Do the Work

I am among the lucky few who received her second Moderna shot last Monday.1 Everyone suggested I take the next day off, just in case I felt a little ill. Great! I thought. I’ll catch up on some mindless TV or podcasts or that stack of New Yorkers. Infection protection and a lazy day! What could be better?

Instead, my body decided to go into full-on drama queen mode with a fever, chills, aches, and some existential dread. All I could manage were to do was stare at the walls and watch an episode or two from the first season of The Amazing Race.2 C’est la vie. Despite feeling like hot garbage for a few days, I remain so freaking happy to do my part to get us out of this mess and would do it again if asked (but would plan my media intake better).

I was still a little meh over the weekend — like I said, FULL-ON DRAMA QUEEN — and watched two docs back-to-back because I lacked the will to be of use. In my head, these two films became the Alpha and Omega of the familiar “how to be a success at something” story.

Let’s start with the Alpha: The Dawn Wall (on Netflix), which is about mountain climber3 Tommy Caldwell. He decides to find a new route up El Capitan in Yosemite. His reasons for doing this are … complicated … and it’s far better that I not spoil them because there were moments when I was genuinely shocked about the twists his life took. So just trust that you’ll be drawn in.

Caldwell’s approach to achieving his dream is to grind it out. Over a couple of years, he tests every nook and, even, every cranny he can use to get up that wall. There are maps and notes and experiments. Eventually, a like-minded climber joins him and they form a bond that is one of mutual care and support.4 But both continue throwing themselves at the problem, testing and climbing and falling.

The film itself is stunning, both visually and structurally. Director Josh Lowell picks his moments well — and creates so much suspense about the climb’s outcome that I nearly had to turn it off to catch my breath. And, yes, it’s hard to frame an ugly shot in this gorgeous national park but the crew really captures how intense the scenery is. To say nothing of the logistics of filming on a rock face.

So if that is peak work ethic, Jed Rothstein’s WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (on Hulu) shows its opposite. Adam Neumann, the WeWork founder, couldn’t grind enough coffee for a cup.5 Neumann is very, very good at one thing: believing his own BS.

To be honest, the podcast WeCrashed does a better job of explaining the timeline of WeWork’s implosion. The pod captured more stories from the inside and showcased a broader segment of voices. However, Rothstein’s use of footage shows how charismatic Neumann is in a way his voice alone could never capture, even though the exploration of this particular cult and cult leader6 doesn’t dive as deep.7

Watching these two docs in rapid succession is a primer on the extremes of how to achieve something — and shows you which path you admire more. For the record, I’m #TeamGrinder.8 While Caldwell lets a lot of the rest of his life slide to get where he wanted to be, he worked his fingers off to get there. Which isn’t to say being a grifter like Neumann isn’t work, mind, but it’s hard to find it admirable.9

Any documentaries popping onto your radar lately? Drop a comment here:

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1

Get the vax, y’all. Science is great.

2

I’d forgotten that it taped pre-9/11, which is crazy. Also: Phil was an infant when it started.

3

For reasons unknown, all of our steaming services suggest movies about mountain climbing to me. No, I’m not a mountain climber, nor do I aspire to become one. Algorithms are weird, you guys.

4

Most high-profile climbers appear to be a little nuts. Witness Alex Honnold from Free Solo who, to quote Pixar’s Finding Nemo, has some serious thrill issues. Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson should be used as case studies on how to be a reasonable human being and supportive friend.

5

Still not sure this metaphor works but Imma leave it.

6

Because, seriously. That’s what it was.

7

(and Rothstein tries to redeem some of the players by pointing to the pandemic at the end, which is a stretch but, I mean, okay fine.)

8

I know. Don’t @ me.

9

Speaking of: Chameleon, a podcast about a long-running scam is my new obsessive listen. I’m only a few episodes in (and know nearly nothing about how it turns out) but can’t stop learning about the con.