In A Perfect World
Walter E. Williams, a famous African-American economist, passed away last week. He had a lot to say—some of it humorous, most of it pointed and all of it based on hard fact—about the state of the black community specifically and of American society in general. There was much in his personal life to admire and even emulate. There is certainly a lot to learn from.
Raised in inner-city Philadelphia in the fifties by a woman whose husband abandoned her when Walter was just three years old, he saw his mother take jobs as a domestic servant rather than subsist on welfare. As soon as he was old enough, he took whatever part-time jobs he could find to help pay the bills. On weekends, his mother took Walter and his sister to museums and the library, determined to inject some culture into their poverty-stricken lives. She wanted them to achieve more in life than she had. She wanted them to achieve excellence.
This was a lesson it took young Walter some time to learn. Blessed with a fine mind, he was able to get through most of his schooling without working very hard. Then, one day, the teacher returned an essay that Walter had written. In front of the whole class, the teacher ripped the essay into four pieces, dropped it on the boy’s desk and said, “You can do better than that.” Walter Williams afterward declared, “He was the best teacher I ever had.” He was the best because he insisted that his bright student do more than merely scrape by. He demanded excellence.
Everybody wants to be outstanding at something. Unfortunately, we aren’t always prepared to do what it takes to get there. Instead of working at becoming outstanding, we can make the mistake of putting our energies into standing out. That’s a very different kettle of fish!
We are living in an age where excellence through hard work is not properly valued. Government handouts, unearned accolades and a lopsidedly heavy emphasis on self-esteem have, over the decades, eroded the time-honored American values of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, toiling for success and being of service to others. Instead, we run the risk of becoming a society of takers.
Let’s face it: it’s hard to fight the lure of “free stuff.” As the recipient of such stuff, you enjoy the smug feeling of having outwitted some vast, cosmic system. You’ve filled your pocket with glittering treasure that you didn’t have to dig up yourself. But the cosmic system is there for a reason. It’s meant to help us become the best human beings that we can be. And filling our pockets with unearned loot only serves to weigh us down. It slows our steps and dulls our motivation… until all we want to do is put our feet up and relax. Why not? Someone else is footing the bill!
This was the problem with Communism. Being taken care of, cradle to grave, by an overarching government bureaucracy ended up draining people of the motivation to achieve excellence. The only goal demanded of them was to fulfill a minimum quota. All they had to do was get by. Productivity stopped having anything to do with personal creativity or ambition. There was no impelling motive to make a person want to get up in the morning and contribute to society, or even to the betterment of his own life.
He was nothing more than a cog in a gigantic wheel, fed and clothed and housed by some vague political entity that told him he was living in Utopia. It took a long time for him to face the fact that this was a lie. And even longer for him to recover the independent spirit that makes a human being strive for excellence.
When a person has become used to receiving rewards that he didn’t earn, it can take some time to rekindle his desire to become outstanding.
It’s human nature to yearn for recognition. But many people are more intent on achieving their fifteen minutes of fame than on spending fifteen or thirty or sixty years working to achieve something worth remembering. One way to stand out is to proclaim oneself a victim. It’s easier to elicit a chord of sympathy from other people than to win their admiration. But at what cost?
The cost, I think, can be measured in terms of human dignity.
Earning one’s way is much better than simply raking things in for free. While getting “free stuff” may be alluring—appealing as it does to our physical side, which wants nothing more than to loll about comfortably on a soft cushion—living off unearned bounty is deeply unhealthy for the human spirit. It does nothing to elevate us or help us achieve excellence.
A lifetime of accepting handouts would lower our self-esteem and drain of the confidence we need to succeed. True self-esteem is based on using our potential to earn our keep.
Somewhere along the bumpy course of modern history, we seem to have lost some of the inbuilt human desire for excellence. We’ve allowed the love of comfort and the dazzle of superficial recognition to take the place of genuine achievement. We’ve become ready to accept an undeserved “A” for a substandard paper, simply because having an “A’ makes us feel good.
As a society, maybe it’s time to rip up our own test papers and to tell ourselves, “This isn’t good enough.” Time to set our sights on something far beyond than the next instant-gratification moment.
Time to stop caring so much about standing out, and to remember how it feels to be outstanding.