The Hidden Lesson of Chosen One Stories

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Gardner Mounce

We all love “Chosen One” stories like The Matrix, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, in which a person (usually white, usually male) is selected by fate or the universe or Laurence Fishburne to do the thing that needs doing. First off, it makes things so simple. Imagine if the next presidential election was decided by which Ivy Leaguer could pull a sword from a stone–or Congress’s head from its ass (zing! bow! topical!). It also buys into the idea that life is dictated by a higher power, which is comforting. But these stories also teach a horribly stultifying lesson: if you’re not the chosen one, you should just sit down and quit.

Like most of you, I was raised on Chosen One stories, and thereby raised on the idea that heroes are chosen for an arbitrary reason (like dead parents and messiness of hair). And that if you are the chosen, you’re going to have an easy time of being a sweet fighter, and if you’re not the chosen, then you’re going to be a minor character who does nothing but offer the chosen one advice. Writers of these stories like to say that, thematically, these stories teach perseverance and hard work. But they don’t, really. They usually have very little to say about the fact that being good at anything takes a lot of really hard work. And nobody’s chosen. There’s privilege, sure, and certain anatomical proclivities that may make one person a more natural basketball player than another, but no one is choosing people as the next great anythings, and to become good at something you have to work very, very hard at it.

Chosen One stories pay lip service to hard work via the montage. Watch this scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Lupin teacher Harry the Patronus charm. At the top of the scene Lupin says, “You know this is very advanced magic well beyond the ordinary wizarding levels?” …and then Harry nails the charm in four minutes of screen time. Of course, the reason movies don’t show the realistic amount of time it takes to master something is that it takes practice, and practice is boring to do and boring to watch.

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We all have to learn the hard way that those montage scenes where Rocky gets good at fighting after punching a cow six times are representative of months or years of hard work. This sounds obvious now, but when I was a kid I was absolutely baffled by how hard it was to learn to play the guitar. The strings hurt, the neck was too wide, my fingers wouldn’t do what they were supposed to do, and I always dropped the pick after the fourth note of “Barbie Girl.” I was ashamed that I sucked so bad. I expected it to come easily to me, because I had this image of myself as the next Chosen Guitar Player in a sweet music video full of lightning bolts and side boob. It never happened.

The other lesson these stories teach is that the Chosen One always wins. So, as a kid, when you can’t seem to play “Barbie Girl” on guitar the first or second or twelfth try, you figure you’re just not meant to play it and so you quit. Meant? What the hell does meant mean? Who means for you to play “Barbie Girl?” The question is: do you want to play “Barbie Girl?” Then play “Barbie Girl,” you beautiful, confused rock star.

Clear your mind of all that Chosen One nonsense and learn a new mantra:

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If you want to be the chosen one, start working. We should all remember this the next time we take on a new hobby or job. You want to play the drums? Awesome. That’s so cool. You’ll have tons of fun. Just expect to really suck at it for a long time, because you’re not the chosen one. Don’t be embarrassed of that. Don’t go into music stores and not play drums because you’re embarrassed of how bad you suck. Be a proud learner.

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A friend of mine who was a piano performance major told me that becoming a good piano player is like watching your hair grow. You won’t notice yourself improving day-by-day, but look back in six months or and you’ll be astounded (and hairy!). So, next time you watch Harry Potter nail that Expecto Patronus after four minutes of “hard work,” say to him, “You’re not actually a wizard. You’re Daniel Radcliffe. And Daniel Radcliffe can do an Expecto Patronus as well as I can.” You’ll feel much better, unless you’re an actor who also auditioned for the role of Harry Potter. And then you’ll just feel like shit. Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

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