Archive for January, 2013

Paul Newman, Bill and Ted and Yoda Walk into a Bar…

– Topher Endress

“Be excellent to each other.” – Bill (and Abraham Lincoln), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” – Paul Newman, Whenever he felt like it.

These quotes all have some common themes.  First, they are iconic.  Second, they posit harsh dichotomies about a particular way to live life.  I happen to think this second theme is not just important, but the entire reason that Phi Kappa Tau exists, so I would like to explore it in this post.  Since we all just celebrated Paul Newman’s birthday (or at least, you should have), I feel that it is appropriate to explore it within the context of Brother Newman’s life.

When I see these quotes, it is easy to immediately disagree with them.  Yoda and Paul’s especially.  After all, of course you can try.  It is commonly remarked that it takes 10000 hours of practice to become a master in a given skill and all of those hours are spent trying.  So how on Earth are we to take Yoda’s anti-feel good, proto-Ayn Rand koan?  And the quote on losers from Brother Newman – of course there are good losers and bad losers!  A good loser learns from their loss, they accept the defeat graciously and they don’t find cause to lose faith in themselves or hate their opponent.  So all these movie stars are just wrong, right?  Wrong.

I’m going to put something out there.  It may not be received well (or it may be, but frankly it is human nature to disagree with it and even I on some levels disagree with what I’m writing).  Here it is: There is no such thing as being a ‘pretty good guy.’  You are either a man of exemplary character, or you are not good enough.  That is a bold statement.  It destroys the concept of an ‘average.’  It can readily be taken in so many terrible directions that it should probably not be said.  But it must be.  Let’s look at Paul’s life to see what this looks like.

Paul Newman.  Brother in Phi.  Movie star.  One of the biggest names in American celebrity culture in all of history.  Race car driver.  Served in the Navy in the Battle of Okinawa.  Created a successful line of food products.  Plus, he looked like this:

Ok, I swooned when I first saw this too.

Your mothers just fainted.

This man was on top of the world for a good chunk of his life.  He was by all accounts successful in multiple areas of life, had the fame and fortune of Hollywood and was beloved by women everywhere for his conventional good looks.  But Brother Newman did not stop with being incredibly successful.  To be a man of exemplary character, Paul Newman realized that he had to go beyond what the world would deem “enough.”

Last year, over 50,000 children and families were impacted by a life-giving camp system aimed at allowing kids with serious illnesses the chance to reclaim the childhood that disease had tried to strip away.  SeriousFun (formerly Hole in  the Wall) was started by Paul Newman in 1988, though he did not need anything else to add to his resumé to be considered a legend by any standard.  According to the most reliable source I know (read: Wikipedia), he started it with the aim that no child should have to compromise their childhood because of a serious illness.  What do you see when you look to the history of SeriousFun?  You see philanthropy.  You see commitment.  You see character.  What you don’t see is a man who has decided that he is good enough to stop.

When you allow yourself to think about your role in the world with words like “merely,” “above average,” “decent” and/or “pretty good,” you allow an opportunity to significantly impact the people around you in a positive way slip away.  We should always be excellent to each other – from our family and our brothers to our schools and our communities.  And don’t think that just because Alex Winter (who didn’t quite reach the same level of fame as his counterpart, Keanu Reeves) said it, the deeper meaning of that statement is lessened at all.  We are called not be good to each other, not to be ok with each other, not to be decent to each other, but the be excellent.  I promise you there is a difference.  To be excellent to the people around you will drastically impact their lives.  Doing it halfway doesn’t cut it – you will not change lives by being the “pretty good.”  Brother Newman was excellent to children with serious illnesses, and their lives were changed forever by it.  Who can you be excellent to today, and how might it impact them?

Likewise, the actions you take should be done with a balls-to-the-wall, fierce passion that is befitting of a true Man of Character.  This means that the actions you take should be worthwhile in and of themselves – no one cares if you go all out to win Mario Kart.  But the old adage, anything worth doing is worth doing well, rings true in Yoda’s words.  To try is to attempt to do something.  You can try to do anything, but it doesn’t mean that you are really striving towards anything at all.  Trying is a way of hedging your bets, of preemptively guarding yourself for the loss you might take – and being guarded is a surefire way to sabotage yourself.  To do is to actually push towards the real goal; whether the world determines you to have failed or succeeded, you have either done or done not.  And while failure can hurt, it is the kind of hurt that tells you that your actions at least mattered.  Doing is never a failure because your actions had an impact on the world, whether you hit your stated goal or not.  True failure is not missing the mark, true failure is wasting your time by doing nothing.

Any religion that is worth its salt would ask its adherents to give themselves over fully to the beliefs and actions that come with it.  No minister, rabbi, iman, priest, monk, or any other religious leader would tell you that being “pretty good” is the way to be.  If you believe in something, you should dive in head first and be enveloped by it.  If you want to be a man, jump in and build up your character every single day.  Do not be content to merely exist – you have a presence that should be felt by the world around you.  Either you do it or you don’t.

So Yoda, Bill and Ted, and Paul Newman walk into a bar.  Then they treat the people around them excellently, in a manner that the world has almost forgotten, and then they go out and do great things with an unbridled passion that may or may not be successful, but could never be a true failure.