There was a time when I had no interest in being challenged. Whether from laziness or insecurity or a general malaise, the bare minimum was my life philosophy. I attempted college a few times but even with my favorite subjects, I became uncomfortable and disinterested the moment the professor took us beyond my general knowledge. It was just such a drag to memorize facts, do homework, and actively engage in learning - to be reminded that I didn't know everything. You see, I was burdened with that self-involved youthful pomposity, that "I know everything" attitude that so often defines the teen years and early twenties - that is until the cold hard truth of life comes crashing down on the arrogant fantasy like a meteor crashing through the protective dome of a bustling Martian colony - I suppose.
Here’s the thing. The bare minimum works for a while. In my twenties, it allowed me to have a great deal of fun. It allowed me to be the wild card, the nut, the free-spirit. If you needed someone to ditch work and accompany you to a Smashing Pumpkins/Garbage concert, I was your boy! There was a period - let’s call it an era - when I spent each and every night out at a bar or club or party. I knew everybody and everybody knew me. It was fun. It was comfortable. It’s as if every night was just a big plate of macaroni & cheese.
Eventually, the bare minimum begins to wear on the body, mind, and spirit - particularly the spirit. You see, the bare minimum basically amounts to comfort. People love comfort - I know I do - but comfort’s only benefit is a momentary enjoyment. That big plate of macaroni & cheese tastes great and feels so good while we’re eating it, but not only does it lack much nutritional value, it also causes eventual negative consequences - weight gain, poor digestion…. Maybe bad breath - I don’t know - I’m no doctor, because that would have involved challenging myself.
By my late thirties, my bare minimum lifestyle had left me heavy, unhealthy, poorly educated, and severely insecure. I had nothing to show for my life, save for some wild stories of youthful nonsense. I lacked education, because I had shirked school. I lacked social skills, because I had dodged arguments and debates. I lacked the physique I desired because it was easier to just sit around and watch TV. I lacked good health, because fast food was easier and tasted better than healthier options. I lacked opportunities, because instead of writing screenplays and honing my filmmaking skills, I preferred to merely dream about the results of such a career.
When my relationship of eleven years was finally put to death, I was forced to reevaluate some things - particularly my bare minimum philosophy. As I scrolled through the new dating world of Grindr, I realized I would never have a chance with the hot successful guys out there unless I too was hot and successful. There’s an irony to being an overweight loser wondering why hot successful guys won’t look at me. We all know people who do this — they only want fit, trim, intelligent, and successful people, but can’t imagine why all those fit, trim, intelligent, and successful people don’t want them - even though they haven’t done anything to better themselves - to make themselves healthy or successful. Present to them someone similar to themselves and they balk at the idea. “Gross,” they say, “he’s fat,” as they double fist Twinkies into their mouth. “Ew,” they say, “she’s a waitress,” as they put on their black polo shirt and head to work at the hotel.
That’s when my philosophy changed. That’s when I turned my slightly overweight back on the bare minimum and began challenging myself. I’d take the stairs instead of the elevator. I’d sit down and write instead of playing on facebook. I'd pull up a YouTube tutorial if I hit a wall with Photoshop. I'd keep taking bad photos until I understood how to take good photos. I’d eat greens instead of pasta. I'd meditate when I could be napping. Every day, it became easier. Of course, I failed from time to time, actually a lot. Of course, I backslid some, actually a lot. My challenge is not to be perfect - it’s merely to try to be better than I was - to be better than the bare minimum.
Now, I’m back in college - finally in film school, which is all I ever wanted to do. A little over a year into it and I’m a straight A student - consistently on the Dean’s List. I’ve made some great friends - and with those friends, I’ve made some challenging movies that pushed me beyond my initial skill level.
Today, I was reminded of how far I’ve come. It was my second day of one of my new classes - a film history class. The teacher is balls-to-the-walls tough. She is not accepting anything less than perfection. Every assignment has to be essay form, MLA format. If anything is wrong, she gives it back and takes off points for it being late. I’m a wreck, worried about not giving her what she wants, worried about ruining my straight-A record. Thumbing through the syllabus, I see topics I know nothing about. This class will be a wholly new experience. It’s going to challenge my intelligence, my writing skills, and my ability to absorb new information. I readily accept that challenge, because I know that when the class is over, I will be a better person for going the extra step, for going beyond the bare minimum.