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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Guest Post: On How to Be A Raging Failure

Here’s how the typical story goes: You don’t eat sugar.  You wouldn’t touch a Cinnabon. You’ve finally come to accept that sugar makes you fat and weak.  Reaching for ice cream when you’re frustrated is easy, but you’ve learned through the wisdom of others and your own trial and error that there is a better way.  It’s plain to you now that you feel better when you eat high-quality whole foods.  Now that your gut is clean, the junk food you used to eat makes you feel sick.

I successfully recovered from my cake addiction years ago.  I gave myself a gold star, ticked the box next to “self-improvement”, and kicked up my feet.  I thought I was done.  In reality, I was ingesting the mental and spiritual equivalent of pounds of sugar a day, by thinking sugary thoughts and taking sugary actions. I had become a psycho-emotional diabetic.  The technical term for this egregious form of “diabetes” is weak character.  I never understood why character was so desirable, and I certainly didn’t expect to come to desire it above all else. 
  
The good news is that there is no such thing as “type-1 weak character” – no one is born with an incurable lack of character substance.  The bad news is that unlike stomach fat, weak character cannot be seen in the mirror.  It thrives on the darkness of the psyche like the candida in your gut.  The darkness allows you to fool yourself indefinitely; you cannot fix what is unknown to you.  Furthermore, the mechanics of weak character were probably set into motion when you were very young.  This makes uprooting and conquering weak character a gargantuan task.  I should know.  I had a debilitating case of character weakness for 30 years. 

For me it began at age 5 when I rolled into kindergarten.  I already knew how to read, but the other kids in class were struggling to learn.  This meant that I was special.  It seemed as if I were born naturally smart, and they were born…less so.  They had to try in school, and I didn’t.  At the age of 5, I decided that trying is for dummies, and expending effort is a waste of time.  I liked this model, so I kept it awhile.  Yet I found out later that problems occur when you ride out this experiment for a few decades.

Weak character is a slow-growing disease.  It was pretty benign at age 5 – maybe even cute. By junior high, a few red flags were flying.  It was sugary-sweet to feel special, but the more honors and accolades I got – “Cullen is gifted…a charming boy with an exceptional wit…a natural athlete…a born leader…an original musician” – the worse the diabetic rot.  More and more, I found myself protecting my special status by avoiding undertaking any task whatsoever.  I didn’t use my gifts.  I didn’t cultivate my humor or charm.  Instead, I alienated people with a perpetual frown.  Rather than digging in and proving myself, I quit playing sports the first time I was cut from the team.  I was kicked off student council for never showing up. I avoided taking music lessons or joining a band.  And I never, ever studied. 

Only later I learned the hazards and predictability of this trajectory.  Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., highlights this danger in her book Mindset:  “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.  They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.  They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.  They’re wrong.”

Later in life, my character took a dark turn as a fixed mindset colored my life philosophy.  At a very young age, I had effectively determined that nothing was worth doing.  By my mid-twenties, the worship of nothing – a self-interested nihilism – was an easy leap.  With this philosophy, serious ethical breaches became commonplace.  Put simply: I did some awful things.  Having alienated friends, peers, potential mentors, and beneficial experiences, I woke up one day to realize that I had failed out of life.  I would have to start from scratch. 

Here is a tried-and-true formula for how to become a raging failure.  In my experience, it works wonders: Believe your own myth.  Choose the easiest path you can find.  Protect yourself. Judge other people.  Treat them as pawns.  Let the law of attraction and magical thinking do the work for you.  Keep the best things for yourself.  Try to be viewed by others as perfect.  When someone criticizes or disagrees with you, yell at them and cut them out of your life forever.  Avoid anything that might make you uncomfortable.  Avoid choosing a vocation. Avoid meeting new people.  Avoid effort, avoid learning, avoid embarrassment, avoid failure, and avoid sticking with anything.  By doing so, you will be avoiding the one thing that can make you successful: growth. 

As Dr. Dweck says, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

Hi. My name is Cullen, and I have weak character.  Like a recovering alcoholic, the tendency to shift the blame or break a commitment will always be with me.  Whenever I selflessly help someone, put myself out there, or finish a project that I start, I am going up against three decades of malpractice, confronting habits so deeply ingrained that they wholly defined me. The simplest act of compassion or initiative takes a titanic effort of will – and this is great news.  It turns out that the effort itself is the pot of gold I have always been seeking, because it leads to growth, which in turn feeds success.  That bears repeating: Effort itself is the reward I have been seeking.  You don’t eat sugar. You wouldn’t touch a Cinnabon. Why would you compromise your life by making short-sighted choices?  

Don’t cultivate character for the sake of society or lame adults like me.  Do it for yourself. 


Cullen Richardson is a self-described bio-hacker.  He lives just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. Contact him at cullengregoryrichardson@gmail.com

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