Along with Romney’s 13% tax bill and Pussy Riot, the other media sensation of recent weeks has been cheaters. After Jonah Lehrer’s sloppy multitasking and Fareed Zakaria’s “journalistic lapse,” now we as a nation face the verdict the rest of the world has been smugly waiting for: Lance Armstrong was indeed too good to be true. What does this mean for a country obsessed with winners? It’s time to rethink our definition of success, or we set ourselves up, as Armstrong did, for epic failure.
The first step to confronting the American obsession with this “Bigger, Faster, Stronger Syndrome” is to recognize we have a problem. The Winner Industrial Complex in our country that salivates over newly crowned sports heroes and attractive intellectuals has to be recognized for what it is—an industry. And in America, mass commercialization—from Hollywood blockbuster movies to processed foods—is at odds with quality. To develop properly, quality requires time (yuck, patience), trial and error (gasp, failure!), and risk (no thanks)—aversions in our “leak a sex tape and become ubiquitous” culture.
What helps fuel this Winner Industrial Complex? One of our most important exports as a country is entertainment—big movies and even bigger stars that keep rubbish magazines in business. Sitting in a pub in East London the other week, I was asked by a young Welshman how it felt to be from a country that entertains the world. I said it produces a lot of entertaining people who should be writing for television; also, it doesn’t matter what industry one works in, it seems as though everybody in America has a screenplay. One wouldn’t find that in, say, France. We are obsessed with being entertained. The Hollywood juggernaut has rotted our brains to anticipate the same level of character story arc, denouement, and grand finale from our citizens. We’ve come to expect the extraordinary, and the more we’re exposed to it, the higher the needed dose. Seven Tour de France wins? Seven?
It also seems our quest to win, to rack-up digital followers, to be rich and famous is the age-old quest for immortality. I matter, damn it. I was here. But statues and all external tributes rot away. And eventually, as it has other times in the earth’s billions of years, the asteroid will come and wipe away all record of William Shakespeare, Michael Jackson, and Qín Shǐ Huáng. During a job interview with Google, the software engineer interviewing me took a look at my resume that mentions television appearances, weird online videos, and producing a movie work-shopped at the Cannes Film Festival. “Do you want to be famous?” he asked. I shrugged and said, “No, what’s the point. The asteroid is coming and will destroy everything.” He laughed, because Google engineers are awesome.
So if you’re ever in the mood to win at all costs and plan to sacrifice time with people who, if heaven were a big bed, you’d love to be surrounded by, watch this beautiful simulation of an asteroid hitting our planet. Science knows that this happened before in our earth’s history and that it will happen again. Science also knows that the leading cause of happiness is the quality of our relationships, not power, not sponsorship deals and accolades. Before you get an existential crisis of why try, why even have a career then? The simple answer is while we’re here our ideas that we stand for and defend are more powerful than any mortal and are the seeds we plant that can grow beyond our wildest dreams. Ideas live on and develop from generation to generation. We’re here to help cultivate a garden larger than ourselves. And nothing poisons the well more than winning at the expense of embarrassing your fans and country.