Friday, February 6, 2009

Personal Responsibility and Mike Phelps

Steve's recent post noting the silence of those who may have overextended themselves in the recent runup to our current economic malady hit a nerve for me. I think he's hit on the greatest problem with American society -- the reason why we're not able to succeed anymore.

Consider the case of Olympic athlete Michael Phelps. He is the most awarded Olympian in modern history -- a tour-de-force of prowess who brought home gold medals in fistfuls. I remember sitting with friends, watching the game. Their expanding waistlines strained as they chowed down on nachos, guzzled Budweiser, and shouted "we did it!" when Phelps won.

I wanted to say "'we' had nothing to do with it." Phelps did all the hard work. He trained hard for 11 hours a day. He skipped out on nachos and Bud. He maintained a near 0% bodyfat level. He did things that the average American simply couldn't do.

Yet we weren't willing to let his victory be his -- no, it was "ours."

Fast forward to the recent bong-hit "scandal." The press is full of angry commentators demanding Phelps's blood, speaking of "betrayal," demanding punishment.

The irony is amazing. At least 1/3 of them are full-out hypocrites, since that's about the proportion of Americans who has ever tried pot. The remainder, wheedling about "what it teaches their children," would be better off not feeding them high-calorie-density foods (since about 40% of children are overweight).

In today's America, success belongs to "everybody," while personal responsibility is something for other people. By sloughing off our own failings, pointing angrily at the latest celebrity whose personal failings are splashed across news pages, and mouthing cheap rhetoric, we feel "justified" in our own existences.

We never strive for true personal success, since vicarious "success" is easier. And we never admit our own mistakes.

To truly excel takes hard work, a clear view of one's weak points, and a willingness to repeatedly fail on the road to success. If Americans are unwilling to try to succeed themselves, unwilling to admit and deal with their own bad decisions, and unwilling to try to better themselves (rather than condemn others), we are doomed to eternal decline.

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