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Prologue: Great Expectations



It was on Thursday, June 21, 2012, around 2:00 PM in the afternoon, that I started to panic.

After eight years of working with delegates in a city (like the majority of American Legion Jersey Boys State staff), I had moved into a new role, writing for this website (like none of the ALJBS staff). I was adrift of the moorings, surrounded by vaguely familiar markings.

In a city, your rhythms are defined by your assignment. Wake up, shower, go to breakfast, seminars, assemblies, politics, and on until bed, all meticulously detailed in a schedule. After eight years, I knew what to expect.

But in the ninth year, I knew very little. If you're not directly involved in a city, the schedule becomes much less rigid. It's easy to miss an assignment because you're not moving with the program. ALJBS happens around you more than with you. Your increased freedom demands increased vigilance. To stay on top of things, you need to be thinking ahead.

I had managed to stay ahead until 2:00 PM. I was quite behind on the epilogue, the final article I'd write for the ALJBS website during the week. Ideally, the epilogue would tie up some of the themes I'd been writing about and leave delegates, staff, family, and friends with something to think about as they returned home. I had outlined the article, finished other material early so I could focus on it, and practically vanished into quiet areas of the Rider campus to work on it.

But it wasn't working. I could not write a decent opening. I tried different storylines, writing in different locations, and every other writing trick I could think of. Nothing flowed easily. Mindful of the clock, I started writing the middle sections, which were my two favorite ALJBS stories. Write what you know, I thought grimly.

Then I stumbled upon an opening. Both stories I used had elements of the hero's journey. This term, coined by Joseph Campbell to describe a well-known type of story arc, seemed like a good way into the weeklong journey of the two delegates, so I ran with it. The article started to congeal but I never shook the feeling that it wasn't good.

A few hours later, tired, frustrated, and resigned, I sent the epilogue off to its first of two editing stops with a very light proofing.

The next day, Director Bagatelle found me at the Family Day ticket table. "Fantastic job," he said. "All of your articles this week have been good but this…this was great. The best one. Good job."

The kind words meant a lot, especially after I reread the epilogue a couple hours later and realized that yes, the epilogue was actually good. I published the article and silenced the question in the back of my mind for a little bit. It was time to enjoy the final moments of the 2012 session. The question would have to wait, as all questions do, until the drive home.

"How are you going to follow this up?"

I wasn't sure. Anyone with a wide-eyed niece or nephew knows the importance of having a stable of fascinating stories. My dad has a few good ones, which have come in handy for gatherings with family and friends. But sooner or later, the well runs dry. If the story is good enough, you can repeat it occasionally but you'll need to find or remember new ones. I had just used up both of my best stories in one shot. The article had been a success. What was the next step?

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Repeating success is a difficult, often unobtainable goal. We have a name for it: sequelitis (n., ˈsē-,kwəl,-ī-təs). Or sophomore slump or second album syndrome. Musical artists seem to have special difficulties with this due to the constraints of the music industry. There's a popular sentiment that "you get your whole life to make your first album and two weeks to make your second." In that environment, it's no wonder that artists as diverse as the Stone Roses, Nas, and Hootie and the Blowfish struggle to repeat initial successes.

Musicians aren't alone: there are plenty of examples in other fields. Chris Canty, defensive tackle on a Super Bowl-winning Giants team, told his new team, the Ravens, that "the Super Bowl hangover is real" and talked bluntly about its effect on the Giants. Similarly, many businesses struggle to repeat success and grow. The road to Facebook-ness is littered with Pets.coms and Gowallas. If you start a business, chances are high that you will fall along that road.

Reasons for this obviously start with time and chance, which overtake us all, but a sharp second is the weight of expectations. Behavioral economists understand this better than anyone. In their seminal work, Judgment Under Uncertainty, Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky examined how our brains make decisions and found out that our brains aren't as rational as we might think. We don't determine values in a vacuum; instead, we do it in reference to a previously-established mark. For an example: you walk into a store and see something you want marked down 90%. Instead of impartially comparing your interest in the item with its current value, you actually consider how great of a deal it is. You're judging the item against itself instead of against its usefulness to you. This "anchoring effect" highlights the way we make all our judgments: by comparing them to beliefs, past experiences, or whatever comes to mind first.

This shouldn't sound unfamiliar. If it does, just ask anyone who's been disappointed by the movie adaptation of their favorite book or any manager who's been fired after he or she didn't repeat a certain level of success. Repeating success is hard for a lot of reasons but the pressures of expectation are high on the list. Instead of being judged on merit, you are now judged on merit plus expectations, and perhaps the other way around.

These pressures aren't always external. The inner battle is equally intense, perhaps even more so. Bruce Springsteen was in danger of being dropped from his label when he recorded Born to Run, but the album's 14-month recording process was due to Springsteen's desire to "make the greatest rock íní roll record ever made." The success of Born to Run kept Springsteen on the label but his desire to make a mature, serious album resulted in his writing over 70 songs for Darkness on the Edge of Town, which had 10 songs. The drive to be great does this. If you've made (to your mind) the greatest rock íní roll record ever made, naturally, you're going to compare your next album to that.

For the person who creates, the blank page becomes less of a home to endless possibilities and more of a harsh mirror into deep fears: fears of not pleasing others, of not fulfilling the goals we had at the outset, and, ultimately, of inadequacy. There's a lot of challenges in making an artistic work, a new business, or anything, but—as all the best writers know—the most severe challenges are always internal.

The solution is simple but difficult: keep going. Keep working at your craft and assignment. Or, as Springsteen himself put it, "there is no perfect form of doing it, just doing it." One foot in front of the other, however unsteadily, again and again, until the job is done. Do not speak of the "e" word.

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Charles Dickens' greatest novel, Great Expectations, dealt with a young boy's maturation into adulthood. Like ALJBS, it is short (by Dickens standards), dense, and tackles some of the same themes we emphasize. The most poignant parts of the novel come towards the end, when Pip realizes how he has mistreated his friends while trying to climb the social ladder. Realizing that he has confused material status with success, Pip repents, begs forgiveness from friends he has mistreated, and returns to Estella. It's very much a hero's journey story, coupled with Dickens' usual social commentary and a reminder to be careful about what we chase after in the pursuit of happiness.

It's been seventeen years since Sheryl Crow told us that whatever makes us happy can't be that bad. But happiness is a feeling, which is ephemeral. It cannot be obtained like a product. You may eventually obtain you're looking for but it may—and likely will not—meet your expectations.

Three groups of people arrive at ALJBS each year. There is the staff, comprised of American Legion members and alumni. There are the delegates, the 1,000 best and brightest seventeen-year-old males from this state. And there are the parents of the delegates. Only one group knows what to expect from the program, and that's stretching the meaning of "knows." Each session of ALJBS is a new experience for all of us.

That's going to lead to some difficulty when our experiences assault our expectations. Some of you expect ALJBS to be a good college application item. Don't worry, it is. But when was the last time using something as a means to an end resulted in character growth? Others expect it to be something where they excel—but as in college, you will go from number one to one of many quickly here. Your value will likely be as a team member rather than the star. Or you may think that ALJBS is a politics camp. Again, this isn't false, but it's not the whole truth.

Boys State is a place where boys take their first steps into becoming adult men and start to discover who they are and what they want to be. It's a place where people learn how to solve complex problems with complex solutions and learn what citizenship entails. It's a place where values are taught through experience rather than didacticism. It's a place where people change, whether they want to or not. The week of American Legion Jersey Boys State is a dense week, filled with activities. It will uncover things you didn't expect.

Life resists all our controlling desires. Though we play a part in our own stories, we do not author them. As some kind of author, I'm quite glad for this. Finishing an article is difficult and gives an emotional payoff but that payoff is nothing like seeing another person's enjoyment of your work. Nothing that I can carefully craft and plan brings the thrill of someone's happy reaction.

The two bear hugs I received from Matt Dunovant and Eric Loverro are good indicators of what this program can do to people. Neither planned to run for Boys Nation Senator when they arrived on Sunday. Both changed throughout the week and eventually won. There are hundreds of stories like this, and it's why staff members keep coming back. No matter what we expect, we keep getting something better.




originally posted June 16, 2013 0800