Adult Underachievers and Why That’s Stupid

Forrest ChristianChange Leave a Comment

Michael Bates, in a recent email, suggested that I take a look at what Julie R. Neidlinger, who besides having a fun last name, recently discussed her total failure at Ken Christian’s “adult underachiever test”.

(I should note that I have no affiliation or relation with Neidlinger or Christian, but I have spent a couple of enjoyable evenings talking with Bates when I’ve gone to Tulsa to visit the in-laws.)

I know why Michael thought I would be interested: I spend a great deal of my time dealing with high potentials and considering their plight. I would have to say that my definition of “high potential” and Christian’s are probably wildly divergent. Mine are based on a measurable ability to do a particular level of work. Or, if you’d like, on someone’s ability to be your boss. The “real boss theory” is based on my reading of Elliott Jaques and his friends, even those he would violently disagree with (such as Luc Hoebeke). I’m not sure what Christian’s definition is based on.

To a point these things are true. But to a point they are simply another level of bullshit, since they can be true for anyone depending on what you think. They will never be true of someone like Ken Lay, and perhaps that’s another problem.

But let’s address Neidlinger’s points, since they interesting. Actually, she sounds interesting and her art has enough going on to keep you from being bored.

Neidlinger points out that she is a failure and points to her C.V. to prove the point.

I am a failure. I’m an introverted, contorted, creative struggling, trying my best, hater of bosses and traditional structured life, not interested in achieving typical definitions of financial and professional success…failure.

It’s a common statement from a creative high-potential. (My definition, Modes 7+: she may not be one but who cares because I’m using her post to talk about something I want to, so there. I’ll note when I’m referring to someone else’s definitions.) I’m not even sure that Neidlinger has ever had a Real Boss, one that is one stratum above her who can adequately add value to her work by providing context. And from what I’ve been able to see of the painters that I know (or for that matter the art photographers or sculptors), she’s pretty successful. If you can feed yourself and still get to do your art, you’re one of the successful ones.

But she raises some good points.

First, let’s deal with this particular test.

It’s not that it’s total bullshit (and I mean that in the technical sense). There are many people who just do not know how to get off their asses and actually do something in the world. These people need to know what Shannon Wheeler used to say all the time in Too Much Coffee Man, that action is action and most of the ideas that you think are so great turn into the worthless garbage that they are when you have to actually put them down. There’s no shortcut (usually) to the hard work that you have to put in. Mozart, boy genius, actually spent a good ten years composing things that pretty much sounded like rip offs of other people until he started doing his own brilliant thing. Yep, totally born a genius except that he spent more than a decade of hard work learning the craft. Sure, he started really early at it, which allowed him to hit his groove in his twenties. But he also spent the time it takes.

Look, we all know that I would fail this test miserably. (I’m not going to put down what it would actually be: make some guesses and the closest one gets a copy of the new book.) My resume reads much more “all over the place” than Neidlinger’s. I’ve taught chemical emergency response to industrial folks, written three books for commercial clients (two in EPA compliance, one in scanning), led junior high youth groups, enabled >$100B in ecommerce through a RBAC system I even helped design and got stuck supporting, worked on two continents and with clients in all but Antarctica, ghost written book chapters for management experts, preached with 120 PowerPoint slides, and can more or less fix almost everything in my house (car is in a detached garage and does not count).

By many measurements I’m wildly successful in my life. But my father-in-law thinks I’m a bum, my pastors have thought about that, and it’s regularly pointed out by very talented people that I have severe personality defects that prevent them from providing me assistance in moving my chosen career forward. (“But, oh by the way, would you mind editing the article I wrote to support my consulting firm that earns me $500k a year?”)

But this isn’t about me: it’s about the high-potentials that I keep running into. I’m not one of them. I’m just the guy that gets to pick them off the ground.

Almost every one of these statements would be true of high-moders who have been beaten down so that they “knows their place”. Let’s take one of my favorite high-moders and not close and personal friend, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant, at the start of the war, had been guilty of every single one of these. I think I’m safe in saying that he had it in spades. He was a suicidal who had more or less gotten turkey farmed in the Army and was at that time working as an assistant to his brother’s tanning business. He lived okay because he was being funded by his wife’s father, who to the day he died thought that he was a complete idiot. Total loser, that Grant guy, and he should definitely take this test, read this book, and move his life forward!

Why could he be more like other West Pointers he knew? George B. McClellan, now he was a man who was going somewhere! He had a destiny, knew what he had to do. He managed his career flawlessly, working the system and doing what it took. He was almost universally admired.

Of course, McClellan was a doofus and Grant not only won the war but invented the modern US Army (same one that fought in WWI sixty years later) and possibly invented the modern presidency, complete with a thoroughgoing corruption. Oh, and he wrote a runaway bestseller that is widely considered one of the greats in American letters.

Yep, what we need are more McClellans.

Look, when someone is really high mode, actually a high-potential, they aren’t going to be successful. They’re going to have to watch and wait, biding their time until something happens. You have to continue building up your skills until the moment comes. Usually it’s some great disaster or the complete failure of those who are “winners” in life.

I’m sure that this “test” is useful to many people. But it’s not useful to high-potentials. It’s useful to modes 3-5, who are reasonable people for whom the system is built. It is slightly useful at mode 6, much less so at mode 7 and completely silly (British definition) for modes 8+.

Neidlinger seems pretty successful to me, putting her into context of artists. And she should bow to no one’s criticisms of her, unless another artist commenting on her work. Shop talk is always helpful.

Look, it will take about 20 years for what I am starting now to actually take off, and about 100 years for it to actually show anything for itself. I’m probably going to be dead in thirty, so it’s probable that I’ll never know. This to point out that a lot of those questions fall apart when your time frames are larger. If I’m building something that will blossom in a century, what I’m doing now will look like procrastination or messing around to those who demand results today. I know that what I am doing has a shot at working, and that there is almost no chance of it happening within ten years, barring some wicked disaster which I think I can safely assume that we would all prefer to avoid.

So stop taking idiot tests, you high moders! Stop listening to people who want to give you advice but all they do is shovel on the bullshit higher and deeper.

But this much Christian has right: It’s time for you to stop waiting. The risks that you are putting off are insane, but not for you. That’s why you have been given what you have. And no one — here this — no one is going to help you. Other people get mentors and even friends who “get” them. You don’t. You get to provide context for other people.

It’s like Julian Fairfield said: Good ideas (read: high mode) always find money, because they provide an enablement vehicle for other people’s unarticulated visions. So go out and put forth that big idea, that one that everyone is shooting down and telling you to get grounded and get a “real job”. They’re full of shit and you know it. But there are people out there waiting for you to speak, because your “stupid ideas” speak the vision that they have never been able to articulate.

Go forth. Change the world. Just stop taking these damnable tests.

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