by Kenton Piper-Ruth
I was playing pretend with my life. Smoke trailed from the end of a tattered roach, wafting toward the open window. My thoughts were disconnected and discordant, moving like electric eels, shocking each other into unconsciousness before drifting down into the depths. My apartment smelled like a fruity skunk several weeks past its expiration date. I watched the walls closely, if I didn’t, they’d come closer and consume what little space I had. Sitcoms played on repeat, trying to coerce me into smiling. I sat, I watched, I ate. No matter what I put in my mouth it all tasted like ash.
Knock, knock, knock.
I opened the door wearing a pair of green boxers with clovers on them. She wore all black, with a badge on her chest, a radio on her shoulder, and a gun on her hip.
“Are you Kenton?” She asked, her nose wrinkled from the smell.
I scratched at the stubble on my cheek. “I guess so.”
Over the course of my life, I have made innumerable poor decisions; I have done many things I regret and have failed to do many things I should have. I can blame depression, lack of information, poor guidance, and lack of foresight, but it doesn’t matter what I blame. All that matters is what I learned. All that matters is how to use what I learned to make better decisions in the present. And, I would not have been able to learn anything from my mistakes if I didn’t have the social safety net provided by my community. Without my community there is no doubt in my mind that I would have gotten caught in a permanent, downward spiral.
I have been privileged in my life. I was raised by two loving parents. Competent teachers educated me. I made numerous friends throughout my stay in the public school system. I was able to go to college immediately after high school. When I dropped out of college because of a premature mid-life crisis, my parents were kind enough to allow me to stay with them until I found a job. I was able to work to support myself—through a myriad of different occupations—and I was able to enjoy some portion of creature comfort: food, shelter, and the pursuit of television. These opportunities are rare. I often think of an old girlfriend of mine—whose parents paid for her education, her housing, and her car—with jealousy. Certainly, compared to her pampering, my privilege is lack-luster, but many people around the world would look at me and call me pampered, and they’d be right.
I would be prouder of hiking a thousand feet from Mount Everest’s base camp than of being dropped at its summit by a helicopter. Many people are never even able to get to basecamp, but their struggle is no less impressive, no less commendable. My country, my community, my parents, got me to base camp, and eight years ago I headed for the summit, cocky and ill-equipped. I slipped. I fell. I broke a few bones. Now I strike out again, going at my own pace. I packed some oxygen this time. I’ve got a heavy jacket and warm pants. Most importantly, I’m going to take numerous breaks along the way, turn around, sit down, and enjoy the view. I might not make it to the summit, but I’ve learned that’s not really the point.
In Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell discusses all the different criteria that must be met for someone to succeed, “the tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured”(19-20). I may not have started as a hardy seed; there may be many trees far taller than me blocking the light, and the soil might not be exceptional, but I do have my community (my family and friends), who protect me from those lumber jacks and rabbits and shine UV lights on me when the sunlight is dim. I am hardier than I was, and I will grow hardier still. Maybe one day I’ll be the one shooing those pesky axe-wielding rabbits away.
In David and Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcom Gladwell establishes that many things commonly considered advantageous (being a giant), can be disadvantageous (Goliath likely had poor eyesight and bad coordination because of his size). And that many things commonly seen as disadvantageous (David’s small size and his pathetic weapon), can be an advantageous (easily able to evade Goliaths slow attacks, and the ability to hurl rocks with the speed of a bullet). In David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell argues that once you look past the fallacy of Goliath’s size making him unbeatable, you will see that Goliath never had a chance against David. Throughout David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell gives many examples of supposed curses being blessings in disguise. There is a similar theme in his earlier work Outliers, where Gladwell talks about Joe Flom triumphing over adversity, “He didn’t triumph over adversity. Instead, what started out as adversity ended up as an opportunity”(128). Something everyone thought was negative turned out to be a positive; a disadvantage became an advantage; a curse was revealed to be a blessing. I would not be the person I am today without having fallen on my face so many damn times. With the help of a little insanity, I choose to believe that my sordid past is a blessing in disguise. True to form, it was my father— a significant member of my supportive community—who recommended I read David and Goliath.
I can hardly look at where I am today and call myself a success. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to call myself that. But without my community and the country my community is built upon, and the world my country drains life from, and the Sun my world… I would be nowhere and nothing at the same time. We all walk upon the shoulders of giants with the hope that someone might stand upon ours, so that they might see further than we did.
I want to achieve more than my forefathers did, not because I’m better than my forefathers, but because they gave me the foundation, the capability, to achieve more than they did. They worked hard in the fields and factories, so that we would all have something to eat, somewhere to live, a foundation to stand on; I want to work hard on my computer, giving life to ideas, with the end goal of adding something substantial to the wealth of knowledge we all draw upon. I’m not there yet, and I may never be there, but I’m eager to try. Anything less than trying would be to squander the opportunity, and I will not squander this one.
When I sit down at the computer to write, I do my best to keep these things in mind, to remember why sitting down at my computer matters, to remember the countless people who made this act of creation possible. We love this idea of the self-made man. It is so provocative to think that through hard work, talent, and perseverance I can become successful, regardless of environment, regardless of circumstance. I think part of the reason we like this idea so much is that it makes it easy to feel superior: I have a higher standard of living because I worked harder, and that they live in poverty because they are lazy. The truth is success comes from an endless number of variables out of our control, plus what is in our control: working hard for an extended period of time—somewhere around ten thousand hours.
I know what rock bottom feels like, and it’s not that scary. I’ve been to the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind where electric eels hide from the light, and they too, are not that scary. I do fear falling again. I do fear breaking a few more bones. But I know how to recover. I know the way back to basecamp. My community showed me the way at first, and now I’ve trodden the path to basecamp so many times I could find it in the dark. Now I can even help others in my community find basecamp. I can, and do, drop a few breadcrumbs along the way.
I am the person I am today because I gave up on the world, but the world didn’t give up on me. I decomposed into a pile of stench so vile a police officer knocked on my door wondering about the smell. The smell didn’t really matter. It was a symptom of my septic mentality. With the help of my community, I’ve been able to get a handle on that mentality. I’ve been able to rebrand it and use it to my advantage. It’s taken me a while to realize it, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I needed to smell my own stench. It was the perfect catalyst to my creation.
“Are you Kenton?”
“I am now.”
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, 2008.
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little, Brown, and Company, 2013.