Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason) is on the ropes. He’s been shooting high-stakes pool against Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) all through the night and into the morning. He’s been beaten and everyone in the pool hall knows it. The only reason why Fast Eddie hasn’t collected the victory and the stakes is the fact that when you play against a legend like Fats, “The game isn’t over until Fats says it’s over.”
That’s fine by Eddie. He came here to prove something. He wants the money but just as strongly, he wants the concession that he’s the better player.
Fats is slumped in the chair, disheveled, sweaty, exhausted. The cue rests against his open hand.
He excuses himself. He sends a kid out to buy a bottle of top-drawer booze. He goes into the washroom and washes his face and hands carefully, and then he powders both. He combs his hair. He changes into a fresh shirt. He puts his jacket back on and fixes his boutonniére.
He emerges a new man. “Fast Eddie,” he says, adjusting his cuffs and smiling, “Let’s play some pool.” From that point on, the ending is inevitable.
When I’m having a bad workday — when it’s X o’clock and I’ve only accomplished Y of the Z things I’d hoped to finish by now, where Y divided by Z is heartbreakingly closer to 0 than to 1 — I think of this scene and reflect upon its lessons:
- It’s not over until you say it’s over. In most situations, you didn’t lose because you got beat. You lost because you accepted the loss while there was still time left on the clock, when instead you should have focused on the ways you could still win. And maybe you actually can’t win…but at minimum, you can do a better job of losing.
- Sometimes the stink of failure is a physical thing. Wash it off. No kidding. Brush your teeth, wash your face, change into a clean shirt. Move to a different workspace. Once you’ve left behind all of the sights and smells of your Ungodly Unproductive Morning, your brain restarts and reboots.
- The good news is, the whiskey works. Yes. Pour yourself a drink. Have a cookie. Slice yourself a bit of that nice Y Fenni cheese you bought a few days ago. And don’t just gobble it down. Nibble, sip, savor. It’ll help put some sensory distance between now and the time when you were having such a horribly unproductive day and doing such terrible work.
Then I sit back down, rub my hands together, and say “Fast Eddie…let’s play some pool.” Because nothing counts if you don’t keep trying.