Deeds, Not Words

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you think that title might sound heretical coming from a wordsmith, just wait ‘til you read the rest of this column.

Say what you will about former Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone (I never thought he was cut out for the job), but he did leave one indelible mark in my brain: “Don’t confuse effort with results.” This was one of the bromides that he posted on the walls of the Ralph Wilson Fieldhouse for all his players (and Bills fans) to stare at. In a nutshell, it’s what Yoda told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do or do not, there is no try.”

We’re all told to try our best. That’s fine. But we need to accept that it’s not good enough. When you try something, the result is you either succeed or fail. That’s all there is to it. There is no such thing as a “participation trophy” in real life. You either land the account or you don’t. You either make the sale or you don’t. You either get paid or you don’t.

Do or do not, there is no try. Don’t confuse efforts with results.

It’s a harsh reality, but no one said life would be (or should be) easy. Everyone accepts the “would be” in that sentence. Let’s focus on that “should be” part.

Why shouldn’t you get credit for trying? Let’s ask the question another way: Why should you get credit for trying? There are many times when institutions (be they academic, athletic, occupational, or societal) where too many participants opt for the “free-rider” alternative. In other words, rather than put forth any effort, they merely ride along behind those who take the chances. They’re content to win or lose with someone else doing all the heavy work. When instances of pervasive free-riding occur, we need to offer an incentive for action – any action, even one that fails.

There comes a point, however, when, in order to move closer to our goals, we must succeed. The mere effort of trying doesn’t cut it. We must realize what we have set out to achieve. If we fail, we don’t eat. It’s as simple as that.

More to the point, if we, as an individual, fail to move to the next step, we, as a society, fail to progress. Each push forward helps our successor push still further ahead. That’s how a society progressed from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, as anyone familiar with any incarnation of the game Civilization will recognize.

We all have a duty to ourselves, our families, our country to succeed, to transport our collective selves one step forward. You can connect the dots from Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein. Each brought mankind closer to the universal truth of the laws of motion. Without the work of the predecessor, the successor would not have discovered the next clue.

“But,” I’m sure someone is asking, “what about Thomas Edison.” The famous American inventor once quipped, when asked about his many failed attempts to invent the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Yet, Thomas Edison actually proves Yoda dictum. For Edison, there was no merit in trying, there was only one goal: an invention that worked. He never confused effort with results.

Indeed, he would never accept an “A” for effort. Having been tossed out of public school for being hyperactive and easily distracted, he never had to experience the slings and arrows of outrageous grading. His only reason for attending college was to learn a specific task for one of his inventions. The grade never mattered. Creating the invention was all that counted.

Edison might have well said “Don’t confuse grades with accomplishments.” But I’ll leave that thought for another time.

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