Field of Science

Does the candle burn too brightly?

This morning brought the news that David Foster Wallace had died at the age of 46 by his own hand. Wallace was a member of our faculty for 8 years, and it was clear to almost everyone that he was an exceptional talent. The author of Infinite Jest and the winner of a McArthur genius fellowship, his efforts had won him critical literary acclaim and he would seem to be the very picture of success. And yet dead at 46.

Now that I am in the September of my academic career, I can look back on my earlier years with a bit more perspective. Years ago I was a bride's maid for three different jobs and in each case the person hired was "brilliant", "an up and coming talent", "a future super star", and while I have certain talents and abilities in good measure, no one has ever called me brilliant or a potential super star. And no question about it, I had a bit of academic envy for the abilities of the two I knew best. I ended up taking a much tougher route to where I am, and so it has been with some measure of interest that I have tracked the careers of my talented contemporaries. All three self-destructed in one way or another, and as modest as it has been, my academic career and record has easily eclipsed theirs.

It makes me wonder if for some of these exceptionallly talented people the candle burns too brightly. It's too bad that they did not achieve what they might have. As tragic as these people are, some of us merely above average pluggers achieve a measure of success in the long run with a decent work ethic, a bit of curiosity and drive, and a dedication to our professions. It does take a bit of fire in the belly to be successful in this business, and it can not come from wanting to best someone else, it must emanate from your own desire to pursue your profession.

I don't expect McArthur to come knocking on my door, but I have achieved something that David Foster Wallace did not. I have been pretty happy with my life and career, and clearly he was not. Sad. Very sad. So very sad, for him.


Larissa said...

good post, dad. You say no one has ever called you brilliant, but I've certainly referred to you as such. Ah, the eye of the beholder.

The Phytophactor said...

Aw, gee, shucks.