Friday, February 24, 2006

What is a "Reputation?"

Yesterday's Sick Day was pretty successful...I feel as if I've fought off the worst of the Andromeda Strain to emerge reborn into the day in which I will change my aquarium's water!

But before I get my hands dirty, I'd like to reflect for a moment on the closing Winter Games, Neil Young, shooting and shooters and that most ephemeral of wisps, a "reputation."

It's no secret that the Winter Games pretty much stiffed this year...the spin is that Massive Televised Events have ultimately fallen prey to the New Media, "push" versus "pull." Anything that was vaguely interesting, we saw on the internet when we had a few minutes to check it out, then tuned in to watch Jack Bauer's weekly torturefest or see who got stuck on Exile Island.

I think the larger issue is that the athletes of the Winter Olympics didn't particularly resonate with us...certainly not with me. It was pretty much all X-Games all-the-time, with the requisite attitute, occasional hostility, iPods, partying, and assorted sludge. Now, this doesn't make these athletes bad just makes them boring athletes, which is why the X-Games have lost their luster in recent years.

My co-producer and friend Robin Berg, who was a commentator for ESPN at the X-Games in the years when I was doing the first extreme sports magazine, OVER THE EDGE, puts it this way: If you don't care about the people, you can't care about the game. Sorry, but Bode Miller needs a spanking, not my admiration. And somebody should just bitch-slap that speed skater, because nobody gets to the top on their own. In the athlete interviews, I was surprised at how often I heard the word "reputation," as in, "my reputation," mentioned.

OTOH, I read an interview this morning with the inestimable Neil Young on the occasion of his movie with director Jonathan Demme, Heart of Gold. Like many people in my benighted generation, Neil Young wrote great big words across our thinking. As for myself, I tripped over a Neil Young lyric that had an utter and profound effect on my life. I'd just started college and was a wreck, trying to come to grips with a disasterous few years and a shattered family. A friend of mine played me The Loner, from Young's first solo album:
He’s a perfect stranger,
Like a cross of himself and a fox.
He’s a feeling arranger
And a changer of the ways he talks...
More than anything else, I wanted away from myself, distance...I wanted to be someone else, the guy in the song. On the way back to my dorm room — without even a burning bush to herald it! — it struck me that, hell, I could be the guy in the song. So with much trepedation and fear, I reinvented myself for the first time. Gets easier the more you do it, BTW...

I found this great analysis piece on the movie from Louis Black in the Austin Chronicle, where Black notes:
Young is so driven and so drives his art that he would rather fail ignominiously or magnificently than play it safe.

The careers of artists who keep pushing the envelope, who refuse to rest creatively, can take any number of arcs. One of the most common is where it's as though the creator has simply run out of ideas and passions so they substitute generic changes or revisit old material with either too much affection or way too much aggression. Given the current poverty of ambition and imagination in American popular culture criticism, odds are overwhelming that during a particularly extended experimental period the talent will be written off if not turned on and attacked for attempting the very kinds of ongoing experimental work other artists are criticized for not undertaking.

Another arc is the artist who keeps evolving, changing art forms and focus, and keeps succeeding, going out of critical favor only rarely – a focused, rising, well-received, and innovative career.

Problematic is the career of a talent determined to push past all previous boundaries. This is especially true if the artist is microfocused with brilliant, enabling, and accommodating management. In these circumstances sometimes the best way to determine too far is failure.

It's not doing what has worked. It's not even doing what one knows will work. Instead it's taking a couple of steps beyond what is safe by any stretch of the imagination.
Now at the risk of getting whiplash from rapidly changing subjects, let's talk about thast word, reputation.

"You don't understand, Michael," a friend told me recently. "I have a reputation to uphold, and I have a responsibility to that reputation."

He was talking about how today's top shooting athletes have to be very careful about the things they do and do not do, because reputations are notoriously easy to damage. He was also one of several shooters from multiple disciplines who has talked to me in the last few months about his or her "reputation." Apparently, like a bad head cold, reputations are going around these days.

It all came together for me this morning, when I heard some skier talk about "his reputation." What the skier — and my shooter friends — meant was not reputation in the classic sense of the word, but his "ability to perform based on historical precedents."
"My repuation is that I can do a double-triple whoopsee-doodle front-side backflip fakie on demand, althought I didn't today because the stars were misaligned, my mother was sick, the Olympics are bogus and my teammates' farting kept me awake..."
In other words, my reputation is that I always win, and my "responsibility to my reputation" is that I can never lose, because then I wouldn't always win. Got that?

Except, as comedy legend George Carlin has noted, the game is rigged. In the end, everyone always loses, and before you have the final Big Loss That Puts You In The Ground, you suffer degraded performance specs. Those fast-twitch muscles that you've hung your "reputation" on start slowing down; the visual acuity that has guaranteed your place on the .01 percentile starts getting fuzzier; those skillsets, tricks, movements, style that have given you your reputation while you're running 100% stumble and falter at 90%.

So, if your "reputation" is that you always win, you are going to be left holding a trick-bag of excuses as to why you didn't win. But you take steps to fix that — "the Olympics are bogus" scenario, as in..."I always win in the competitions that matter." Eventually, you find yourself playing tiddlywink death matches with eight-year-olds, because in an interesting flip-a-roonie, the only matches that "matter" are the ones you can win.

And your reputation then is...what? Sad, even pathetic comes to mind. "If I cannot win, I am not a complete person. People will discover that I'm a fraud, and I will be diminished in the only eyes that truly matter to me, the eyes of the crowd."

Flash back to Neil Young, whose "reputation" as a musical genius and master is already assured. Consider Black's words:
It's not doing what has worked. It's not even doing what one knows will work. Instead it's taking a couple of steps beyond what is safe by any stretch of the imagination.
I often find myself drawn back to akido master George Leonard's small book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. Mastery, the master's journey, is in many ways the flip side of "winning." Neil Young is great not only because he has hit songs, but because he keeps going forward on a path of his own. In the sports world, Muhammad Ali is great not only because he won in the ring, but because when he found himself facing the greater mountain of a debilitating disease and a life outside the ring, he stayed true to his path.

If we choose to walk a path of mastery, I daresay our "reputations" will take care of themselves. Or as the far more articulate George Leonard puts it:
"When you're climbing a mountain, in other words, be aware that the peak is ahead, but don't keep looking at it. Keep your eyes on the path. And when you reach the top of the mountain, as the Zen saying goes, keep on climbing."
Okay, I'll FINALLY leave you with this story from Mastery, then go change the water in my aquarium...when Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was close to death, he gathered his students around him and told them he wanted to be buried in his white belt — the emblem of a rank beginner.
"At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts. And if death makes beginners of us, so does life — again and again. In the master's secret mirror, even at the moment of highest renown and accomplishment, there is an image of the newest student in the class, eager for knowledge, willing to play the fool.

And for all who walk the path of mastery, however far that journey had progressed, Kano's request becomes a lingering question, an ever-new challenge:

Are you willing to wear your white belt?


Anonymous said...

"Winners" in any game must by the very nature of competition, early on learn to disregard the notion of competing with the "spirit of the game" in mind.

Recognizing this then leads to some interesting questions.

Walt Rauch

Anonymous said...

Isn't one's reputation determined by others and not by the individual? Protecting your reputation means living in the narrow view defined for your by others. Of course the reason you earned the reputation with those others is because you did things your way.

Very interesting commentary.