Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Anger helped make Larry Johnson into a breathtakingly good NFL running back. Anger helped make him famous and successful and rich. Anger helped him fulfill the dreams he had been having since he was a child.

The trouble is, at some point, all those other things faded away. He’s not a breathtakingly good running back now. He’s not especially famous, not particularly successful, and being rich — assuming he has been smart with his money — isn’t enough. This is the the sad thing about Larry Johnson. All he’s left with is the anger.

- Joe Posnanski, in this blog post

[W]e are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit...

- Will Durant, "The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers"

You may recall the second of the quotes above being attributed to Aristotle; I know I thought he wrote it, but it turns out that's not true. There's probably an essay in that observation alone, but that's not what I came out here to talk about.

Durant is basically summarizing Aristotle's position on how people acquire virtue, so in a sense the idea is still Aristotle's even if the quote isn't. Still, there's reason to believe that Aristotle, on this topic, was just writing what he thought was obvious, and as a result just blowing smoke out his ass.

On the other hand, Aristotle might actually have something here, but it's sportswriters who are blowing smoke. (Posnanski is a sportswriter, though one of my favorites -- another note to self: update the Five Favorites essay from over three years ago.) The idea that Larry Johnson might believe that his anger is part of what makes him an outstanding athlete, despite not having shown himself to be an outstanding athlete in his chosen field for a few years now, doesn't mean that anger is actually what make Johnson good at football. Being young, being hungry to prove something to the world, having outstanding teammates helping you: all of these things pretty clearly also have something to do with Johnson's success, even if these things are far less under Johnson's direct control.

And that, I think, is where we hit the fundamental fallacy of Aristotle's sentiment (and Durant's words): the illusion of control.

We want to believe that we are responsible for our successes; that we succeed because we are good people doing good things. Though many of us will accept that chance and other factors outside of their personal control may have influenced a given successful outcome, most of us will still assert that, even in the absence of those factors, we would still have succeeded 'in the end', just that the additional factors meant that we had to spend less time and effort on the attempt.

In a case where the thing we personally had control over wasn't really all that significant, then we choose to develop habits that aren't helpful, and in fact can become harmful. When the habit we learned no longer appears useful, frustration develops. Just look at Larry Johnson -- injuries have stolen away some of his athletic ability, and ownership decisions and age have taken his most talented teammates away and not replaced them with equally talented counterparts -- yet Johnson, who appears to believe that his anger was an integral part of his success as a runner (and why wouldn't he believe that, when he was repeatedly told by sportswriters that they believe it themselves?) now has nothing but his anger to fend off a growing sense of frustration.

It behooves each of us, if we are considered successful, to look very closely at the factors that went into that success and not assume that the factor we have control over was the main determinant of that success. Doing so will leave us, years later, with a habit -- but not a habit of excellence, just a habit of self-delusion.

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