On A Life Well Played

5 minute read

I recently finished Arnold Palmer’s autobiography A Life Well Played and it was a wonderful reminder of the man’s class, dignity and personality. In it, he remembers the great moments of his life as well as many of the worst. He talks about the influence of his father on his life and how that was the defining characteristic of every thing he did in life. His father was a typical man of the early 20th century. There was little softness in him but he clearly cared for and loved his family. He didn’t want to be his children’s best friend. He wanted to provide them the direction and the guidance necessary to have successful lives. Arnold followed his lead.

In today’s world of narcissism, it’s refreshing to hear stories of Palmer giving back to his fans, to his community, to society at large. He also tried to pass these values on to other people. One of the chapters talks about appearance and the way you are seen in public. Palmer was always conscious of his image, not because of how handsome he thought he was or to impress other people but as a way to express how things ought to be. He once ran into a young tour player who hadn’t gotten too close to the razor one morning before a practice round at Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill. Palmer told him that he hoped the next time he saw him on the course that he would be clean shaven. Today, we see that as an invasion of someone’s right of expression. But perhaps we’ve gone too far in our relaxation of what is correct when it comes to public appearance. Maybe this relaxation of norms actually has deeper philosophical implications when it comes to self-discipline and self regulation.

We worry about being too hard on our kids or possibly not being considered their friends. I think about this a lot now that I have a little genetic clone of myself running around the house. Somewhere along the past 100 years, social norms concerning child raising have changed, often drastically and in a way that leaves our kids unprepared for what they face outside the home. Palmer was prepared for life because his father had been laser focused on raising him to be a man regardless of the result of a pro golf career. He was taught sportsmanship and hard work and discipline. Then when the time came that he needed those lessons to lean on, he had them at hand.

Palmer once got mad during a junior golf tournament and threw a club. He ended up winning the tournament and was congratulated by his friends and the gallery. But on the ride home, his father told him that if he ever threw a golf club on the golf course again, he’d never play golf again. Self control and graciousness are more important than winning. I wonder how many fathers (or mothers) would do the same thing today in the same circumstance or with the same force.

Self discipline, more than any other characteristic, is how success is achieved. All other things equal, the ability to control one’s actions leads to success in health and life and business. These aren’t things we talk about anymore. We’ve elected a President with the self-discipline of a puppy. We’ve followed an economic path for years that is the opposite of any form of restraint. Our foreign policy in the last 20 years has been defined by rushing into situations without planning or consideration for possible long term implications and I fear, it’s about to get worse. It seems simplistic to think that our society’s relaxation of cultural norms like hard work, discipline and an empathetic understanding of the guy across from us on the 18th green or the business table or the world stage might be leading us into our current broken state. But I’m not sure how you can look at the events of today and not at least consider how things might be different with a nation of strong mothers and fathers teaching their kids not how to express themselves at every turn but instead how to restrain themselves. There is a time for expression. But there is more time for self regulation and we have lost that balance.

The irony of our cult of expression is that at the time we seem most free we are actually more restricted than ever. We carry more debt both as a people and as a nation than we ever have before. These debts restrict what we are capable of achieving. Our government continues to grow to sizes never envisioned by the Founders. A few corporations control huge portions of our economic and social life, directing our attention without us even realizing it. The “freedom” of social media actually makes us anxious and depressed.

Goethe said “It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.” I believe this is true in life as much as it is in art or music. A successful life comes from self-limitation by respecting your future self and delaying gratification of desires. Being able to control one’s own mind is critical to achieving goals. The question is, how do we teach our children this in a world where instant gratification is literally built into every thing we do? Not giving your child a cell phone is probably tantamount to abuse these days yet more and more data is emerging that says screen time for children is almost surely a net negative. We want our children to behave so we hand them a mobile device instead of the much more unpleasant option of forcing boredom on them.

When I think of a parent like Palmer’s father, a man who in today’s world would be considered cold and possibly even mean, I wonder if our norms haven’t changed too far. I want my daughter to love me but more than anything, I want to provide for her the tools necessary to succeed in the world. To me, these tools are self-discipline, empathy and the value of hard work though maybe not in that order. How that happens, I’m not sure yet. But it’s nice to read stories like Palmer’s where the clear influences of a strong parent had lasting impacts on the character of the child no matter how successful he got. That is the true measure of a Life Well Played.