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Juiced-up skills still a hard pill to swallow

We all want to be better, but cheating almost always exposed in the long run

Mary Schmich

August 7, 2013

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If there were a pill that made you write 20 percent better, would you take it?

One of my colleagues asked me that the other day. It's a question that on certain days I might have construed as a hint that my work could use a performance boost and that he knew of a little something that could be discreetly supplied in a shadowy corner of the company cafeteria.

But this was on Monday, the day that Alex Rodriguez and a dozen other Major League Baseball players were suspended for their involvement with banned performance-enhancing drugs, so I understood the question as the purely philosophical inquiry that it was.

Think about it.

If there were a pill, an illicit pill, that would make you 20 percent better at your job, would you take it?

You! But improved! No longer merely good, but undeniably, certifiably, if only for the moment great!

Imagine the surge of power that would come from doing something better than you ever have, as well as you've always dreamed, maybe even better than everybody else.

Feel the awe you would inspire in yourself and others.

And if a fat paycheck followed, that would be awesome too.

As I pondered the question, I thought of a friend who sometimes mutters, "I'd get plastic surgery if I could be sure no one would think I'd had it."

That approach could easily apply in this context.

Then I reflected on what writing 20 percent better would look like.

Not dawdling so much on deadline? Writing more about Pat Quinn? Getting more online clicks? Relying less on rhetorical questions?

After further contemplation, I decided that whatever "better" might mean in my field — where success isn't as easy to quantify as RBIs — I hoped I wouldn't take the pill. It wouldn't necessarily feel immoral. It would just feel inauthentic.

On the other hand, I take some version of that pill almost every time I write. It's called coffee. It revs my brain. It calms my fears. Without it, or so I imagine, my brain on deadline would be worth less than a stalled bus on the expressway.

The truth is that what drives some of us to coffee or Red Bull or assorted over-the-counter performance supplements isn't so different from what drives professional athletes to steroids.

We want to be good, better, best. We'd love to break through limits that no amount of practice, patience or willpower can conquer. We want the sensation and the validation of excellence.

Just like Alex Rodriguez?

When my colleague posed his question about the performance-boosting pill, he was trying to think like A-Rod who, he notes, is a very good ballplayer without drugs.

"But," he says, "he knows the difference between good and great, and he wants to be great. I think all of us have some self-imposed goal — to bake a great blueberry pie, to write a great song, to be a great speller or gardener or car mechanic — and I think almost all of us would sacrifice some of our future for a short burst of greatness right this very minute."

Maybe so, but the key word in the sentence above is future.

Professional athletes who take banned drugs may enjoy the thrill of hitting the ball farther or riding the bike faster than they otherwise would. They may enjoy the cheers and riches that ensue.

But surely they're also imagining the legend they will leave. When they break the rules of the game — in other words, cheat — they inevitably compromise their legend, their long-term place in the game. In short, their future.

Maybe you have to have lived longer than most professional athletes have to fully understand that cheating is a short-term strategy.

It's the same in any field: You cheat because you want to get ahead. Or stay ahead. The rules are in the way. There at the intersection of hubris and insecurity, you think you can get away with breaking them, and that you're entitled to.

But cheaters are almost always exposed, if only, in some cases, to themselves.

And that can't feel great, in any sense of the word.

mschmich@tribune.com