A friend sent me a link to Joel Runyon’s website, particularly his story “An Unexpected Ass-Kicking“, about his chance encounter (in a coffee shop!) with computer legend Russell Kirsch. That got me curious, so I read his followup article, “7 Things I Learned from My Encounter with Russell Kirsch“, and then explored more of his website/blog. I think we’re kindred souls.
One thing that particularly struck me was this post on why he is writing a blog about impossible things. It’s well worth reading. Go on and read it; I’ll wait.
…One of the things that really struck me on that page was this snippet:
Your life is a story. Make sure it’s a good one.
and this slightly-longer passage:
Good stories are told on the edges of reality, and impossible is right on the edge of reality, if not off the map completely. They’re just far enough out there to be a little unbelievable. That’s why we enjoy them. Most possible things in life are in dead-center in reality ““ that’s why most people settle for the possible ““ it’s easier. That’s also why a lot of people are unhappy, bored, or just feel like they’re stuck.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone wants to be a walking legend (and isn’t a legend just a good story?), but it is certainly true that many people would like their lives to be a little more interesting, a little more legendary, but feel stuck, either because they don’t know how to begin, or because legendary things are done by other people – you know, by legends. Mythical beasts who are wonderful, and totally unlike them.
A brief story:
Once upon a time, when I was far, far younger than I am today, I spent an embarrassingly long time chasing after the legends of mathematics. That is to say, I was a math groupie, looking for and trying to hobnob with the top mathematicians of my age group. This was because, more than anything else, I wanted to be one of the top mathematicians in the country, and I hoped that if I hung around with the gods of mathematics, maybe I’d be one of them someday.
That never happened. I was playing out of my league – while I was very mathematically gifted, I wasn’t #1 in the country or even close. Playing with the big boys (and they were pretty much all boys), I was hopelessly outclassed.
But I discovered something interesting along the way: when you get to know them, the gods of mathematics aren’t gods at all. They’re people. In fact, they’re the sort of people who eat, drink, sleep, and generally behave just like other people, except for the obsession with math. Gods are people. That was all there was to it.
Fast-forward a little bit: I went to Caltech, a refuge for legendary smart people, and found all these neato people doing all sorts of interesting things. I still didn’t think of myself as legendary, or indeed able to do legendary things. But then a funny thing happened: people started drawing me into their legendary projects, and they proved to be not only possible, but interesting! I started thinking up other interesting things to do, just because the first few had been so much fun. Soon I was organizing legendary projects of my own.
After a few more years, it dawned on me that people were starting to look at me as if I were some sort of legendary creature – you know, the kind who does things that other people can’t. This befuddled me. I wasn’t a god! I wasn’t a U.S math team member, I hadn’t founded Hotmail or eToys or anything like that. I was just, you know, me. A mere mortal. There was nothing godlike about what I was doing – I was just finding interesting things to do, and putting in the effort to succeed at them. This whole legend thing was just smoke and mirrors!
And in fact it is. What I’ve learned in a life spent doing mostly extraordinary things is that it really doesn’t take a god or a legend to do extraordinary things. All it takes is a decision to step out of the ordinary, believe you can do something extraordinary, and then figure out how to make it happen. Legendary things are all done by people. Not legends, people. Plain old ordinary people, like you and me.
And that is what I liked so much about Joel Runyon’s blog post about his encounter with a walking legend. There he was, sitting in a coffee shop, and an old geezer (who just happens to be the man who invented the computer) comes up to him and gives it to him straight up:
“Nothing is withheld from us that we have conceived to do.”
I don’t believe that all things are possible. (That’s kind of New Age-y.) But I believe that most people are capable of a lot more than they think they are.
I also do not believe that talent is needed to do extraordinary things. I am not a talented cyclist. I’m short and I’m pudgy, which is about as far as you can get from being a gifted cyclist. But I bicycled from San Francisco to Los Angeles, 585 miles in seven days, four times in the course of raising over $20,000 for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. I rode a double century (200 miles in one day). And I rode four of five passes of the legendarily-difficult Markleeville Death Ride. I’m not a talented, or even particularly skilled, cyclist. But I was persistent enough, and worked hard enough, at my training to do extraordinary things nonetheless.
I really enjoyed reading Joel Runyon’s blog; I’ve subscribed to it, and I hope you will too.