The Extraordinary Heroism of Sir William Topaz McGonagall

Recently, I’ve come to love the idiom “put your money where your mouth is.”

It means “do what you say you will,” but I like to think of it in terms of stated preference vs. revealed preference.

If you aren’t familiar with those ideas, they mean “what you say you want” vs. “what you actually want as indicated by your behavior.”

i.e.: I say I want to become fluent in 12 languages, but I actually want to spend my free time reading about Taylor Swift’s style evolution on BuzzFeed.

Someone once suggested to me that a great deal of happiness depends on the gap between your stated and revealed preferences. So I set out this summer to close that gap in my own life by sending myself to Austria for two months to try to up my German proficiency. I set out three very simple goals for my trip:

  • Sustain myself financially through my freelance writing
  • Learn German
  • Don’t be miserable

It’s been a questionable two weeks. I’ve barely gotten enough work done to keep up with my deadlines, the German is foundering, and I’ve been fighting the usual uphill battle against crippling homesickness (which could take several blog posts in its own right, because it’s hard to justify feeling down when you’re in a gorgeous city and essentially living the dream).

I told a lot of people about this trip and the ambitions I had for it, but now I feel as if I have set myself up for public failure. It’s not a comfortable prospect.

All of which brings me to the titular hero of this post.

At some point during my Edinburgh years, I came across one of Scotland’s most infamous poets, Sir William Topaz McGonagall, fantastically titled “Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah,” who bears the distinction of having written possibly the worst poem ever to be published in the English language. It is impossible to read about Sir William’s life without developing a sort of fondness for him. The poor man was a godawful poet, although he somehow remained blissfully ignorant of the fact his entire life, despite often performing in front of crowds who were allowed to hurl eggs, herring, and stale bread at him during his recitals.

But the point here is: Sir William actually was a poet. He wrote poems. He staked his reputation on his ability, and he gained a reputation for being “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” But he was more of a poet than anyone else who spends their life dreaming of writing poetry and never actually doing it.

By all this, I don’t mean: “keep trying because if you put in enough effort you will eventually succeed.” Trying at anything would be a hell of a lot easier if you were guaranteed success at the end. What I do mean is: failure is better than not trying. And not temporary failure, either: total, definitive proof that you are bad at something you staked your entire identity on being good at is better than spending your whole life saying you’re going to be great at your supposed passion and then watching Netflix instead.

Granted, Sir William was also delusional, and would have been better served by a little self-awareness. But his poetry is a concrete fact of existence: he actually wrote it, which makes it more real than the conceptual poetry of those who say they will write poems but never actually do.

Stated vs. revealed preferences says nothing about the quality of the work you produce, the lesson is simply that you should either do the things you say you are going to do, or else you should stop saying you are going to do them. Do or do not.

And fail spectacularly if you have to.