Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Striving to be the Best

The Underdog by Joshua Davis is an amusing book. Imagine a 129 pound vegetarian from San Francisco, glasses, rather dorky looking. He's the kind of guy that the muscle men kick sand on at the beach in the dubious magazine ads that offer miracle muscle pills. Now imagine Davis at the World Arm Wrestling Championships. Competitors are broken up into weight classes. Davis didn't win a single match but still managed to be ranked 20th in the world in his weight class (there were only 21 competitors and the 21st person did not show up). Or, imagine him as a matador. Or better yet, a sumo wrestler facing off against a 530 pound man. He had a better chance competing in the Golden Shrimp, a race in which you run backward for two miles. But he was used to running forwards and his calves almost didn't get him to the finish line. He eventually infects his family with the weird competition bug and they find themselves taking a family vacation to Finland where they participate in the World Sauna Championship. The rules were simple, the one who stays in the sauna the longest wins. But the temperature is 220 degrees fahrenheit and the steam boils on the skin. The family lost and Davis ended up with first degree burns, but oddly, it brought them closer together. The competitions all started as an attempt to be the best at something. Davis's quest takes him to Poland and Spain, India and Italy and of course, Finland. He never quite manages to be the best but he always tries his best. He takes it all seriously, never mocks anyone but himself. We meet some very interesting characters along the way, people who are the best at arm wrestling, running backward, boiling in a sauna. But lest you think that the book is all fun and games, Davis throws out an insight or two every now and then, a way of looking at things that you may never have considered before. Toward the end of the book he writes

I've come to believe that America truly is the land of opportunity, just maybe not the opportunities we expected. Since World War II, we've lived in a broadcast world, where ever larger and more pervasive marketing campaigns have tried to convince us that we all like the same things. Ours is a hit-driven culture. In a world with only a few major national media outlets, there's only room for a few rock stars, sports stars, and celebrities. The result is that we've had a limited number of heroes.
His point being that there are lots of heroes and potential heroes out there; there are lots of people who are the best at something--bar stool racing, pie eating, you name it. There is room for everyone to be the best at something, just maybe not the something you expected.