Your success is not predicated on another person’s (or group’s) failure. Success, compassion, and mercy are not finite propositions.

Me encouraging my good friend Dennis Fricks at the 1999 Midwest Conference Cross- Country Championships in Monmouth, IL

How did I get to this point? I consider myself to be “successful”. It’s fun to look back and try to figure out where all the forks in the road were. Now, I’m able to laugh at all the possibilities that maybe were not real possibilities. I’m amused by the “decision points”. I was going to be, in no particular order:

  • A baseball player (not even HGH would have helped)
  • A basketball player (not quick enough for point guard, and an outside shot only worth a career in masonry)
  • A politician (what was I thinking?)
  • A journalist (plausible, but the newspaper industry died and a real writer would have banged out this piece in half the time it took me)
  • A chemist (sorry, Professor Larry Welch!)
  • A cutting edge medical researcher (I actually applied to the National Institutes of Health during my second year of medical school in order to pursue a medical research career. I made it to the final cut, but ultimately was not selected for the program. It would be interesting to see how I would cope with burn out in THAT career; I’m sure they would be VERY forgiving of burnout 3 years into a 5 year grant.)

Some of these dreams and ambitions were obviously more realistic than others. Aside from David Eckstein and Spud Webb, there are not very many professional athletes who stand at a whopping 5’7”. Oh, and my modeling career is going nowhere. I’m as shocked as you, but I know that paycheck is in the mail.

If I were to be completely arrogant, I could give you a bunch of clichés about how I did it myself. “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” “Good old fashion self-reliance.” “Yankee ingenuity.” The list goes on. And in order to get into medical school, get through residency, and survive in the medical world, I had to be one tough son of a bitch. At times, it has been against my natural tendency. But I have had to put my head down, throw my body against the wall, and hope that the wall crumbled. That’s a simple story to write.

But it’s also incomplete. And if you look at other factors, it may not account for the majority of whatever “success” I’ve had. Before I go any further, I don’t want to discount the element of self-reliance. It is important. It’s very important. One does have to be their own source of strength for many stretches during life. There is an element of “making your own luck.” You can’t always expect help. But if the story ends there, and if our duty to each other and is there, it’s a dishonest story.

What I really enjoy during this part of my sabbatical, is thinking about the number of people who played a pivotal role in helping me get this far. I would love to write a blog thanking all the individuals who positively impacted me. The list would be LONG. And again, I’m not unique in this matter.

Kenny Moore (you can tell I love this book) writes in Bowerman and the Men of Oregon about constantly getting sick and injured, and how Bill Bowerman got through to him. After recovering from the flu, Mr. Moore writes that Bowerman approached him, after a workout, about a much needed change.  Bowerman wanted to explain that Mr. Moore would not improve if Mr. Moore was always “on the shelf.” He states of Bowerman,

“He closed his great, calloused hands around my throat. He did not lift me off the ground. He did relieve my feet of much of their burden.”

After agreeing (using the term loosely) to the new plan and finding success, Mr. Moore writes,

“It was the lesson of my life, and it forces me to consider – with a shiver – whether anyone besides Bowerman could have gotten through to me.”

Helpers come at different times of our lives, and come in different forms. These people fall into relatively obvious categories. I don’t know if they even need mentioning, but to paraphrase The Wedding Singer, since I have the blog and you don’t, here we go. And yes, this is not an exhaustive list…

-People that have a “job” to help you. This list is easy. Teachers. Coaches. Academic advisers. Yes, these people have an obligation, due to a paycheck or a role that they volunteered for, to help. It’s what they get paid to do. But a number of these individuals go above and beyond their income to guide others along their way. I can’t list everyone, but in my experience, this is a huge list. Even if they “had” to help me, these people were so exceptional in their role(s), I don’t think I could ever properly thank everybody.

  • Colleagues, contemporaries, and co-workers. This group may be more select in some instances, but I think many of us are fortunate to have relationships with excellent and supportive cohorts. I think some people discount the effect of these people. I encountered numerous physicians, nurses, hell – fellow students when I was in college, who helped me through difficult stretches, or showed me the right way to do something. And this wasn’t their job, but it sure made life a little easier to tackle.
  • Family and friends. Thank you, Capt. Obvious. But stated for completeness sake… we should all thank our loved ones who provided us a first opportunity, or PUSHED us into a first opportunity, even if we didn’t want (nor understood) the utility at first. Have we thanked a friend who put in a reference or a good word for us? When I think about this group, I realize I am fortunate to be buoyed by extra strength. I personally enjoy serving as a reference to other people as they progress on their own paths; I’ve written many recommendation letters, and I consider it an honor to do so. This brings me a great deal of joy and satisfaction.
  • Random, dumbass luck. I know I have benefited from a break, a change in fortune that I didn’t see coming. I do not believe that I “deserved” more than the next bloke. Face it, if you count yourself in the successful category, lucky breaks happens more than you like to admit.

No one has to, nor should they apologize for having resources (or benefitted from) to any of these four categories. So, “Thank you Jason, I’m never going to get those three minutes of my life back. Thanks for wasting my time; it would have been more productive to pick my belly button lint.” Why bring this up now? I give you this lovely statement on Twitter: “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel. Your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anybody else to pay somebody else’s healthcare.” -Joe Walsh

This isn’t a blog about health insurance, though the philosophy behind this blog does have overtones in this arena. There is a thought process implicit behind Mr. Walsh’s statement, and is espoused by an increasingly loud element of this society. “Don’t take what’s mine. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I don’t owe you anything. Fix it your damn self.” This is a self-centered, intellectually dishonest, cruel view point. People like this are convinced that they alone are responsible for their own success, or the success of a larger enterprise. It is the view point of Rush Limbaugh, 45, and their ilk. And it desperately needs to stop.

Yes, self reliance, as stated earlier, is very important. You need a strong work ethic, a strong sense of self-belief, and a willingness to make the most of your opportunities. Implicit in Mr. Walsh’s statement is that these factors are solely determinant to personal success, and whether one is deemed “worthy” of assistance. In his opinion, mercy is earned. Success, in Mr. Walsh’s view, is totally dependent upon oneself. With a bit of honest reflection, I doubt that this has actually been the case for him. He should, by any measure, be way more honest about his good fortune in his career. If I still had a sizable income on a conservative radio program, after using derogatory language towards minorities and failing to support my family, I would be thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to maliciously pop off on people and still get paid to do it. He has been the recipient of undeserved (or at least an extra helping of) good fortune. Many of us have been as well, though hopefully through vastly different endeavors. With similar good luck, I would have had a lucrative shoe endorsement for my sabbatical. (By the way, Brooks? Hoka? I’m entertaining offers. I’d try to solicit an endorsement from Sketchers, but they already have Meb Keflezighi….)

Those who are less fortunate, whether it is due to finances, race/ethnicity, or by other factors, lack access to this second element of success. They lack access to the human element. They lack the sheer number of opportunities to come across people that can help mold them and show them an alternate path. If one is to succeed by “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and that’s all you get, you’d better have an inordinate amount of muscles and strength, and those had better be some really solid bootstraps. In other words, good luck in succeeding. If you are less fortunate, are you somehow “deserving” of less opportunity, less mercy? If you answer yes, please see a psychiatrist for treatment of your narcissistic personality disorder.

Look, I know life is unfair. It will never be 100% fair. That doesn’t mean we individually have to perpetuate that aspect and make it worse. Your success is not predicated on another person’s (or group’s) failure. Success, compassion, and mercy are not finite propositions. We get to determine the society in which we live. We can make it better or worse. If you agree with Mr. Walsh, know that you are actively choosing to make the world darker and needlessly difficult. And you are actively denying the route and manner of your own “success”, by whatever definition. The entirely self-made man is a myth, a bedtime story, and an inaccurate picture of a world worth living in.

I am forever grateful for all the people who helped me on my path, whether it was their responsibility or not. I am a better person for it. Yes, I’ve been tough. Yes, I’ve fought for myself. But I’m so much further beyond where I would be due to the actions, compassion, and mercy of others. You can pay it forward, or you can agree with the attitude that is behind the statement of Mr. Walsh. If you choose option #2 please stick your head in a bucket of ice-cold water for 30 seconds and wake up. Or find a Bowerman-esque figure to grab your attention. Because, if you don’t reconsider, you should openly wonder if you deserve your own bootstraps.

My father (Irv “Skip” Kesselring), Allison, and myself after the Girls on the Run 5K in November 2016. With encouragement and training, she ran the whole thing in 32:03, and vomited at the end. She thought we would be mad at her for vomiting. On the contrary, I said, “Daddy is PROUD of you.”

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 44 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I blog sporadically, and if there's a theme in here, please tell me what it is!

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