I began running in 1994, before I turned 42. I’d never been a runner before, but I set out a plan and promised myself that I would continue running and gradually build my distance until either some part of my body gave out (my knees?) or I could run a mile or so. I started running as much as I could of a half mile and walking the rest, every other day. By August I could run six miles without walking. I was never once sore from that sensible every-other-day routine, pushing a bit beyond what was comfortable without hurting myself.
This week there were minus tides and I was eager to spend the whole week running on the beach. (Often we have to run roads when the tide is wrong.) Normally we go out Tuesday and Thursday before work, and then both mornings on the weekend. But after a 4-miler on Thursday, the low tide was still calling on Friday so we went out for a short 2 mile run—not even enough to fully warm us up. Yesterday we ran three miles and again this morning. The bald eagle flew by both days, and this morning we heard the call of a baby raven from the pair that have nested in Arch Cape for the past several years. It made a distinctive, raucous cry calling for its parents that were hunting overhead.
Ravens have limited responsibilities as babies—stay put, eat, sleep, talk to their parents. They have to learn to fly and avoid certain dangers, to find food for themselves, locate a roost, and eventually to mate and raise their own young. They have to be able to accomplish each of these tasks perfectly or they will die trying. As babies, many of these skills are learned through play, under the protection of their parents. And there are play skills that they will indulge in their entire lives which they do not need to perform perfectly—chasing and rolling through the air, hide and seek.
My students are like raven youngsters to the extent that they have skills they must learn to perform near perfectly, but they will also learn many, many skills imperfectly. They do not need to know how to play football or the trumpet with anything like perfection. Trigonometry and MLA form are not required for existence. Neither is cooking, sewing, dancing, reciting The Preamble of the US Constitution or the periodic table of elements, and so forth. These might be handy skills. They might be desirable or entertaining, attractive or useful, and even necessary to certain occupations, while irrelevant to others. Their lack is not fatal in the way that, say, an inability to fly would be for a raven.
Reading and writing, basic mathematics and biology, honesty and responsibility, an understanding of the rule of law and the rights and obligations of citizens, and common courtesy—these might be deemed essential for any American. Survival skills. They aren’t enough to guarantee a living wage in our country; they aren’t entirely marketable, but they will point us in the right direction. Add the habits of persistence, hard work, flexibility, a sense of fairness, and the abilities to cooperate with people and learn new skills and ideas—we’ve gone a long way toward making ourselves desirable employees, not to mention spouses, neighbors, and citizens.
Beyond that, we play football because it’s fun, and the trumpet because it feeds our soul, study Trigonometry and MLA form because we have ambitions beyond minimum wage, read books and attend plays and concerts to become more interesting adults. We pick up knitting or dancing because we choose to, not because they are essential to life. We learn all these things and study history and botany and anatomy and sociology and literature because these subjects are our human heritage. Without them we are not developing beyond that baby raven who still sits in the nest screaming to be fed. We learn to feed ourselves. And in the human diet, feeding the mind is essential to life.
We don’t need to perform all of our skills perfectly all of the time. Once in a while we can choose to do less than our best, committing 80% of our energy rather than 100%, let’s say. There were classes I took in college where I made the decision not to do my very best. I was working part time to pay my way and my major was time-consuming. I could study and earn a B in Physical Anthropology, and that was enough. I attended every day and I mostly worked hard, but I worked hardest in the classes that mattered to me most. It was necessary because while I didn’t have time to perform perfectly all the time, I didn’t think I needed to be perfect all the time either. No one does.
But doing the minimum, stopping short of capacity, sitting like a lump, failing to complete work—this are distressing habits I see too often in my students. I’ve come to call them “60 percenters”—those students who will perform at the absolute minimum necessary to get by. Some of them are capable but in an Honors class they will earn a D—in an easier class, even a much easier class, they will still earn a D. They don’t earn a D because they are incapable or because they can’t do better, they earn Ds because that’s their choice. They have chosen second rate.
What happens once these 60%ers are out of the nest? What happens if for eighteen years they’ve fought against the expectations and standards of others without ever setting useful and meaningful expectations and standards of their own?
I don’t want to be married to a person like that, who will always do the minimum and rely on me to do more; and I don’t want such people as my neighbors who will probably expect me to complete my share without having to do it themselves; I don’t want such slovenly people voting in elections, and I certainly wouldn’t want to work with them.
There’s an old saying: If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That doesn’t mean that if we can’t do it well, we don’t have to do it at all—it means giving it a good effort and persisting until we can do it well. It’s worth doing well even when it’s difficult, even with it’s uncomfortable or frustrating or weird or embarrassing or awkward or lonely. Maybe we don’t all need to be first chair trumpet players, but if we play we owe it to the orchestra to know our part and play it well enough not to disrupt the music. Unless we are still babies, cawing for rescue, most of us understand eventually that adulthood is more than legal drinking and smoking and buying a tattoo. Being an adult means doing it, all of it well, even if not perfectly.
No one tells me I have to run before school. I choose to do it. I set standards and schedules for myself, and on Friday when the tide looked tempting, I could have sat in the dining room drinking my tea and admiring the view. But I’m all grown up now, and I understand that after the run I will feel better than before it, that pushing myself makes me stronger and happier and more useful, at least for myself, my family, and other people who depend on me to do more than the minimum that would get me by. I choose to do many things, and always expect to do them as well as I can.