we set inappropriate targets for ourselves. We work like dogs, only
to find that our self-imposed targets not only never applied to
us, we’re ahead of the game because we missed the mark. That’s the
good news. Or maybe we’re behind in the game. That’s the bad news.
school children, we want to be the most popular, not because of
anything we have done, but because of who we are. Yet we barely
know who we are, because we have not done much. We seek personal
validation from our peers, who have no more sense than we do. Most
high school students are not popular. So, we aren’t likely to achieve
our goal. But what if we do? What if it turns out that it just wasn’t
worth it? What if the price was too high for the benefits received?
Bad news. But at least we find out early. We graduate.
school reunions are a way for people to try to figure out if the
ancient winners turned out to be worth imitating. Everyone who attends
is trying to appear to be successful. Nobody can tell much about
people’s comparative success at a high school reunion, but we all
like to think that we’re happy that we didn’t turn out like the
ones we wanted to be like, way back when. Meanwhile, those who were
the winners want to prove that they’re still winners after all these
the men, the most common unit of comparison is hair: thickness counts.
For the women, it’s weight: thinness counts.
we get older, the stakes get higher. We seek validation for what
we’ve done, not for who we are. Our performance standards become
grander. The higher our standards are, the more likely we will miss
in high school, we still tend to judge our own performance by others’
performance. We call this "keeping up with the Joneses."
But what if the Joneses really aren’t worth keeping up with? Or,
more likely, what if only a few aspects of the Joneses’ careers
are worth keeping up with? And what if we just can’t keep up? How
frustrated will we be?
started asking myself these questions 45 years ago. It took me a
while to find acceptable answers.
want to share my answers with you. They may save you some trouble.
exactly 45 years ago, I was sitting in Honnold Library, the shared
library of the Claremont Colleges. I was a freshman at Pomona College.
It was a very good institution academically — probably one
of the two best 4-year liberal arts colleges on the West Coast.
I was not exactly out of my league, but I was not at the top of
the heap, and I knew I wouldn’t be. The competition was too stiff.
was reading an article in a year-old copy of the campus newspaper.
Why I was reading it, I have no recollection. But I remember that
article better than I remember anything else I read that long ago.
It was an article about a man who had graduated a year earlier.
When I read it, I thought to myself, "That’s the man I wish
I could be." What he had achieved is still etched into my memory.
his junior year summer, he had attended the mandatory summer program
for R.O.T.C. students, where prospective Army officers from the
entire West Coast were brought together to compete. I was in the
R.O.T.C., and I dreaded that future event. He had achieved first
place academically and first place physically. This was unheard
had been all-league in rugby in his senior year. He was also first
string on the football team. In his senior year, he had entered
a creative writing contest sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly.
He had submitted four short stories. He had won first place, third
place, and two honorable mentions. At the end of the year, he won
a Rhodes Scholarship, and departed for Oxford.
looked at that list of accomplishments, knowing that I could never
come close. But, I thought to myself, I wish I could. I wished that
I had the ability to do what he had done. At age 17, I more or less
adopted his college performance as my measuring rod.
was unwise. I adopted a standard that I knew I would not come close
to meeting. This was a recipe for frustration.
had an odd name. I knew I would remember it: Kris Kristofferson.
lost track of him for a decade. Then, around 1969 or 1970, I began
hearing about him through the country music grapevine, which had
West Coast runners. He had become a major song writer in Nashville.
I thought, “He has really made it now!”
had been getting articles published in The Freeman and other
journals. I was getting by financially in grad school: fellowships,
part-time teaching, and writing. But it was obvious I was falling
behind Kristofferson. Still.
was I? Word had also gotten out that he had a major drinking problem.
I can remember my friend Bob
Warford, the bluegrass banjo and electric guitar side musician,
saying that people were worried that he would drink himself to death.
very nearly did.
ON EASY STREET
went into the military after he left Oxford. He was following in
his father’s footsteps, who had been a major general in the Air
Force, and who later ran Aramco’s air operation in Saudi Arabia.
At one point, West Point offered him a teaching position, but he
resigned his commission and headed for Nashville to write country
about this. He was from a military family. He was an intellectual.
He had been offered what most Army officers with academic skills
dream of: a teaching position at West Point. He would have been
a major within a year. By age 30, he would have reached his goal.
But it was no longer his goal.
scrounged around with odd jobs through the rest of the 1960s: janitor,
bartender, oil rig helicopter pilot. His first marriage broke up.
But he kept writing songs. Finally, they started to hit. Roger Miller
recorded "Me and Bobby McGee." Johnny Cash recorded "Sunday
Morning Coming Down." Then he got to open for Linda Ronstadt
in 1970, which re-booted his long-dead career as a solo performer.
after came major movie roles, and he had a lot of success. The money
was rolling in. It was also rolling out. All the time, he drank.
finally quit drinking after he made A
Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand in 1976. He was too much
like the character in the film. But he did not stop taking drugs
for another five years.
has had ups and downs as a film star, a performer, and a song writer.
He has had more success than most men ever dream of. He has also
wasted more money than most men ever get a chance to waste. While
hit songs can bring in royalties for a long time, the stream of
income from a top-40 hit drops off in short order.
songs are a form of poetry, and they sell better than poems do,
but they are not great literature. He did not write the great American
novel. Maybe he could have.
the 1970s, he was a hot property. In the 1980s, he almost disappeared.
I can remember going to a concert in the mid-’80s. He sang
his old songs and played guitar. It was in Tyler, Texas at the seldom-used
downtown movie theater — not the venue of stardom, I can assure
1996, his film career re-ignited in Lone
Star. He has been getting better roles since then.
the time, I have watched from afar and wondered: "Do I still
wish that I had been given his talent?" My tentative answer:
"Probably not, because with talent comes responsibility. It’s
all I can do to handle my existing responsibility." We must
specialize in life, and this includes specializing in responsibility,
from which there is no escape. Jesus said:
unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required:
and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the
more (Luke 12:48b).
as the old phrase has it, stick with the devils you know. This means
sticking to your knitting.
TO HIS KNITTING
was personally sidetracked by his drinking and drugs. He says so.
But his career wasn’t for over a decade.
impressed me most when I heard his post-military career story was
this: he was convinced that he had a peculiar talent, writing country
songs. His were not the usual country songs. There wasn’t a honky
tonk woman in any of them.
he arrived in Nashville, country music was on the fringes of popular
music. It was still regional. It was also culturally lower class.
It was redneck.
your father is a retired major general and runs Aramco’s planes,
when you blew away the competition in a national creative writing
contest as a college student, when you went to Oxford on a Rhodes
scholarship, and when you turned down an appointment to West Point’s
faculty, being a janitor at a recording studio is not a typical
did not quit. He kept writing songs. He eventually dug his way out
of the hole.
he became famous as a country music writer, his mother disowned
him. She told him not to come around again. That Johnny Cash fellow
— he was a drug user! And those songs. Nobody over 14 listened
to that sort of music, she said. So much for validation.
became a movie star, then faded from public view, and then became
a steadily employed character actor. In 1998, when he was 62, he
was interviewed by Jack Matthews, who asked this:
People tend to put "Rhodes scholar" in front of your
name as if it were a jaw-dropping modifier for a country songwriter.
Do you look back on yourself as an overachiever or underachiever?
I’ve always felt like an overachiever. Back when football was
important to me in college, I made first string because I had
the desire. I always knew I wasn’t good enough to be out there,
but I was. I think I’ve gone through a lot of my performing the
same way, knowing I didn’t really deserve to be on the same stage
with Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], and Johnny [Cash], but
I was there. And at least once in every film, I’m convinced that
I’m uniquely unequipped to do the job, that I should never do
another one. But I get over it.
the day that I sat in the library reading about his college performance,
I thought "overachiever." No matter how much talent he
had, which was a lot, he was maximizing it. Other reports on him
have said that he always suffered from stage fright as a live performer.
Nevertheless, he stood up in front of a crowd, with only a guitar
to hide behind, and sang. His voice was not very good — not
as bad as Bob Dylan’s, surely, but not good. His songs were remarkable.
There were a bunch of them. He hid behind his words. They carried
made a decision early in his career to pursue what he thought was
his special calling. He had been a creative writer from the beginning.
Let’s talk about your destiny to be a writer. When did that urge
It was what I was aiming at ever since high school when I started
who stop writing become unenviable specimens of humanity. There
is an inner urge to write, and stifling it is risky. So, he pushed
a mop and wrote more songs.
don’t know if he was a great janitor. I suspect he was. Overachievers
can’t just shut it off at will. But he did not remain a janitor.
Opportunities opened up.
have a theory. If you stand at the door and knock long enough, a
window across the street will go up. That’s your opportunity. You
had better be ready to climb through that window, fast. That was
You ended up in Nashville trying to sell country songs.
Yeah, after I got out of the army, I went to Nashville and fell
in love with the songwriting scene. I wrote prolifically for about
five years, but it takes a while for people to take you seriously
down there. They had two thousand registered songwriters in Nashville.
They called us bugs.
Meanwhile, were you getting some of those life experiences?
I tried to get as many varied experiences as I could, different
jobs that didn’t take any kind of brains: gandy dancer, forest
firefighter, bartender. I got a job working in the Gulf of Mexico
on an oil rig.
JM: And what
If there was one thing that happened, it was me getting fired
from that job in the Gulf. I left there on April 15, 1969, and
I went back to Nashville, thinking I’d be sent to jail —
I had a lot of child-support obligations.
was income tax day. He had just been fired. He had unfilled obligations:
child-support. His apartment had just been burgled. He had gotten
nowhere with his songs.
I called up a songwriter friend and told him I’d lost my job.
He said, "Great, Johnny Cash is doing a new TV show down
here, so we can just pitch songs to him." And that’s what
we did. During the first month, I had four songs on. Roger Miller
did "Me and Bobby McGee," Ray Price came out with "For
the Good Times," Johnny recorded "Sunday Morning Coming
Down" on the show, and Sammi Smith cut "Help Me Make
It Through the Night."
was unexpected, to say the least. It was incredible. It was utterly
unforeseeable. Out of nowhere came the opportunity. Cash had a summer
show scheduled. I remember that show. Millions of viewers do. It
opened each week with Cash, dressed in black, with his back to the
camera. He would turn and say, "Hello. I’m Johnny Cash."
Hokey, but it worked. It worked all summer. Summer shows are rarely
hosted by headliners like Cash. It drew a huge audience.
variety shows eat up a lot of music. Cash wanted new material for
his guest performers. Kristofferson had a pile of unused material.
It would not remain unused for long.
Kristofferson was the man of the hour. Then came the 1970 singing
job, opening for Ronstadt. Then came a movie offer: Cisco
Pike (1972) with Gene ("he’s always working") Hackman.
a lead role. His was the face
on the movie poster.
did this happen? We can’t know with any confidence. Unexpected breakthroughs
like this are the norm in show business. The problem is, no one
can predict them.
think he must have thought at some point: "What if I hadn’t
been fired?" What had seemed at the time like the worst-case
scenario was the turning point in his career’s downward spiral.
remember Roosevelt "Rosie" Greer, the mid-1960s defensive
lineman in the L.A. Rams’ "Fearsome Foursome." He suffered
a career-ending injury. Then he started getting movie and TV roles.
Someone asked him in an interview: "What would have happened
to your career if you had not been injured?" I remember his
answer: "I don’t like to think about it." His injury had
opened the window. He now has a Christian ministry, and he became
briefly famous as O. J. Simpson’s post-arrest spiritual counselor.
always had enormous talent. He also had a sense of calling: to pursue
the most important thing he could do in which he would be most difficult
to replace. If that meant pushing a broom or working on an oil rig,
so be it. He kept writing his songs. So, when Johnny Cash had air
time to fill, there was Kristofferson with a pile of fresh material.
His talent made them great songs commercially. His perseverance
made them available. Talent wasn’t enough.
paid a heavy price initially to pursue his calling, not the least
of which was the loss of prestige: a janitor. Then, overnight —
or over summer — he became a sought-after professional songwriter,
then a performer, then a celebrity, then a movie star.
the good times stopped rolling.
acting career in the 1980s took a nose dive. It began with Heaven’s
Gate (1980), in which he was the star, which was probably
the most expensive flop in Hollywood history. It was 4 hours long
in its initial theater release, down from the director’s original
version of 5.4 hours. It was cut again, and it lost a fortune. In
the history of film financial disasters, only Cleopatra
(1963) and Waterworld
(1995) rival it. The director, Michael Cimino, sank without a trace.
The company that produced it, United Artists (the old Mary Pickford-Douglas
Fairbanks studio), got sold to MGM.
movie career had already been faltering. This movie pushed it
over the edge. His next film, Rollover,
had "low budget" written all over it, beginning with the
titles, despite Jane Fonda as co-star. It was about an inflationary
breakdown of the world’s monetary system due to the skyrocketing
price of oil and gold. It was released a year after gold’s price
had collapsed, when the country was in a recession. Oops.
second marriage broke up.
had quit drinking at the height of his success, in 1976. But he
had not stopped taking drugs. In the early 1980s, he did. He had
been in denial, he said later. He had imagined that the booze and
the drugs were the source of his talent. He later told film critic
Roger Ebert: “Getting high was supposed to be a method of opening
the doors of perception for me, and what it was doing was shutting
doors of perception had been poet William Blake’s theory of perception:
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would
appear to man as it is: Infinite." Kristofferson had been a
careful student of Blake in college and graduate school. He began
trying to plug into the infinite by using mind-altering drugs. It
was a mistake.
was not alone in this mistake. Aldous Huxley had been an advocate
of psychedelic drugs as a way to clean off the doors of perception.
He even wrote a book defending the use of drugs with this title:
Doors of Perception. He died on November 22, 1963 — the
same day that another famous literary figure died: C. S. Lewis.
A week before he died, under the influence of a sedative, Huxley
spoke into a tape recorder operated by his wife.
. . When one thinks one’s got beyond oneself, one hasn’t. . .
. I began with this marvelous sense of this cosmic gift, and then
ended up with a rueful sense that one can be deceived. . . . It
was an insight, but at the same time the most dangerous of errors
. . . inasmuch as one was worshipping oneself. (R. C. Zaener,
Drugs and Mysticism , p. 108.)
most famous victim of this misperception was Jim Morrison, who died
a heroin addict at the age of 27. He had named his group "The
Doors," in honor of the Blake/Huxley phrase.
the time Kristofferson quit taking drugs, his career had topped
out. Becoming a has-been is painful. He paid a heavy price, and
he paid it after he straightened up and flew right. He was still
getting parts in movies, but in 1988, he accepted a role in Big
Top Pee-wee, a Pee-wee Herman film for children. If you
remember Pee-wee Herman, I don’t need to comment on the artistic
merit of the film. If you don’t remember him, nothing I could say
could possibly describe him. This was not Oscar material.
15 years, 1981—96, Kristofferson earned a decent living doing
TV movies and movies that should have been TV movies, but he had
become a "Where are they now?" figure. He had gone through
three stages of the movie star’s cycle:
me Kris Kristofferson!
me a Kris Kristofferson type.
did have success with the Cash-Jennings-Nelson-Kristofferson "Highwaymen"
albums in the mid-’80s. But this success did not open up a
major concert tour career for him. (Nelson suffered a similar career
the second half of the ’90s, his movie career bounced back.
He played character roles, often villains. He makes a great villain.
musical career has bounced back in the last few years.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
recall seeing him in Fire
Down Below (1997), where he played a villain to Steven Seagal’s
hero. I was in a motel somewhere. That was my first Steven Seagal
movie — also my last. I saw Kristofferson on the screen, and
I thought, "Wow! He looks 60 years old." Then it hit me.
He really was 60 years old. He was probably 63 when I saw it. This
meant that I was pushing 60 myself. That was my first real shock
of recognition regarding old age. I had skipped my mid-life crisis:
too many publishing deadlines. But if Kris K. was looking long in
the tooth, I could not be far behind.
he still writes poetry or songs, I have not heard. Maybe the well
ran dry. This can happen to creative writers. (LRC writers, of course,
go on endlessly.) But he kept acting — kept at his craft —
and eventually he bounced back.
he is 68 years old. He is still making movies.
is a lesson here.
terms of fame, Kristofferson would have been the wrong career role
model for me. Careers like his cannot be manufactured. They just
happen. But he became my standard of performance before he had fame
— or the addictions.
impressed me in 1959 impresses me still: he is an overachiever.
I recommend this. Whatever skill you have, polish it. Whatever vision
you have, pursue it with a fervor. You may not be able to pursue
it full-time. Kristofferson didn’t in his days of pushing brooms
and flying helicopters to and from oil rigs. But he kept at his
song writing, and eventually it paid off. If it had never paid off,
he still should have kept at it. For a man with a creative skill
but no skill at marketing, he is responsible for improving his creative
had the necessary talent, but all of that talent would not have
produced a memorable though sporadic career if he had not kept at
it. The marketing took care of itself. He got fired when Johnny
Cash got hired. These two events would not have been connected if
Kristofferson had not stuck to his knitting.
has a talent. Your goal should be to achieve more than what most
people would achieve if they had your talent. This is what it means
to be an overachiever.
talent comes responsibility. That is the scary factor. A high percentage
of people with great talent don’t want the added responsibility.
They fail. This opens up opportunities for the rest of us.
does no good to long to possess the other person’s talent. His talent
is his responsibility; your talent is your responsibility. We specialize
in responsibility. Taking on the other guy’s responsibility is asking
for trouble. What counts is how well you put your talents to productive
use — serving others, maybe for money, but not necessarily.
ready to accept responsibility. Influence flows to those who are
willing to take responsibility. And who knows? You may even make