The Palmer Report
No. 145, Difficulties After Achieving Excellence
Broadcast August 5, 1974
Once upon a time, so the old joke goes, there was a violinist who played a violin that only had one string. And on that one string, all day long, year after year, he only played one note. Finally someone asked him why he only played one note when other violinists play so many. "Ah," said the single-minded violinist, "the others are looking for the note, but I have found it."
I invoke this admittedly old joke to point up a curious aspect of human nature: that being that we always have the desire to top ourselves, to expand our skills and abilities. Those who do not feel this urge are scorned by the rest of society as under-achievers and ne'er-do-wells. In reality they may have achieved one thing, and done that one thing quite well. The rest of us cannot accept such complacency, however, so we scorn it, as the one-note violinist is scorned.
Consider the sad case of Gomez O'Shea, the man of one face. It was a great face, very versatile in its own confined way, yet during the early part of his career Gomez labored under the shadow of Lon Chaney, who had 999 more faces. Even though insiders realized O'Shea's one face could, on a face to face basis, beat any of Chaney's thousand, the unseeing public wanted numbers, not artistry.
Undaunted, Gomez shelved his face and became the man of one voice. Again, the public rejected him. Gomez O'Shea did the best impression of Lionel Atwill that's ever been done, yet other impressionists, with their mediocre Cagneys, Bogarts, and Nixons, got all the work. Old, tired, broken-hearted, Gomez O'Shea in desperation turned to writing for television. So far he's made about ten million dollars turning out a Gunsmoke script every week. But he hasn't changed. They hire somebody else to make up a different title for each week's show.
Gomez's story has a happy ending, but it's not like that for everybody. A lot of professions have all but died out because the public demanded bigger and better accomplishments and there weren't any to give. Like sword swallowing. Once you've swallowed a sword, and then two swords together, and then a mouth capacity of five swords, and then eight daggers, and a pocket knife, what do you do for an encore? Swallow a shotgun? How many shotguns? Then what do you do? Eventually sword swallowers were trying to swallow everything from a gross of ice picks to army personnel carriers, while old-timers with trunks full of saliva-stained swords shook their heads over the decline of the art.
I'm not lobbying against ambition and achievement, just saying that there's also a satisfaction in doing one thing, and doing one thing only, well. The next time somebody asks you what you do for an encore, ask yourself whether you have to do anything. For instance, I might do this same report again tomorrow, and all this week, and maybe until Christmas. In memory of all the sword swallowers.
This is Greg Palmer.