Jan 30, 2009

Hanging on to Passion

One of the ideas that most interests me as I age is how people hang on to the drive to accomplish big things late in life. Not many of us manage that. Most humans start out with all the drive they are going to have and watch it wither away until they are middle aged (which is 30-35, not 55 you math-disabled Boomers). From middle age on, they simply hang on hoping no one will notice that they just making the motions without conviction. The closest they get to having any life in their life is when they get excited about the events in someone else’s life; i.e. sports fans. As Superbowl Sunday approaches, I’m particularly reminded of this form of lifelessness.

Last year on advice taken from his book, Top Dead Center, Kevin Cameron convinced me to look at a truly passionate character, John Britten. Further inspiration came when another friend, Martin Belair, loaned me a video tape, One Man's Dream, the movie of the creation of the Britten Motorcycle. For some reason, the depth of Britten's creativity, drive, ability, and ability to inspire others to chase the same objectives didn't really grab me until I saw the film. Sometimes words are insufficient tools, even when they are used by really talented writers. But my point here is not to talk about John Britten. Better thinkers than I have made that case and I strongly recommend you do your own research. John Britten died in 1995 at the age of 45. At the time of his death, he seemed to be still on the rising edge of the curve of his passion for life.

Another baffling person is Wilson Greatbatch, an inventor of many things including introducing implanted medical devices to lithium batteries. Greatbatch was born in 1919 and I met him in 2001 at the medical device company where I was employed. In comparison, I was a young man, but Greatbatch emitted far more energy than the half-dozen of us who had shown up to hear this man talk about invention, creativity, motivation, inspiration, and other life-giving topics. I came away from meeting Greatbatch with a new level of disgust with myself for doing work that I didn't care about for a company that was motivated by greed and corruption. A little less than a year later, I was out of that business and on a completely different life path.

A few years earlier, I was lucky enough to meet one of my old motorcycling heroes, Dick Mann, at the Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle event in Colorado. Dick was a successful racer on every surface and was someone I'd followed closely when I was a kid until he officially "retired" in 1974. He set records everywhere he went. The year I met him, 1994, he'd just turned 60 and he was about to compete in the Premium 500 "vintage motocross" event on a Rickman-framed BSA. He won that event in a hard-fought race with guys half his age, as if anyone should have been surprised. Mann continued to race vintage events for several years afterwards and is probably still building bikes and riding.

I can't claim to anything near the focus and passion of either Britten or Greatbatch or Mann. Having slipped past 60 and staring into the abyss of impotence, incontinence, and incompetence, maintaining the motivation to keep getting out of bed each day is, sometimes, a major achievement. The trick, I think, is to keep chasing your muse regardless of where or when it leads.

The reason that is a trick is that the chase is financially risky. The older we get, the less recovery time we have in case we make a career misstep. After the radcons demolished the economy with their double-whammy combination of superstition and corrupt incompetence, the hope that Social Security might act as a buffer for old age and low energy is vanishing. That can make the already conservative into outright cowards; “I hate what I’m doing, but it’s better than living on the street.” That is a formula for turning every day into a carbon copy of the previous days, but it’s not an irrational economic strategy.

One justification I have for occasional out-of-the-box adventures is that it reminds me, a little, that living on the street isn’t as bad as it looks from the comfort of my home. Of course, I don’t do many Minnesota winter adventures, so that fine theory is based on mostly comfortable weather. Still, it helps me refocus on what I really care about and I’m particularly looking forward to this summer’s trip because I think it’s time for another change.


Anonymous said...

Well, thanks for bumming me out but it did get me thinking. Are women the cause for putting our passions on the back burner while we do the responsible thing and help them assemble a household and raise our kids. You didn't mention it but was there a Mrs. Britten? It seems to me these men are so driven (obsessed) that they lock out everything else to pursue their interests. It's like a Mathamitician locking himself in a room for 2 years to figure out 1 formula. I don't hear of too many women with this degree of dedication, though with the bell curve, I'm sure there's a few. When I look through the Craig's List motorcycle ads quite a few of them say to some effect "bought bike 3 years ago now have 2 kids and no time to ride." I don't know if Dick Mann is/was married but he's lucky and skilled enough to make a living at his passion, if he had a homelife he probably had the freedom to work it around his profession. We probably are too hard on ourselves for our shortcomings, not everybody is going to live their life to 100% of their potential. Is that enough scattered, random thoughts for 1 paragraph?

T.W. Day said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T.W. Day said...

Geez, dude. The column was supposed to be inspiring. What part bummed you out? I guess, if you're conservative all change is bad, but I don't swing that way. Some of these guys are so driven that getting to their level is impossible, but that shouldn't keep you from getting to your own level; whatever that is.

My daughters are pretty inspired. One drove herself to an MBA while working full time and, now, manages a large financial research department for BoA. The other is working on her 5th or 6th book while taking care of a pair of kids and a husband. They have both accomplished more than me.

I don't know much about Dick Mann's personal life, but it sounded like Britten did an excellent job of managing life and passions. Greatbatch was also a full life kind of guy. They were both pretty damn close to 100% potential guys, though.

A while back, a good friend quit the school where I work because they were "off mission." I think that kind of focus is available to us all and that's what I'm looking for, a mission or purpose to do what I do each day.

Anonymous said...

One thing I have found recently though, just in meeting so many new people in the car/moto industry... is that this downturn has inspired (either thru necessity or frustration, perhaps) many people to start doing something that is "right" for them, and /or right for others... and ultimately I think right for the nation as a whole. More volunteering. More start-up of new business ventures where people actually MAKE something. There is a LOT of inspiration out there instead of despair and despondence. That has in turn inspired me. I have always thought, since music was how I fed myself, that working hard to surround yourself with people who have that drive and vision is an absolutely necessity.... and can sustain you thru most adversity. Of course, you have to be the sort of person who is naturally interested, fascinated and compelled to constantly learn new things. That's a big one! But still... the same sentiment holds regardless. Even less driven/creative/intelligent people manage to do very well by keeping 'good' people around them to constantly push them forward. It's key.

But you know all this....

Stephen Pate
Restoration Werks

T.W. Day said...

I think a depression has been long overdue for this country. Obviously, the "value" of academic credentials like MBAs, economics, law, accounting, and other foolish and useless fields of study has been overblown. Those folks have been gaming the system and putting the entire country at risk for 30 years. They not only need to go broke, most of them need to visit a jail cell for a couple of decades. Science and engineering have taken a back seat to all kinds of useless, remedial, or criminal crap both academically and occupationally and I think it's killing the country.

That said, I agree with you (obviously). Stress brings out the best and worst in us. A downside, for me, is that at 60 my energy and motivation are at a lifetime low. Getting out of bed hurts more than playing football did 40 years ago. Bits of my body don't work and most of my brain is sluggish and muddled. Still, I have some things I want to do before I clot up and stroke out and the older I am, the less I have to lose in trying.

Keeping yourself surrounded by creative, inventive people is absolutely necessary. I'm watching a friend struggle after leaving that kind of environment and it's sad and motivating.

Anonymous said...

There is an old saying which urges everyone to "Change your life three times".

But today our presidents assure us that we are "all entrepreneurs", which presumably means we don't need Medicare, Social Security, police, or fire services because we are so forthright and self-sufficient. We are just shifting and arranging all variables every day of the week. Just a nation of hard-charging Howie Roarkes, straight out of the pages of Ayn Rand


T.W. Day said...

Man, I have about tripled that advice. I've been such a mid-tech transient that I've lost count of the number of times my life has been changed; by me or circumstances.

Did you have to look up the Ayn Rand character name or did you really remember that? I haven't been inspired to suffer her soap opera prose and social commentary since I was 18 or so. I think that self-sufficiency is a delusion. I don't know any "self-made men" or other sorts of socially independent characters. Too many of the folks who make that claim for themselves are living on some parents' earnings or draining taxpayers for their funding. Humans seem to me to be a pack animal; traffic patterns being all the evidence I need for the argument. The larger our world population becomes, the less independent I suspect we are.

Do you know Dick Mann? I spent about 5 minutes talking to him as his race face came on before that vintage motocross event. Two different guys in a very short period of time.

I'd put you in the same category as the three I mentioned. We can argue about scale until the point vanishes, but the focus and talent you've applied to your writing and engineering skills is pretty impressive and a bit exhausting and intimidating for mortal observers. I've been fortunate to know a fair number of known and unknown men and women who inspire me to keep looking for my peg-shaped hole. I really do want to thank you for exposing me to John Britten. I'd have missed that story if I hadn't read Top Dead Center.