I've been working on an ambitious project with a team. And it's been jarring some deeply repressed memories.
I'd forgotten all the time I squandered on people who offered to help with Chowhound, who occupied my limited attention and wasted my dwindling energy, but finally did absolutely nothing. Nada. I'd train, manage, and synchronize them with great care and attention, but they'd not do even a single thing. They'd vanish wordlessly into the vacuum of space.
Of course, I blamed myself. I must have handled them poorly. But, eventually, I accepted a horrific truth: there are two kinds of people: those who produce, and those who suck all the blood out of you and don't lift a finger. And, alas, the vast majority of people are blood-suckers. I built up powerful resentment - so negative that it's no surprise I suppressed the memory.
But now I've been facing that same problem once more, developing what everyone agrees is a sorely-needed, very clever, unique and potentially lucrative idea. What's more, it's fun. And it will do some good for the world. Hey, how often do all those factors coincide? Everyone I've mentioned it to has wanted to be involved. But 75% vanish without doing a thing, and most of the rest drift off wordlessly after contributing some trifling, crappy shred. Getting anyone to complete even the simplest of tasks is like pulling teeth. Even if they loved the idea, and fully grasped its potential. Even if they've signed a contract offering a share of the proceeds.
This time, I'm older and wiser, so the "Blaming Myself" period was brief. And I also blew quickly through the "Angry Resentment" phase. I understand that this is how humanity works. People don't do stuff.
If you pay people a wage they need in order to survive, you can spur them to show up most days, but not do much more than cover their asses, push papers around, and kick cans down the road. That's the apotheosis of human contribution. Beyond that, with regard to side projects and cool endeavors, there's zero initiative. People like the idea of those things - they like to think of themselves as the type who's involved in fascinating and productive things (and they often are....but purely as passive consumers rather than action-takers) - but they don't have it in them to move a muscle. Discovering this deeply embarrasses them, hence the wordless departures. It hurts them more than the likes of me.
If people could follow up on the things they say they're going to - even want to do - then the gyms would be full, everyone would be slender, we'd all be decent guitarists and our living spaces would be tidy and organized. We'd all speak French. It would be a totally different world.
The bloodsuckers are sincere in their desire to contribute. Just as they're sincere in their desire to quit smoking, eat more vegetables, be nicer to their kids, and finally watch "The Wire." They don't mean to conk out. But if they can't follow through on their own personal needfulness, how could they possibly do so for optional third-party schemes?
A couple years ago I devised a remedy for IBS attacks. It was a simple muscular action (35 years of yoga have conferred deep body awareness), but a bit tricky for a non-yogi. It was perhaps as difficult a skill to learn as rapidly slicing a potato. Nothing tremendous, and well worth the trouble. IBS is intensely painful. In the throes of an attack, you really, really want it to stop. You'd write a check for any amount if someone would shut off the pain. And there's no cure. I'd devised a lifeline for folks fated to wretched helplessness
So I coached some people. I'd love to tell you they worked at it, and some found success while others fell short. But not one person got past the first introductory email. It's not that it was tough reading. I'm a professional writer; people have paid to read my prose! But I required them to actually do stuff. Not pop a pill, or submit to a medical procedure; no passive consumerism, but actual reading of stuff with actual paying of attention and action-taking. People couldn't find sufficient drive to conquer an otherwise incurable painful ailment (hey, many emphysema patients keep smoking, right?).
I'm a mutant. I actually do stuff. I've had success in five different fields, and people have referred to me as a polymath. But no, that's not it. I just lack the gene that inhibits people from doing stuff. And if you actually do stuff, well....stuff gets done! (It doesn't even have to be good stuff. Nobody thinks the Watts Towers are, like, beautiful; they were just yet another notable accomplishment of yet another person lacking a flair for paralysis.)
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river.
The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.
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