Courage from My Daughter

There is a long tradition of failure — or, more accurately, the feeling of unfulfilled potential — in my family. We all feel that we have the capacity for greatness, but we have not gotten there. There are a variety of reasons why we have failed: bad luck, poor timing, others conspiring against us. But more than anything, we blame ourselves. Through a series of missteps, we feel, we have doomed ourselves to obscurity. We are just getting by, when we should be basking in the spotlight. 

It all started with my grandfather. As the family story goes, Lewis Piper was a late bloomer. Dismissed as weak-minded by his older sisters, he struggled in school. In fact, he had a brilliant mind, great patience, and enormous compassion. Eventually people recognized his abilities. He became an inspiring teacher, a successful administrator, and ultimately worked with local benefactors to build a thriving small college in central Kentucky, where he served as president. This might seem like a modest achievement, but Grandad was one of 12 children of a traveling salesman. He far exceeded expectations.

In a curious twist, Grandad’s rise to prominence cast a pall over the family of his eldest son. Dad, who became a college professor, has always felt himself a disappointment: a son who inherited much of his father’s intelligence but could not continue the family’s upward trajectory. All of life’s setbacks have confirmed for Dad what he always suspected: that he was just not living up to expectations. He was unable to celebrate his achievements, greeting tenure and promotion with a yawn and feeling that each paper could have been better written or accepted in a more prestigious journal. Despite publishing countless books and articles, earning teaching accolades, and retiring as a full professor from Rice University, he knows beyond all doubt that he has let his father and his family down.

Dad’s feeling of inadequacy lives on, because he has looked to his children to turn things around. This is not conscious. Dad loves us and means no harm. But his blindness to the monkey on our family’s back — and how it impacts his children — has been costly. My older brother and I felt the burden of his expectations most acutely. Even now, on the brink of our 60s, we labor to bring honor and renown to the family. An academic like my father, my reactions to life’s ups and downs mirror his. Successes inspire only regret; failures confirm our pitiable lot in life. 

My family’s past served as an inevitable backdrop as I contemplated a journal where I might publish our findings of terminal investment in male loons. Readers of the blog might recall this finding. Briefly, male loons fall into poor condition and suffer increased mortality beginning at age fifteen. In response to this abrupt senescence, older males become highly aggressive and territorial, an effort to hold onto their territory and eke out another year or so of breeding success. The strategy of an animal to increase its efforts to breed in the current year or two — at the risk of hastening its demise — is aptly termed a “terminal investment”. This is a beautiful result, truly. No other finding that I have made in my career is so stunning and clear. What’s more, the finding could and should become a landmark in my field. Though life history theory predicts it, no other study has demonstrated that terminal investment can take the form of aggressive territorial behavior. 

I have known of the finding for many months, yet fear of rejection paralyzed me until a few weeks ago. “I must send it to Science“, I thought. Science is the flagship journal for scientists, of course. Publication of a paper there confirms that numerous eminent reviewers found a paper highly significant and worthy of wide dissemination. Yet with my exciting data fully analyzed, my literature search completed, the context and background for the finding etched in my mind, I could not move forward and complete the manuscript.

My daughter broke the impasse. One morning I mentioned to her the difficulty I was having in getting the paper submitted to Science. She was on her way to a summer internship, but she paused for a moment, sensing my inner struggle. “Well, Dad, there is probably only a ten to fifteen percent chance that they’ll accept it, but you might as well try.” It was a powerful statement of unblinking, youthful optimism and also acceptance of life’s vagaries.

Allison’s statement was not merely thoughtful advice. Her words showed that the family curse has been lifted. It seems, somehow, that a diffident, underachieving father can — perhaps largely through marriage to a smart, positive, hard-working spouse — raise kids not afraid to tackle life’s challenges.