Everyone is a coward when first beginning a venture.
In those first days, weeks, months, you hide a lot. You talk about your ambitions in a low voice to the people who are closest to you, but when they offer to spread the word you look at them disbelievingly, as though they are trying to get you killed. Making a plan of action is possible, and in fact mildly cathartic, but putting it to use is unthinkable.
All the while, you tell yourself this isn’t the way it should be. You know that accomplishing this quest of yours will bring nothing but good to the people around you if you succeed. You would avert anger, frustration, hopelessness, discomfort. You would become acclaimed for your brilliance and goodwill. There might be a parade, or at least a better chance of getting a date. There would almost certainly be some kind of monetary award.
What a hero you could be, if you weren’t so afraid.
You beat yourself up a lot about not being brave enough to be a hero. You feel you should head out there and stare down whatever obstacles might present themselves with much gnashing of teeth and howling of howls, and every morning that you choose to bury a little deeper under the covers makes you lose your self-respect a little more.
But no one swings their feet out of bed one morning and discovers that they have newfound determination and strength that was not there the day before. No one becomes the hero overnight.
Before you can be a hero, you have to be a fool.
Heroes Are Fools
Inherently. This can be proven.
Let’s say someone knocks on your door right now. You open it. Standing there is a good-looking young person in the gender of your choice, looking exhausted and desperate. This person is well-dressed and smells rather nice. In fact, under different circumstances, you could see the two of you going out on a date somewhere, maybe somewhere with cloth napkins.
This person says, “I need help. A large, vicious creature is in my house. It has destroyed everything I own and killed my two brothers. Five people, very brave and strong people, have gone in to drive it out, but they have all been killed. Will you come and fight this creature?”
Seriously, now. What kind of idiot says yes?
This is true for any venture you might have – business, art, running away to Boca. There are inherent dangers and you are well aware of them. Many, many people before you have expressed the same desire and wound up broken in a ditch somewhere. So when your mind pops up with the brilliant idea that you should try to risk your neck, your natural inclination is to hide.
Cowardly, yes. But utterly reasonable. No one wants to wind up broken in a ditch.
So heroes are always fools, which is why it’s so difficult to convince yourself to be one. However, it is helpful to remember that fools are also heroes. And it is much easier to decide to be a fool.
How the Fool Succeeds Where Others Fail
In Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the first scene opens on Guildenstern flipping coins into the air and Rosencrantz announcing whether each coin came up heads or tails.
Every coin Guildenstern drops comes up heads. Heads. Heads. Heads. Eighty-five times. And Rosencrantz is never surprised.
Finally Guildenstern asks him, exasperated, if he isn’t afraid. Rosencrantz has not the faintest idea why he should be. To him, the endless stream of coins coming up “heads” is a run of bad luck, certainly – but there’s always the chance that the next one will come up tails.
This is how the fool wins.
Sure, the two elder, smarter, handsomer, more competent brothers may have failed, but is that any reason why he should?
Sure, he may have no advice, no skills, no experience, and nothing going for him, but why should that get in his way?
Strangely enough, the fool almost always succeeds.
It is hard not to think that this is due in part to his philosophy that there is no reason why he shouldn’t.
The Clever Fool
There are two kinds of fools: the natural fools, who press on unaware of the dangers that await them, and the clever fools, who persist knowing the danger, but choosing not to let fear hold them back.
Children fall into the latter category: a child will start twelve lemonade stands in the time it takes their parents to finally decide to open a business. But adults know too much; they are incapable of being the kind of fool who does not comprehend probability. They have to strive for a different kind of fool: the clever fool, or king’s fool.
The king’s fool was the only person allowed to correct, accuse, or make fun of the king, provided he did it in a clever, witty way. If you were smart, and you were agile of mind, you were allowed to do what no man around you could do: you could tell the king what was wrong with him to his face. You could shape history, change edicts, turn out the army or bring it back again. The king’s fool had incredible power.
Like the natural fool, the king’s fool had to completely disregard the laws of probability. There may have been two hundred people in the court who would have been promptly executed had they dared to tell the king that he was wrong – and the fool, knowing this, told the king anyway. It was also possible to go too far, to fall out of favor with the king, and be executed. There is always the chance that the coin will come up tails. There is always the chance of failure.
The clever fool knows that there is danger, and laughs.
The Fool’s Story
Once there was a king whose wife was often unfaithful to him. His fool Quevedo made several ill-timed jests on the topic during a dinner, and the king, in a rage, sentenced him to be executed. This was very unlike the king; he was fond of Quevedo and knew that his fool had often saved him from many a misstep by a wry comment that made his court laugh and cost him no face. The king would be sorry to lose such a subtle advisor.
Then again, he could not reverse his own edict. He was the king.
Instead, he announced that for his many years of service, Quevedo would be granted a boon. He would be given leave to play a jest on the king, any jest he liked, but then he must apologize for it in such a way that the apology would be even more inappropriate than the joke.
Quevedo, facing death, racked his brain to come up with the right jest and apology. He could think of nothing. The date of his execution loomed nearer, and the king looked sterner and more sorrowful by the day, but he would not budge his verdict.
Finally, two days before his execution, Quevedo thought of a brilliant jest, a truly terrible, sick, inappropriate jest. He would never have dared to pull such a jest in the days when he was in favor, but now he had nothing to lose, and his life to gain.
Quevedo hid behind a curtain. As the king passed by, Quevedo leaped out and slid his hand into the front of the king’s trousers. The king slapped him away, amazed and disgusted. Adjusting his belt, the king thundered, “Quevedo! What is the meaning of this?”
“I beg your pardon, Majesty,” Quevedo replied. “I thought it was the queen.”
The Fool’s Leap
That particular story ends without revealing whether or not Quevedo was saved. I’m glad of that, because it isn’t the point. Whether he was saved or not, he took the fool’s leap. Before you embark on any venture, there is a moment when you put your neck out there, when you do the best you can and bedamned to the consequences.
You may fail. You may succeed. But in that moment, you’re suspended in midair, having decided that no matter how many fell before you or how many will fall after, there’s no reason this particular leap shouldn’t result in flight.