Cautionary Comment on Inspiration Story

Elliot WilsonI’m not one for inspirational stories. In fact, I hate them. It’s really because I grew up in the United States. Now, for most people, this would mean that I would have grown up to believe in the greatest American myth: the will to success. This is the idea that you can do anything if you try hard enough. This is just nonsense. And it is pernicious nonsense because the flip side of it is that if you fail at something it is just because you didn’t try hard enough. The best some people can hope for is just to be mediocre. Like me on the guitar: I’m not bad but there is no way that I ever would have been great. Some people play guitar for 10,000 hours and become Duane Allman. Others do the same thing and become me. It is what it is.

But I read a great story in the Alaska Dispatch, 100-Mile Backcountry Ride on a Unicycle? No Problem. For the last five years, the loons up in Fairbanks have been doing the White Mountains 100, “a ultra-marathon endurance race staged in Interior Alaska.” It is open to “skiers, cyclists and runners.” And it’s hard: in addition to the 100 mile course, it involves going up 7,400 feet elevation and then back down. So the people who do it are the kind of people I like to think of as crazy.

But we need a different word for Elliot Wilson. On his birthday last year, he decided to learn to ride a unicycle. Because who doesn’t think “unicycle” when Fairbanks comes up in conversation? Later, when he got to compete in the White Mountains race, he thought it would be cool to do it on his new unicycle. But at that point, he could not ride it more than a quart mile without falling off. So, to make what is a long story including a trip to India short, he perfected his technique and won the race. Just kidding! He came in 43rd place out of 65 with a time of 19 hours. But that’s still five and a quarter miles per hour, which is a hell of a lot better than I could probably do on a two-wheeled contraption.

Unlike me, Wilson is a real American. He said, “I set out to do this to prove to myself that one can learn something quickly if one puts their mind to it.” I think that’s nonsense, and not just because he uses three pronouns in the same sentence. In order to agree with that sentence, I’d have to laden it down with so many caveats that it would be unrecognizable. Could I have done what he did? No. Could he have mastered Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics in six months? Maybe, but I’ve never known anyone to do it. Most people (Smart people!) find they can’t do it after a lifetime.

But it’s still awful cool that this strange young man decided to race a unicycle through the frozen mountains for no particular reason. It is very American. And I mean that in the best sense of the word. Because Americans are at their best when they let fly with their weird. America is, above all, the land of freaks and the home of the bizarre. Play ball!


I am well aware that those members of the Cult of Positive Thinking will believe that it is my attitude that prevents me from learning how to ride a unicycle and racing 100 miles in six months. But these are the people who make the world a better place. In my experience, such people have never had to overcome anything really hard. And the research is on my side. A positive mental attitude really doesn’t help people recover from cancer. So if you are a member of that particular cult, do everyone a favor and keep it to yourself. We are only interested in hearing it after you maneuver a unicycle through 100 miles of icy mountain. And then only for a very brief time.


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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Cautionary Comment on Inspiration Story

  1. This time of year gives us a wonderful curative for all the Believe In Yourself And You Will Conquer All Obstacles stories: minor league baseball. Particularly the older (pushing 30) players.

    Now granted there are some older minor league players who simply enjoy hanging around the game, are good enough to fill needed spots and/or tutor young players, or whom might be considered as future coaches.

    For the most part, older minor-league players are still trying because they Believe In Themselves. Will their years and years of dedication and refusal to give up pay off? NO.

    Of course that makes me like them all the more. America isn’t just the land of freaks and home of the bizarre; it’s also the land of perverse stubbornness and lost causes. And that’s a charming side to the country as well. (Anything but the inspirational winners!)

  2. @JMF – I meant "land of the freaks and home of the bizarre" as a compliment. And I share America’s positive outlook on life, just in a far less delusional way. I think failure is great because it speaks well of people: they tried. The point of this article is the bad side of that: if you fail it is just because your will is not great enough.

    The issue with baseball players is that it is a winner-take-all market. These markets attract too many people into them because most people think they will be the one. It has a terrible effect on society but also on the individuals.

    Of course, what the society ought to implicitly say is, "Play baseball as a hobby." But that certainly doesn’t work today. How can people have hobbies when they are spending all their time at work? America has more social dysfunctions than most advanced nations. And they are all built on some messed up economic theories.

  3. And I took it as complimentary! If we didn’t have freaks, weirdos, and obsessive hopeless dreamers we’d be a completely intolerable society, instead of the mostly intolerable one we are today.

    The only "winners against all odds of failure" I can root for are the ones who won social change against enormous political obstacles; and notably those are the winners who are generally quick to acknowledge how much grunt work by others went into their belated success.

    It may not be always true but it’s probably true the vast majority of the time that anyone who pats themselves on the back for succeeding through sheer determination is either a liar, a cheat, or a fool. (Maybe the guy who invented KY Jelly, or the writers of novelty songs, did it on their own . . )

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