The Adult World

Friday, May 19, 2006
Try this experiment. Ask a kid or young person what they want to do when they grow up. Pick them when they're old enough to have some idea of what they're talking about but still young enough so as not to be cynical. I've tried this many times, and the answers are always "pro football player", "pro basketball player", "actress", "artist", "writer", "musician". Yet, here's a funny thing. In a fairly long life with literally thousands of friends and acquaintances, I don't know a single one who really makes a living from being any of these alleged professions. (I can think of one who barely scrapes by.) I never hear the children say they want to be a "plumber", "coal miner", "letter carrier", "bus driver", "nurse", "engineer", "businessman", "house builder", "accountant", "exotic dancer" or indeed any of the thousands of other real jobs that real people do.

Which leads to mucho human unhappiness. For when graduation comes and reality hits we have a whole lot of folks out there who don't have permission deep down to do what they're doing to make a living, who don't really believe in themselves or their work. Who are just bearing life's loads instead of joyously exhilirating in this wonderful world. Or who hate themselves for what they are. Or, perhaps worse, who are stuck in jobs they hate or which don't bring them the rewards they deserve because they are convinced that "It's important, damn it!—to be a starving musician waiting tables.

But wait, it's worse. Turn on any interview show and observe the people interviewed: actress, writer, director, artist. Never coal miner, plumber, nurse, or developer. Even on the supposedly high-brow NPR (Terry Gross anyone?). Somehow I can't remember a single interview she has done with a bricklayer, accountant, or saleswoman. And the NYT devotes pages to the output of yet another photographer, none to a hard-working electrician who makes sure your lights come on in the morning.

The problem permeates our society. Here's another example. Go to flickr and poke around. You'll discover some great pictures, but you'll also discover scads upon scads of pictures working very very hard to be "artistic". They're dark, have weird shapes or effects, passed through strange filters. It's not that these people can't take good pictures, it's not that these people aren't creative, it's not even that these pictures aren't good; it's that they're so obsessed with being "artists"—it's clear that their lives will be utterly devoid of meaning otherwise—that they make it worse, they make it ugly, they miss the point. What they don't see is that ultimately we're all artists on the canvas of life.

When trying to understand the genesis of this phenomenon with respect to my own kids, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I thought about what the jobs that are out there are, from their point of view. There are maybe 20 or 30 engineering jobs—friends of the parents—and a smattering of maybe 5 or 10 jobs for plumbers, heating experts, handymen and the like who occasionally make the rounds. A few people mow lawns for a living—usually Mexicans in these parts. Then there are hundreds of jobs for actors, actresses, several hundred professional baseball players, hundreds of famous actors, hundreds of fabulously wealthy musicians, a hundred rich and powerful politicians in the Senate alone—you see them 24/7 on all the channels. Given these choices, isn't it obvious? Because on the one hand you have only a few jobs which a) don't pay all they well, b) are mundane, c) don't make you famous, and on the other hand you have many many jobs which have it all. What's to choose?

But can't we expect just a wee bit more sense from our Peabody Award-winning adults?

14 comments:

Buddy Larsen said...

To be 20 yrs old and have it dawn that you need to select a life, is such a profound shock that many of us--well, some of us....welll a few of us--are still, going on the biblical forty years in the wilderness later, still "stuck" in that frame of trying to Grow Up.

Buddy Larsen said...

When that old fool in the mirror looks back at you, he better be smiling. Any other expression will be strongly disconcerting!

Knucklehead said...

MHA,

We live in a world of dreams and yutes are the biggest dreamers of all. Few people set out in life to be "ordinary". The people that children see every day - the masons, plumbers, salesmen, and such - are "ordinary".

Slowly but surely the yutes start to realize they can't sing, or dance, or play a sport or an instrument or whatever well enough to make a living. This reality tends to sink in before they actually understand that they will someday need to make a living.

Purely anecdotal, but both my brats are musical enough that they could almost certainly make a "living" with "music". Over the years they've had a reasonable amount of exposure to musicians including professionals. Back when I would ask them the "whattaya wanna be" questions they never answered with any variation of "musician". I got curious and asked why they didn't consider becoming musicians.

Their thinking (perhaps seeded by Mom) went pretty much... to make a living as a "musician" requires that one be an extraordinary musician. Extraordinary musicians are generally very wierd. They didn't want to be wierd. If one was not an extraordinary musician then making a living as a "musician" means teaching music.

"Well, what's wrong with teaching music? That's an honorable way to make a living."

"Dad! You were here, and heard, when we started out. You've been to the recitals. You've sat there for enough of the lessons. And you know that very few of the kids who set out to learn how to play ever actually do learn how to play. It sounds horrible!. I don't want to make a living listening to that."

Pastorius said...

Meaningless Hot Air,

This is a great post. I have given much thought to this subject in my lifetime. Primarily, because I held on to the dream of being a rock star until I was thirty years old.

My band and music were even liked by pretty high-up figures in the record biz. I had a CD out which was favorably reviewed in the LA Times, among other papers, and I got a small amount of radio play.

So, it wasn't completely unreasonable of me to go the path I did.

However, when I look back at it now (I am in my early-40's) I realize that I sabotaged my career. I was repeatedly rude, arrogant, and obnoxious to people who wanted to help me.

Why did I act like this?

Well, the truth is, I wanted to get married and settle down. I had friends who were in major bands on the road for much of the year, every year. They would call me from the tour bus, miserable.

In my heart, I knew that I didn't want to live like that, but still the dream of being a rock star died a very long, slow, death.

When I finally quit my band at 30, I got married and set to work writing a novel (I had always wanted to be a writer, if I couldn't be a rock star), and when I was finished with that, I realized it sucked, so I went back to college to study Literature, so that I would be forced to read all the great literature of Western Civ. and I did read much of it.

But, of course, the day came when my wife and I had kids, and I had to face the fact that I had to start making considerably more money than I ever had before.

I had always supported myself as a salesman, so I got a job in a Fortune 500 company as a Sales Exec, and I started to make huge money.

BUT, it was a great shock to my system to suddenly be thrown into a work environment where no one seemed to have any dreams outside of just getting by and going home to watch TV in the evening. Once again, I found myself being rude, arrogant and obnoxious to the people around me. I hated the people I worked with, and I hated my job.

Now, I'll jump forward a few years in my story. An old band member friend of mine called me and gave me the news that he was working in a major studio in Hollywood. His job, he said, was to take care of the equipment, etc.

He and I mused about how it was appropriate that that was the job he ended up doing because, although he was the drummer, taking care of the equipment was the second function he had carried out in our band.

Then, we started thinking about all the guys who we had had in our band over the years. The guy who used to help us solve all our personal disagreements had become a counselor. The guy who only played bass and smoked pot became a professional musician. I was the guy who got us all the gigs and handled the press, etc. and later I had gone into advertising as a Account Exectutive which means I ended up doing everything for my advertising business that I had done for the band.

That day was fateful for me because I realized that I had ended up doing exactly what I was good at.

And now, of course, as a blogger, I get to pretend that I am a writer as well.

:)

All's well that ends not half-bad.

terrye said...

Buddy: Hello!!!!

terrye said...

MHA:

I do not rememer a time when I was not disappointed in myself. I could a been a contender.

It is strange because some of the people I respect the most, like my own father, were not famous or rich or anyone special to anyone but me. But I should have been more, done more accomplished more.

But then again, I have spent enough time with dying people to know that in the end what matters is whether or not people feel that their lives were not wasted. There is a lot to be said for being useful, for feeling that life has meaning.

But truth is there can only be so many Oprahs.

Knucklehead said...

But truth is there can only be so many Oprahs.

I am rethinking my position as an agnotic. Perhaps there really is a God and She is Good.

Buddy Larsen said...

Terrye--back atcha -- loved your post--

Knuck, if I were you, i'd stay an agnotic; you're unique, there's not another'n in the World!

(hey, my word verification is "vugmi" -- instant karma for needlin Knuck)

Syl said...

Knuck

It sounds horrible!

LOL!!!!!!!

Pastorius

Loved your life story.

Pastorius said...

Syl,
Sorry if it was too long. I guess I got carried away.

Buddy Larsen said...

It wasn't too long. Great compression, matter of fact.

Pastorius said...

Thanks Buddy. One of the problems with being a guy who wanted to be a rock star til he was thirty is you tend to think you're more fascinating than you really are.

I have to fight a constant battle against my inclination hog attention.

Syl said...

Pastorius

It wasn't too long! As I said I loved it. I think it's better to have had an ambition and lost, then never to have had one at all.

Buddy Larsen said...

If only one can like oneself, then life's not-so-great outcomes are just part of what made a fortunate being. My own 20s were so freaked-out manic--if any of those wild ideas had taken wing, Lord only knows what a mess I've made by now.
:-\