The value of a white whale
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The Boston Red Sox went 86 years without winning a World Series (and came within one game of doing so four times). Susan Lucci was nominated for an Emmy award 18 times without winning. The Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls. The Mets went 8019 games from April 1962 until last month without a no-hitter. The Chicago Cubs have gone 104 seasons without a World Series winner.
In each of these cases, what’s normally a positive, the quest a world championship, a major award, or a major milestone, becomes an albatross–something that takes on a life of its own beyond its reasonable size. When Red Sox players said the so-called Curse of the Bambino didn’t enter their minds when they played post-season baseball, they said what they had to say–and they were lying.
When Sox fans and Mets fans finally got what had eluded their teams for decades, their response was almost unanimous: I never thought I would see it. (The Mets television play-by-play said that during the no-hitter telecast.)
In life, the same kind of quests occur for similar great milestones: finding a job after being laid off, getting promoted, finding that special someone, conceiving a child. They become white whales and warp your perspective around the overall goal. When you start to obsess over finding that special someone, your intensity can scare away potential candidates. When making a baby becomes a major milestone, the joy involved in the process can evaporate. (It’s the only time you’ll ever find a guy saying, Again? Seriously? We have to do it again?)
There’s a movie called Game 6 that focuses on the fatalism of a Boston Red Sox fan played by Michael Keaton. His newest play opens the same night the Boston Red Sox can win their elusive World Championship against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Keaton’s character knows the Sox will lose because they always lose. He also knows a major Broadway critic will hate the play–because he is a Red Sox fan and such events are cosmically aligned to cause defeat.
The movie shows the power of white whales over people, and ends with the Sox losing on Bill Buckner’s error. As for Keaton’s play and the critic, you’ll just have to watch the movie.
White whales are a wonderful way to ratchet up tension in your work. What’s your character’s white whale? What is his or her toil that will never end, regardless of their efforts?