You would not think Jeremy Boorda and Janet Cooke have much in common, except for both making the news recently.
One was a Navy admiral who ended his own life, the other a journalist who disgraced herself. But their tragedies, I think, offer a similar lesson. Each, in part, got into trouble by inflating their credentials. Neither had to. Both could have, and did, achieve success on talent alone.So why did Admiral Boorda wear ribbons for seeing combat when he didn't? Why, 15 years ago, did Janet Cooke make up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict for the Washington Post, at last apologizing for it in interviews last week?
Boorda didn't need those extra medals: He made it to four-star admiral on pure performance. Cooke didn't need to invent a false story: Her writing was good enough to earn a Pulitzer in the feature category, which stresses prose.
First, there are differences: Cooke conceded her offense was just plain dishonest. Though Boorda mentioned embarrassment about the medals in a suicide note, he said wearing them was a misunderstanding.
Still, you don't have a medal problem like that in the first place unless you crave them a bit too much. So in a way, both symbolize the price one can pay for an urge shared by many: the urge to hype ourselves.
When drawing up a resume, who doesn't try to put the most impressive spin on achievements? We're even told to. I read one article by a writer who years before got an honorable mention in a small community essay contest. Ever since, she has described herself as an "award winning writer" in her resume. Nothing wrong with that; it's part of the game.
But some, over time, let innocent exaggerations lead to fabrication. That's wrong in any circumstance; the question here, though, is why do it if you don't have to?
The easy answer on the personal level: Ambitious or insecure people will often overstate. On the societal level: Success is the American god. We want it fast.
But both Jeremy Boorda and Janet Cooke already stood above: She as a big-city feature writer in her mid-20s, he as an admiral.
Perhaps, then, for some, it's not enough to simply be good, we have to look good, too - flaunt the best possible trappings of success.
I can't deny I'm among those who often need recognition to feel good about myself. Logically, I know that doing the best job I can should be enough, but a part of me wants rewards, promotions, prizes: Medals to wear on my bio if not my chest.
I don't know the path to getting past that, but I do know the destination. I still remember the words of a man who taught it to me.
He was one of the pilots celebrated in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." The book chronicled how, as test pilots, they spent careers putting their lives at stake weekly but never boasted about it.
Wolfe's book was their first shot at public glory. When it became a best seller, an interviewer told one of the pilots he must be thrilled at the acclaim the book finally brought him.
"I guess I don't care," the pilot said. "I didn't need a book to tell me what I was."
I don't remember his name, which I'm sure is fine with him - he doesn't need me to remember it.
But I remember the lesson in his words. I won't say medals and prizes aren't nice. They are. It's natural to see applause as reward.
What a gift, though, to believe performance is reward enough.