in enough time for that yet!

Instead, I could talk about the journey of learning how to lead a life of significance. “Leading a life of significance” has almost become cliche, but despite the eye rolling from any resident cynics, I believe that most people want to leave a mark on the face of the world, a beauty mark, not a scar.

People may have different opinions about the telos, or end purpose, of our individual lives and humanity in general, but diverse faiths, nationalities, races, and sexes can agree—most of the time—that more bagpipes, haikus, and hand-woven rugs are better than more murders, hungry children, and sex slaves.

Doing significant work takes time, and failure is bound to sneak into the workshop from time to time. This truth is particularly hard to swallow in a society obsessed with convenience and shortcuts.

I recently saw the infomercial for the latest flash-in-the-pan product to launch an assault on good taste and common sense. The Forever Lazy is a fleece onesie for adults with zippered hatches in the front and back. Has it really come to this? We can’t even drop our pants in the bathroom anymore because buttons and fly require too much effort?

I’d like to believe that people weren’t in their right minds when they purchased a Forever Lazy, but I fear that this product couldn’t exist unless it were a symptom of a deeper cultural malaise. The cult of convenience will keep many of us from developing the patience and diligence necessary to gain expertise and do significant work. Significant work is inherently inconvenient. Who needs expertise when you have access to Wikipedia on your smartphone?

I agree with argument that Wendell Berry makes in “Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer” (though I own more than one computer):

“I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.”

Perhaps advances in technology like graphing calculators really do help some students excel at math, which another speaker at TEDx asserted, but such advances do not have the power to impart expertise.

Technology will never replace perspiration.

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  1. By Fail Better on December 10, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    […] then how does one become a master of one’s craft? I mentioned briefly in an earlier post, “Living A Life of Significance,” Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In it, Gladwell borrows from the work of psychologist […]