The Uncanniness of Near Success

I have a theory; more of a hunch really in that I believe your frustration level will increase the closer you get to actual success. This hypothesis is not unlike the Uncanny Valley, a term first applied to robotics in the 70s, that is now widely seen in the film industry, specifically in CGI depictions of aliens, zombies and all their B movie friends.

Consider for a moment two of Steven Spielberg’s most famous extra terrestrials, first the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then E.T. himself.

As the theory goes the standard emotional response to these visitors from space differs because of their relative resemblance to human beings. E.T. is completely alien so our feelings toward him are positive while the ones from Close Encounters are near human and seem to us a little creepy. This effect intensifies to outright repulsion the closer a non-human approaches human likeness so that an animated human corpse, your typical zombie, is at the bottom of this hypothetical valley.

The concept of the uncanny was first identified by a man named Ernst Jentsch in 1906 and was later expanded upon by Sigmund Freud. It is simply the cognitive dissonance caused by something that is both familiar and yet strange. Few people have exploited this phenomenon more than Roger Corman. The legendary filmmaker has produced hundreds of low budget horror movies. One in particular, called Dementia 13, a horror/thriller from 1963 has the distinction of being the first film that was written and directed by 24 yr old Francis Ford Coppola. His script, hastily written over three days, is nothing special but it contains the following line of dialogue:

It’s nice to see her enjoying herself for a change. The mood around this place isn’t good for her…. Especially an American girl. You can tell she’s been raised on promises.

Thirteen years later, a 25 yr old musician in a little apartment in Encino California was composing songs for what would be his first album. It’s not known if he had watched Dementia 13 during that time but coincidentally he did compose the following lyric:

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises

Bay Area DJ Howie Klein picks up the story from here:

I met Tom Petty just before the release of his debut album. He was visiting San Francisco from Gainesville and the record company couldn’t drum anyone else to meet him but my friend Michael and I. They were lucky. His album came out and it died a brutal death– everywhere but in San Francisco. It was a smash on KSAN, where I worked. We got our listeners to sign petitions begging his label’s executives to re-release it. They did.  This is the song that broke him


In November of 2010, after many months of applying to any company that was even remotely related to insurance and meeting with very little success I finally had a serious job prospect. A restoration company sent me an email with a list of questions. My written response was good enough to secure an interview. In fact much to my surprise when I arrived I was given a hastily typed job profile that was much more involved than the original posting and suspiciously tailored to match my previous experience. I had a long and satisfactory interview with the manger and a person in HR and was scheduled for a callback where I would meet with the owner.

My strategy going into this interview was to primarily listen and not to talk a lot since in my mind the sale had already been made. However I didn’t get the position so my best guess is that perhaps I didn’t appear to want it enough. Hard to say because being needy and obsequious hasn’t worked in the past either. I am reminded of another lyric from that Tom Petty song:

God it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach

I try not to read too much into song lyrics. I know from first hand experience that not everything you write is autobiographical. However I can’t help think that, on the cusp of his first actual success, that the frustration he sings about in American Girl was very real.
When asked about the song Tom Petty had this to say:

“It was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It’s one of my favorites.”

It’s one of my favourites as well. Time to move on.

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