Letter 042: Quality
I have a secret to tell—one that I’m afraid could get me in quite a bit of trouble. See, this mentor business, it requires a certain level of positivity. I frequently find myself in situations where the hero, down on their luck, is feeling as though there’s no hope of ever changing. And my job is to come in and say just the right thing, the thing that they need to hear at that moment to try one more time.
See the hero has probably faced up to the very real struggle of trying to change—which feels impossible—and after getting chewed up and spit out by the world, they decide the best course of action would just be to give the whole thing up, return back home, and let go of any strange notion of saving the day or experiencing internal transformation.
That’s my secret: even though my job is to come in with a word of encouragement, at some level, I agree with the hero. I think anyone who has gone through the process of trying to change knows that, as far as facts are concerned, it’s damn near impossible. Like the law of gravity, the law of ‘the way things are’ keeps us rigidly locked in place, forcing us back to status quo—no matter how high we go, what goes up must sooner or later come down.
That’s the sad truth: I know just how impossible change can be. And put on the spot, when I need to offer a word of encouragement, I know that at some level, I believe the thing I’m supposed to encourage is impossible. But there’s one other part to that secret: there are actually a lot of things in life I believe are impossible. There’s the mundane, yes, the way cell phones work or how good a one dollar cheeseburger can taste. Then there’s the scientific, the way that, despite the outrage of the researchers claiming it’s physically impossible, bumble bees fly to work every day of the week. And then there’s the thing underwriting the best parts of life itself: quality.
Quality. It’s a strange word isolated by itself, and yet one that represents so much of what we love about life. It’s hard to think of a single quality thing that I don’t love, from quality stories and adventures to quality socks and sweets. And yet here’s what Robert Pirsig said about quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (an impossible book itself, as it’s neither about motorcycle maintenance or Zen)
“Quality...you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about.”
For all attempts to prove it—to understand, define, and empirically verify its existence—quality, like heroism and change, is impossible. I know that. I know all the proofs and figures and books. And yet, no matter how often I’m reminded of the impossibility of change, that dark secret I hold within, I also remember all the heroes who did it anyway. So when I find a hero facing up to the difficulty of the task at hand, the question I ask isn’t what’s possible—it’s which impossibility I want to live with. And personally? I choose the impossibility of heroism—the impossibility of quality.
May the road rise up to meet you!