Monday, September 03, 2007

Keep Talking of What You Know

Tibor R. Machan

As an avid fan of tennis as well as some features of the Sunday supplement magazine, Parade—my secret pleasure is to read Walter Scott’s inside front cover gossip column and Marilyn von Savant’s “Ask Marilyn”—I was looking forward to read the interview with Andre Agassi, former tennis megastar. I was looking forward to his views on tennis—the recent Wimbledon and U. S. Open tournaments, some of the current greats like Roger Federer, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, et al.

You can imagine my dismay when what the piece offered up is Andre’s slip shod philosophy of life. Ditties like “It’s better to be lucky than good,” and “I’m a tortured soul in most things I do; I’ve succeeded at something that at times I’ve hated, and that’s relevant to the person who goes down to the auto repair shop and puts in his time.” Hardly a word about tennis!

So you may ask, who am I to complain. After all, I’ve kept writing columns, books, articles, scholarly papers, and giving lectures and seminars nearly nonstop for nearly 40 years. Surely I must be talking a lot about stuff I know little about.

Not really. Mostly I try hard to stick to the topics I have researched and studied all my life and leave ones I know little about untouched or at most for speculation and questioning. Why? Well, I’d want to be right about things, not just babble on about them.

Take that offensive bit about auto repair shop workers. Has Agassi done serious research about whether folks who work that job hate it? I actually check out such things and have managed to ascertain, though only informally, that a great many people who work at jobs others wouldn’t go near with a considerable measure of satisfaction. Take folks who collect trash. Some might think they just have to hate the work but it doesn’t look like it.

Indeed, when I hear about how long a vacation most Europeans take each summer—from five to ten weeks, the International Herald Tribune reported recently—while Americans tend to take only about two or three weeks, I suspect the reason is that Europeans on average treat work as a chore, while Americans tend to turn work into something rewarding if not out and out enjoyable.

I recall when I was working at a U.S. Army depot in my teens, the team of kids who took on the job of re-strapping a whole lot of oil boxes that have been badly strapped to start with, we managed to make the work into something of a contest and, thus, quite a lot of fun. When I drove a school bus during my graduate school days, I nearly always enjoyed it despite the early hours and screaming students. And back when I was a box cart loader I learned how to make loading up those freight wagons a challenge and, thus, not at all a pain. So, I suspect that most people who work in auto repair shops have chosen this line of work so as to suit their talents, inclinations, options, and such and aren’t moaning about how badly they have it in life.

Yes, tennis is enjoyable, but it is foolish to think it is the only enjoyable profession for people. The one-size-fits all attitude Agassi exhibits in his comment should remain a secret prejudice of the man, not a piece of supposedly worthy insight from which perhaps some of his fans will take a very bad lesson.

No less flawed is the idea that it is better to be lucky than good—to start with, those who aren’t good, tend to blow their luck on trivial pursuits. Moreover, luck is something we cannot do much about—it either comes or it doesn’t—whereas goodness is up to us and we can usually make a decent effort to bring it about in our lives.

Anyway, the point is not complicated: Folks do better talking about stuff they know about than when they just shoot off their mouths, perhaps with the illusion that having gotten good at one thing, they are now experts at everything.

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