You're a Badass

Affirmations with a few realistic caveats.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

You are a badass. You surf life’s waves with amazing skill. The waves are big, choppy and unpredictable, and here you are still standing, still keeping your balance. Congratulations!

No one but you really knows all the waves you surf. Many of the waves are internal. You may have been born unlucky with a rocky temperament, strong appetites, or weak self-control that throw you off balance.

Others don’t know. They can’t tell. Do you come up short sometimes because you lack willpower or because your appetites are just too strong? Did you get too far into alcohol, overeating, or anger because you’re weak-willed or because you were born with strong temptations? It’s beyond others to know for sure. We don’t know what it’s like to be you.

Or maybe the rough waves you surf are internalized, a product of unlucky circumstances. Right temperament, wrong era. You might be out of step with people today but right in line for other times. Maybe you spent your formative years struggling with your non-conforming sexual appetites. A few decades later there’s room for you, but back then you were considered bad. The rejection you got during your formative years is a hell of a wave to have to surf for the rest of your life.

You may have had a very rough upbringing or even a good upbringing that happened to steer you into choppier waves later in life as culture shifted. Maybe you come from a soldier’s family. A string of bad wars leaves you torn between carrying on the family tradition and not throwing your life away on some futile campaign. Or maybe your mother was a stay-at-home mom and you're torn between that and what feels right to you in the current era. That’s a rough wave to ride, and here you are riding it. You’re a badass for handling it as well as you do, on top of all the other waves you ride, keeping food on your table, obligations met, all of what any life entails. 

Some impressive badasses are easy to spot. The stars, the heroes, the people who perform at the top of some game, the great artists and athletes. But what about the unsung heroes who make a huge effort to perform as well as they do, often missing the stellar mark, people with hidden handicaps they surf well enough that they go unnoticed?

And then there are the badasses with exposed challenges, the less attractive, the cultural misfits, the disabled, the poor and education-deprived, the oppressed populations. We rarely give them the badass credit that they’re due. They’re often working harder than those who perform well by our cultural standards.  Hats off to everyone who has that much farther to go to function just normally. If you’re one of them, hats off to you.

And those who reach farther too. The farther you reach the less chance you have of arriving. Hats off to you if you’re among the ambitious, people who swim farther out to risk the choppier waves by choice. That’s heroic too, even if having tried they fail. We can’t measure merit by performance only. Many set a low bar and attain it. Others set a high bar and don’t.

In a way, we humans are all badasses. Language and culture impose many challenges that other organisms do not face. With us – our leverage, our influences, our many conflicting imperatives – life’s waves are especially choppy. Instinct guides animals. We’ve got instincts and so much more to contend with, our deliberate choices and their consequences, other people’s choices and the way they can make our good choices turn bad.

In among our special human challenges is our own death to contend with as no other animal does. We all know we’re going to die. That’s a hell of a wave to ride. Here we are throwing our all into our lives foreseeing as we do that we will be thrown out. Totally badass that we all do it. Hats off to everyone!

Caveats

Being a badass and four dollars will get you a cup of Starbucks coffee. Sure, we can all gain some compassion and appreciation for ourselves and others through recognition of our badassness. Still, being a badass does not land you safely on the beach, winning the prize for best surfing ever and basking in glory. You’re surfing still. “Nice job” is no respite.

Recognizing badass effort, not just badass performance, means we doff our hats to people who don’t perform well. Being a badass does not mean you’re right or righteous.

Donald Trump is a badass. He surfs his weird life with impressive skill. He’s even a badass self-promoter, impressive for the risks he takes and the near-falls he has recovered from. Being a badass at one thing does not make you a badass at everything. Hitler's loyal followers loved his killer moves as though might made right. Plenty of badasses are just plain bad, and awful to others. As an anonymous senior White House official declared on Wednesday, Trump is simply amoral.

Badass is double-edged. One can be a badass and also a bad ass.

Measuring merit by effort vs. performance

Among the challenges we humans face that animals don’t, there’s this: An animal’s merit it gauged by performance only. Might makes right. Lions don’t spare zebras that are trying really hard. They prey on the handicapped first.

In contrast, we humans can measure merit by effort or performance, usually in some combination. This conflicting imperative (reward the best performers vs. reward the best effort) makes for some pretty choppy waves.

We handle this conflict differently in different areas. In business, performance matters. We rarely support businesses or employees because they’re really, really trying. Medical schools measure merit by performance. It’s a good thing too. We don’t want lousy doctors out in the field having passed their medical exams by trying hard but failing to perform.

In love too, performing well on attractiveness tends to dominate. The movie Shallow Hal imagined what it would be like if we loved those who made best effort.

In raising our young we’re compelled to measure merit by effort, praising our children for trying, overlooking how they perform, at least to some extent. It would be weird for a parent or teacher to demand perfect grammar and the best possible artwork from their children before praising them.

As they grow we try to raise the bar. Parents have a double duty, some approximation of unconditional love, encouraging best effort but also making sure that our children grow up to perform well. A lot of our childrearing anxiety is a result of those two conflicting imperatives. Was I too hard on my children? Am I spoiling them? If you’re a parent, hats off to you, another rough wave to surf.

Effort is hard to gauge. Children often say they’re trying as hard as they can, but how can we tell? Again, we don’t know what’s internally possible.

Contrast the parent’s challenge with the lion’s. The lion has to gauge effort, but only to figure out which gazelle is easiest to pick off. Effort is a cue to poor performance in the lion’s campaign to use the least effort to eat.

Con artists and authoritarian leaders are like lions in this respect. They go for the easy pickings, the most gullible, the folks whose all-out effort to protect themselves from predators falls short.

But if we’re trying to help, not eat, people, measuring merit by performance or effort becomes a big challenge. Are you holding too high a performance standard? Should you show greater appreciation for effort and cut people slack?

This challenge – whether to measure merit by performance or effort burdens us politically too. There have always been those who want to mimic nature. No compassion – no merit for effort. Perform best or die. Like business. All power should go to the most powerful performers.

This is an especially popular approach among the powerful. Their might makes right. They favor government by the best performers at preying on the weakest citizens to get them to get them to support the might-makes-right end to democracy.

And then there are those who favor giving a leg up to those having a hard time for whatever reason, welfare to the weakest among us because they’re badasses too and deserve a leg up.

In the coming decades, the best performers will be computers, artificial intelligence machines that outperform humans, leaving many unemployable. The debate about whether to reward effort or performance will get hotter. More power to the most powerful AI providers vs. power-sharing among us all.

We’re beginning to feel the heat. There are powerful capitalists who believe that capitalism and democracy don’t mix. Democracy has got to go. Law of the jungle still rules. The experiment with government by the people for the people is failing. It makes governments beholden to the least among us.

That too is a hell of a wave we’ll all soon be surfing.

In the meantime, here’s to you. You are a badass, real trooper, just for being alive, surfing as well as you do, given your rough waves, internal and external.

References

Harari, Yoval (2018) 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. NYC: Spiegel and Grau.