Telling anecdotes about the departed – which is traditional at a shiva, a post-funeral mourning period, where you sit home and well-wishers to bring you cake – my brother recalled the time he announced to our mother that he was going to be a comedian. Her response to this announcement was immediate and unequivocal:
“Who do you think you are, Jerry Lewis?”
I had never heard that story before. It made me happy, and I’ll tell you why. A few years after that, my mother and I were involved in precisely the same conversation. I told her I was going to be a comedian. Her response, though equally immediate, was tellingly different.
“Who do you think you are, Jack Benny?”
You see the difference? Jack Benny, at least in our family’s opinion, was a lot funnier than Jerry Lewis.
That’s why I was happy. By making this distinction, my mother had openly declared that
I wasn’t a way better comedian than my brother wasn’t.
Of course, there’s a bigger – and less silly – message to take note of here. Though we fluttered around the edges – my brother more so than myself – neither he nor I ever became comedians.
“Achieving People” are a mystery to me. They want something and, in numbers far surpassing the laws of probability, they get it.
I don’t know how they do it. To the degree that I succeeded, I did so through stubbornness, good fortune, and a lot of outside help. I got no help from my attitude. My attitude always sucked.
And therein may lie a clue.
I suspect that some of the “Achieving People’s” success has to do with what their parents told them when they were growing up. I’m not talking about families that drummed into their kids that they're "special", or they're "from superior stock", or that “You can do anything you want” – those come with their own sets of pitfalls. I’m imagining, instead, families where the children were taught that, though failure may hurt, it’s nowhere near as painful as not trying.
The message is simple:
“You fell on your face? Get up. You took the wrong path? Go back and start again. They tell you you can’t do it. Maybe they’re right. But maybe, they’re wrong. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. But whatever it is, we’re always here, with a hug and a hot bowl of soup.”
My experience tells me that what parents say to their children is always remembered. “You’ll never make it”? Some people use that as motivation, as in, “I’ll show them!” The point is, whether encouraging or critical, it’s the parental pronouncement that played a significant role in propelling them to where they wanted to go.
It’s not my place to tell you what to say when your child announces they’re going to be a comedian. My only advice is, think before you say it.
Somebody’s gotta be the next Jack Benny. It could be your kid.
The writing is smart and funny, the memories evocative and on the money. Give it a read. It's well worth your time.