The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
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Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
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Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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In it for the funny: losing the battle against yourself

It turns out I’m a tough act to follow.

Two weeks ago I wrote a column on the joys of bowling and my appreciation of the sport. I was rather proud of that column, as I felt it made an important point and contained a good number of funny jokes. With the help of my intrepid editors, the column turned out rather well, and, if I may say, it really tied the S&B together.

I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from students, from colleagues, from friends and from Colleen, who operates the Ladora Bank Bistro and makes the finest stromboli west of the Mississippi. I appreciate knowing that people are reading and enjoying what I’ve written.

To all of you who told me how much you liked the column, I thank you. And I want you to know—you’ve really screwed me this time.

I’m feeling the pressure to write another column as funny as the last one, but I’m not sure I can do it. What topic will resonate as much as bowling? About what other subject can I muster such personal passion and harness my temperamental wit? Upon what theme can I so eloquently and hilariously opine? I have a feeling my thoughts on foosball just won’t cut it.

Maybe I used up all of my best jokes in the last column. As I’ve tried to explain, I’m not a quip machine. Unfortunately, my editors don’t believe me.

How many column inches have I filled up so far?

This is the phenomenon of the sophomore slump, the difficulty that faces those who put out a great album, book or movie to duplicate its success. Now I know what the makers of “Teen Wolf Too” felt like.

Success is always a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be an inspiring and confidence-building spur to further action. On the other hand, it can create a sense of pressure that results in a paralyzing fear of failure.

I’m on the other hand.

But I suspect I’m not alone, particularly at Grinnell, where the pressure for students to excel can be rather intense. Great things are expected of you by virtue of your merely being here, and each success—in the classroom, in athletic competition, in social service—seems to generate more and greater expectations.

We attribute most of those expectations and much of that pressure to outside sources, but it’s really a projection of our own fears. “I got an A on my first paper, so my professor expects my next paper to be just as good or even better.” “If I don’t play as well in our next game, everyone will be disappointed.” “I grew a decent goatee, so this beard needs to be freakin’ amazing.”
The truth is this—while for the individual, success leads to personal sense of expectation, for most of the people who share in your achievements, success breeds hope, and that is a very different thing.

Speaking as a professor, when a student turns in an “A” paper early in the semester, I look forward to reading the next one, but I don’t see it as a do-or-die situation for that student. If the next paper doesn’t reach the “A” level, I don’t lose faith in that student or feel like the student has let me down. It becomes a teaching opportunity for me and a learning opportunity for that student. It’s what we’re here for.

Dealing with success is a matter of putting things in perspective. We tend to view our accomplishments in terms of peaks, believing that any single success sets us atop a precipitous summit from which we can only fall. We worry that fall will hurt—particularly because we think that we will never reach such heights again.

Experience and distance teaches us, however, that what we believe to be our peaks at any given time are really only single points on a much larger journey. What really matters is not the joyous time spent at the top or those abysmal points when we feel we’re at the bottom—what matters is the climb. And the great thing is that all those people who you might think are watching and judging your performance in this process are usually not there to saddle you with more and greater expectations. They’re there to help you carry your bags.

Sometimes you write a good column, sometimes you write a great column that has people clamoring for your next one. And sometimes you worry so much about following that great column that you end up writing a column that reads like a crappy secular version of that Footprints poem where that guy is walking on the beach with Jesus.
But I can’t worry about that now. In the grand scheme of things, a column is just a column, and there’s no pleasing everybody. If you like this one, that’s great. If you don’t like it, please lie to me and tell me that you do because we’re dealing with a very fragile ego here.

I’ve got to write more columns and accept that some better than others (and most, hopefully, better than this.) I’ve got exams to grade, reading to do, classes to teach. I’ve got two research articles to finish writing, and a book manuscript to tackle after that. I’ve got to stop losing and start winning games of Scrabble on Facebook.

All the while, I imagine the voices of those who expect great things, voices that I imagine as belonging to everyone around me when really I know that they’re all just versions of my own. These voices expect and encourage, criticize and cheer. They tell me to be funnier, smarter, wittier, more serious, less serious. They tell me to write this and don’t write that and you should write what people want to hear and you should just write what you want to write.

And out of all those different voices, there is just one that really matters. It’s the voice of John Goodman as Walter Sobchack, and he’s telling me exactly what I need to hear:

F**k it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.

-Tim Arner, English

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