“If silicon was a gas, I’d be a general.” James Whistler.
The guy who painted Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 - or, as I like to call it, Whistler’s Mother - flunked out of West Point in 1854. He said it happened during a chemistry test, when he started his oral presentation by saying, “Silicon is a gas.”
Silicon isn’t a gas.
Don't feel too bad for Jimmy. After I saw the story about silicon, I looked him up. He had kind of a rough beginning. His father was a railroad engineer and they lived in several different countries when James was a boy. He took some drawing lessons and hoped to become an artist, but his father died at the age of 49. Being an artist was more agreeable if you came from a family with a lot of money; that wasn’t the case for Whistler. His mother sent him to a school to become a minister, but it didn’t take very long for everyone to decide that wasn't in the cards. After he left West Point, James got a job making maps. He was part of a survey of the entire coast of the United States and drew maps for military purposes and ship navigation. When his boss discovered he was embellishing the margins with portraits of sea serpents, mermaids and whales, he was fired. (My wife has a similar story, but she wasn’t fired.)
Strike Two for Whistler. With no real way to make a living, he decided that he might as well be poor during what he loved. So, he moved to Paris and became a world-famous artist.
Kind of a win.
I’m not sure why Whistler liked to talk about his failure. My guess is he didn’t start telling that story until he’d had some successes – a little success always makes stories of failures more entertaining.
I also think he told the story to reinforce that you can’t change your basic nature, and that because of who you are deep inside, life can take you places you don’t plan to go. Sometimes that’s better and sometimes it’s not.
Of course, Whistler wasn’t the first to realize that. Socrate’s is famously credited with saying, “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t whomp his ass every time he jumped.”
I’m sure it sounded better in Greek.
Here’s something else to consider. What if James Whistler hadn’t failed Chemistry? If he’d graduated from West Point in the late 1850s, he would have seen heavy duty in the Civil War and had a reasonable chance to become a general. After all, there were roughly 1,000 generals on both sides in the Civil War.
One hundred twenty-four of them were killed.
Whistler’s life teaches us some lessons. First, getting what you want can end up being the worst possible thing for you. I imagine serving as a general is exhilarating. Being a dead general, less so.
Next, don’t underestimate that for most of us, life’s road is winding, with lots of hills and valleys. Whistler had quite a career path – from proposed preacher to possible general, from starving artist to world famous.
Lastly, don’t forget that many of us need a little luck. Whistler started a painting of his mother only because the model he was supposed to work with that day didn’t show up. He didn’t want to waste the day, so he talked his mother into posing.
Sometimes it takes quite a while to end up where you were meant to be. You need to be sure to enjoy the trip.
Copyright 2022 Brent Olson
It’s easier from this side of life than when first starting out to see the connections - and diversions - on our life path. I wouldn’t trade a single one; each was an opportunity to learn about something outside my sphere of knowledge, to stretch and to grow.
Somewhere and sometime there should be a class taught in high schools called "Transformation and Hope." And this column should be the preface of the syllabus. Beautiful, Brent!
Fascinating. I have a similar story. I loved chemistry, graduated at the top of my class, was the last to get a job and that was for 10 cents more than minimum wage. Dreamed of writing but thought that was unattainable. 33 years later I'm still living the dream.