Admitting Inadequacies Is Manly

Cameron Conaway recounts watching his students reason through Death of a Salesman, the American Dream, and admitting one’s weaknesses.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a mandatory read in the freshman college literature course I teach. Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement and a general dissatisfaction with America, our discussion about the play this semester extended far beyond the play and into the different, deep, and enlightening. For a quick Death of a Salesman synopsis check out what SparkNotes has to say here.

Here are a few rehashed discussions from students between the ages of 18 and 57:

“The America Dream is antiquated,” one student said. “Seriously, it’s built upon this foundation that hard work is all that matters.”

“What else matters?” I asked.

“Luck matters. Perhaps more than anything else.”

“Can you elaborate a bit?”

“Two people can work just as hard and be just as skilled, but put them in different areas or even eras and their situations will be entirely different. That’s pure luck. My father worked on the railroad his entire life, and he barely got by. He worked 16-hour days for nearly 40 years. Nobody worked harder or more consistently than that man, yet he didn’t have much to show for it—not even enough for his two kids to go to college. Then you have a person born beautiful, who did nothing at all to achieve success, and after a few photoshoots they have enough money to put the next five generations of their family through Harvard.”

Me: “I must say that I agree with you. Hard work certainly can help, but it’s generally those who work hard and have loads of good luck that truly succeed by today’s standards. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in his book Outliers. Luck is at least or maybe even more important than work ethic and talent.”

“And motive matters less than people think,” another student said.

“What about the motive?” I asked.

“Well, look at the woman who just won the Nobel Peace Prize [Leymah Gbowee]. She was featured in this amazing documentary called Pray the Devil Back to Hell, yet even with her motives and her relentless efforts to better the world, she won’t get a fraction of the exposure as Octomom. When I speak of this, people think I am complaining. I’m not. I’m just pointing out some unfortunate truths.”

Another student called The American Dream “propaganda” and highlighted George Carlin’s quote: “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The student went on to say:

“I think for some people it still has merit, but there is this sort of widespread belief that if you are poor or if you can’t afford health insurance or even if you have to use government assistance, that it’s because you are lazy. In some cases, sure, but for the most part I think it’s because people were born into certain circumstances, and they are products of certain environments or situations. The opposite is true as well. Some of the people our country views as the most “inspiring” were those who started with a great deck of cards and had loads of help along the way. I think the person who started with crap and rose to mediocrity is more inspiring than a person who was born into greatness and became great.”

A female student said, “In Death of a Salesman there was this inability to recognize inadequacies. What’s wrong with admitting that you’re not good at something?”

“Male culture,” a male student responded. “Guys can’t say they aren’t good at something. It’s like you have to keep face and act like everything is going great. That, or else you blame shortcomings on something or someone else.”

“Don’t you think woman have to deal with this same issue?”

“I’m sure they do, but I’m speaking from a man’s perspective. It’s not accepted to say that you suck at something or that you failed. And when times are tough and you can’t find a job or you can’t provide for your family there’s this intense pressure that comes not only from inside but even from other guys. You can’t show your struggle. Weakness is not supported … more like capitalized on. There’s this male guilt trap. If you open up to your guy friends, sometimes you get hurt or most times you aren’t looked up to anymore. On the other hand, if you fake it all you’re still hurting inside. Either way you’re hurting. Then you feel guilty for not making either decision. Then you feel guilty because you’re a man and you’re supposed to be able to provide and succeed. I don’t know, I can see that pressure mounting to the point where a man doesn’t feel like he is worth anything anymore—even when they have a loyal and loving wife like Linda Loman.”

The female student responded, “I see. I don’t know, I think recognizing and admitting inadequacies is manly. It shows you understand yourself and can even move on. I definitely see your point about craving approval from those outside of your partner. Sometimes that support, in its consistency, can become numb. Biff’s quote, ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been,’ can apply to so many characters in this play and to so many people even today in 2011. Maybe Willy Loman was actually cut out to be something else but was too set in his ways to discover it? Is that society’s fault or his or both?”

—Photo by Stephen Sheffield

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Yes.

  2. Appreciate this post.

  3. The Bad Man says:

    I admit that I have no desire to live up to the unreasonable expectations of others who attempt to define what is manly.

    Isn’t there enough media saturation of men’s inadequacies? AKA misandry.

  4. I simply wouldn’t use the word “manly” to describe these things. I think that admitting one’s inadequacies & failures is tantamount to being a responsible adult, woman or man. I see it with my daughter and her cousins, a child is fearful of admitting fault… I remember feeling that way myself, always someone or something else to blame, as long as its wasn’t me. After getting out of my last relationship, a quite abusive one, I realized that I had always shifted blame to/from myself, never wanting to correctly admit responsibility. That was my epiphany regarding adulthood, realizing that we all need to take responsibility for our inadequacies & failures, not just our talents and victories. I had finally allowed myself to not be ashamed of admitting defeat… None of us are perfect! None of us are the best at everything & none of us win all the time! Admitting you are not the best at something, that you have failed, is the first step to becoming good at something, to discovering true potential. It allows you to refocus your energy on what you are good at. I dont give excuses anymore, they solve nothing! Now, I give solutions, even to my own failures! Admitting to ones inadequacies is just living up to ones responsibilities!

  5. If admitting one’ s inadequacies is manly then what are women expected to do? Never admit their failings?

    Surely character traits/behaviours do not need to be linked to masculinity or femininity?

    I love Death of A Salesman but was it about ‘masculinity’ or America? I don’t know.

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