Being Don Quixote: The Challenge of Setting Goals

Don Quixote thought he could be a knight. I thought I could read Don Quixote in Spanish.

Both of us were wrong, but I’m pretty sure the former’s story will have more staying power.

For those unfamiliar, Don Quijote de la Mancha is a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. It follows a man who adopts the identity of Don Quixote, a gallant caballero bent on saving his village from evil-doers. Sometimes these threats are totally fabricated– existing only in the protagonist’s mind– but when facing real danger, the untrained and incompetent Quixote is toast.

Donquixote

Quijote was written in 1605– not too long ago!– in Cervantes’ native tongue. This summer, I took on the task of reading the novel in its original language without any help. I would have context, having heard many lectures on the story. Plus, I was a talented language student for most of my secondary education. I have five years of studying Spanish under my belt– so what could go wrong?

That’s right. Mostly everything.

It was rough– real rough.. Such a challenge, in fact, that I gave up within minutes. Who would have guessed that a native English speaker without any experience conversing in Spanish would be unable to read a 400-year-old document in a foreign language? Anyone but Don Safronje.


“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
— Norman Vincent Peale

“Land among the stars?” That sounds so tragic. Floating in silence forever and ever… dying without saying goodbye to your family… that’s just horrific.

Yes, I understand that it’s a metaphor. But think about it– setting a high goal for oneself, and then missing said goal, is not always a positive thing.

Operation Don didn’t get past lift-off. The repercussions? A growing disinterest in Spanish, for one. At the beginning of the summer, I’d watch Univision– subtitles at the ready– in hopes of sponging up the language. Now, any attempt to become semi-fluent seems pointless.

This is completely irrational. I know. The entire premise was unreasonable, and what followed was a downward spiral of nincompoopery. But even the lightest of slip-ups can have profound effects. At least, in this author’s experience.

My experiment’s failure has bled over into other endeavors. Whenever I try to read a “hard” book, a little voice in the back of my head tells me that I can’t do it. If I really were a man of letters, the voice says to me, I would have been able to read Don Quixote. I ask the voice if that’s a realistic way of thinking. The voice tells me that it’s just repeating what I myself thought a few months ago. Then I have a glass of water.


What about more substantive things? Y’know, things with consequences beyond feeling a little bad?

This brings me back to my teenage years.

I went to an extremely competitive high school. Going to college, which for many Americans would be an accomplishment in and of itself, was not a big deal. In fact, going to a sub-par school was grounds for banishment. Getting into, say, a top-fifty school like UIUC, was an acceptable fate. Other so-called Big Ten schools were fine as well.

Elite schools– the Ivies and such– were the most desired. But these universities are not just elite but exclusive, very exclusive. Receiving an acceptance letter from one of these is nearly impossible. Nonetheless, the brightest still pursue it.

And what does this do to people? For some, it’s a good thing. The competition is similar to what they’ll face later in life, in Silicon Valley or Wall Street (or the Blogosphere?) For others, those not cut out for it, it’s disastrous.

If one shoots for Harvard and comes close to making it, the backup plan will be great. At least in an outsider’s mind. Competitive people such as myself are unable to accept second or third place, even if silver or bronze mean a four-year trip to the East Coast. But the type of person who plans on going to Harvard is the same creature that will feel eaten inside when having to settle for Cornell.

And some who do make it suffer while there… and some who succeed there suffer in grad-school or in their field of choice…

Shooting for the moon is a death wish. Those who hold themselves to high standards will always be pushing up, no matter what. And the universe, having natural laws, will eventually stop them.

So the answer, of course, is to drop out of high school, never read again, stay locked in our houses– no. Of course that’s not what we should do.

The answer, I guess, is moderation. Maybe I should have read Spanish and English translations side-by-side. Maybe I should have spent this summer sharpening my Spanish instead of diving headfirst into a classic novel.

I don’t know if my tilting at windmills will end up being helpful in the long run. It’s hard to say. For now, though, I’ll keep on trekking.