For centuries, the Yaghans of Tierra del Fuego never bothered to invent clothing. In the coldest, wettest most miserable climate in the world they ran around naked… laughing… fishing… making love… telling stories crouched around fires on the beach.
They didn’t invent clothing because it wasn’t a good idea. Since it rained most every day, anything they put over them just weighed them down and wicked away the precious heat their bodies produced. Instead they waterproofed themselves in rendered blubber from whale and seal carcasses which – odiferous to our senses – must have come to smell like home and family to them as they climbed in and out of their birch bark canoes gathering mussels and clams from the sea and gossiping around their evening campfire fire. There were so many campfires that the entire mysterious island became known as La Tierra del Fuego.
Today they are gone. Not a Yaghan remains. Sweaters killed them all. The missionaries, offended by their nakedness, insisted on clothing them. Laden down by water-soaked wool, one by one they died of respiratory illness.
The lesson: sometimes less is more. Enough is enough.
This lesson was my birthday gift last month on a Seabourn cruise around Cape Horn. I had been invited along as the ‘ships resident anthropologist adventurer’. My twentieth birthday had been spent there in Patagonia and it seemed a nice bookend to return for my sixtieth. For fifteen days of unmitigated luxury surrounded by a wilderness of glaciers, fiords and wildlife all I had to do was to deliver a series of lectures on local culture and history – my area of personal expertise.
Easy? You’d think so. But I got so sick over these lectures that – even as I write this – I am still coughing. After each talk I was drenching with sweat and depressed. For a professional speaker with over twenty years of experience this made no sense. What was I so concerned about? They wouldn’t throw us off the boat no matter how bad I was. Sure, every pro knows it takes many months or even years to prepare a powerful speech and I had only a matter of days, but my audience was a carefree group of adventurous seniors whose median age was around eighty.
Then it dawned on me: I was talking to my parents. As good as I was, I just did not feel good enough.
The crowd ‘loved me’ – or so the cruise company representative told me. And the Seabourn line has already asked us back. Clearly the issue was not with my performance. It was with a sixty-year old man still trying to prove to his deceased parents that he was… enough.
The birthday gift of my Patagonian passage is a decision: I am done.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be a ‘success’ – amassing accomplishments to prove I’m good enough. I’ve decided that I’m though trying to impress anyone or be anything I am not. I am a success. I’ve made and lost fortunes, traveled the world, fallen in love… perhaps a bit too frequently but always well. My kids are phenomenal. Ask anyone. And…. I’m sick and tired of seeking approval. Now it’s time to have fun.
This weekend I recounted this tale to a group of hi-tech overachievers called METal – “alpha males in Media Entertainment and Technology ” to wild cheers and applause. When it comes to defining your success by the approbation of imagined others…clearly I am not alone.
Like the Yaghans… when you’ve got a good thing going, sometimes you just have to look around – even at well intended missionaries and say – I’m fine, thank you. Keep your sweaters, your religion, and your way of life. I know who I am. I like running up and down the beach, with my clothes off swimming with sea lions and generally having a good time. My life may not look like yours, but trust me. I am fine.
Enough is enough. Let the adventure begin!