The Peter Principle, Part 2

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by Brendan I. Koerner

I'm in the midst of trying to find something to read at a close pal's wedding, which means I've been spending lots of time rifling through my overflowing bookshelves. And while I've yet to locate the perfect poem or passage to celebrate my friend's journey into domestic bliss, I've come across lots of forgotten non-fiction gems that once played important roles in my life.

One of those books is Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which I devoured during my "Martin Scorsese is a Da Vinci-level genius" phase. (I still think he's a genius, but my fanboyistic tendencies have waned with age.) Upon finding the book, hidden behind a bunch of Sesame Street pop-up tomes in my son's room, I noticed that I'd dog-eared one of the pages in the Francis Ford Coppola chapter. And here's the passage that I'd underlined, regarding Coppola's father, Carmine:

Carmine had been a child prodigy, whose instrument was the flute. He hit his peak in his twenties, and went downhill from there, once bottoming out by playing the piccolo at the track with a Nedick's hat on his head. Like many people who flee from what their best at, Carmine took his talent for the flute for granted, and longed to spread his wings, compose symphonies, or conduct opera.

Carmine waws the "maestro," and his wife, Italia, catered to his every whim. The emotional life of his family turned on what Francis later called the "tragedy" of his father's career. Coppola once said of his father, he was "a frustrated man who hated anybody who was successful."

I didn't scribble any notes in the margins, but I really didn't need to. Even a decade later, I know exactly why I highlighted those lines: Because I think Carmine Coppola's tendency to flee from what he was best at it is a nearly universal problem, at least among those for whom work is synonymous with identity. Let's face it, our species has a problem with accepting limitations. And to cop a line from one of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics, that is both our triumph and our tragedy.

Perhaps a good way to look at this dilemma is to consider it as a corollary to the Peter Principle, that famed management axiom that holds that all employees in a hierarchical organization will eventually be promoted one level beyond their competence. By the same token, one could argue that all talented individuals, upset over the realization that there are more talented and successful people in the world, will eventually try their hand at an endeavor they're utterly unsuited for.

The easy answer here is that we need to learn to accept the gifts that we have, and to draw meaning not only from achievement and the admiration of our peers, but from intrinsic rewards, too. But, hey, easier said than done. And if we lose our drive to push beyond what we've already attained, simply to achieve some greater measure of happiness, what would be the consequences for society at large?

The complicating factor in all this is that Carmine Coppola did eventually achieve his dreams—though only thanks to his son's good graces. And that gives me hope, since I (like all recently minted fathers) am certain my own two-year-old son is destined for great things. Here's to hoping he'll help make my creative fantasies come true in roughly 2035 or thereabouts.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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