- (a) your upbringing
- (b) your environment
- (c) your imagination
- (d) what others think of you
- (e) I don’t want to be a product.
My answer: all of the above and especially the last.
Fred Rogers and Donald Trump. Guys-in-ties with nothing else in common. One tells you that you need only exist to be loved. The other sets all sorts of conditions. You have to move to The Big City. Be an extrovert. Work your network. Embrace a single-minded and self-absorbed worldview. And if you fail — goodbye, you’re fired.
But I want to be liked just the way I am. I don’t want to have to perform, as one expects of a product, because I am a person. I don’t deserve to be fired. Like Mitt Romney, I want the right to fire others, but not the other way around. Isn’t my being good enough?
I live in dissonance, denying the tension between my expectations of how others perform (especially when I pay for it, but even when I don’t) and what I expect of myself — or, more accurately, what I think others should expect of me. (I generally expect more of myself than what I think others should expect of me, but I’m allowed to do that.)
I am not interested in virtuosity. Except when it comes to products and services I buy, athletes and teams I follow, and those in government who serve and protect me. To name a few. But I myself am no virtuoso. I don’t strive to be the best at anything I do, because such efforts have a billion-to-one odds of success. I refuse to make the kind of personal investment that greatness requires. Well then, be the best you can be, people exhort, when one’s talents are less than world-class. But what exactly is “the best I can be” and for whom would I supposedly be that? For some invisible triumvirate of reality-show judges? What is so wrong with the way I am?
I rebel not so much against the notion of excellence but rather the idea that I am a product to be consumed and that I must compete in the marketplace. That I must have a brand rather than an identity. That not only my worthiness but my very worth is for the market to decide.
Those of us who eat meat appreciate the fact that it has been graded by the government, to indicate its fitness for consumption. If meat were not consumed, those grades would not be needed. Cows could be cows again, if you can imagine what that would be like (they can’t). That is the essence of it. I could simply be me, if I weren’t being graded and consumed. And I do try to imagine what that would be like.
• • •
I like to produce things that last, and to express thoughts that have some lasting effect. But what is expected from us is to sate the appetite of here-and-now. Such is the tyranny of our culture of consumption and its unrelenting pressure upon us to feed its gaping maw. Publish or perish. Sink or swim. Eat or be eaten. Do or die.
At this point I should stop and reassure my readers that, with respect to performance, I do believe in pay based upon services rendered and proportional to the quality thereof delivered. I am not saying mediocrity should be rewarded. Mediocrity has its place: it reminds us how good good is. But when one’s standing in the marketplace is all anyone cares about — as measured by the money we make, the house we live in, the connections we have, and all those subtle and not-so-subtle ways we are held to account by our culture of consumption — success is just a pain in the ass.
A few days ago, in a cross-table chat at our neighborhood picnic, I was asked whether I was trying to get my artwork shown in a local gallery. My answer was no, but I stumbled as I tried to explain why. It is probably because I was embarassed to admit that I don’t want to enter the competition. It’s out of my league. I would likely be rejected, because I don’t have the confidence to sell or speak for my work, regardless of its quality.
Sure, having a gallery “validate” my art by electing to display it for six weeks, that would be nice. It would be a bubbly and wonderful ego trip. But I don’t want it badly enough to pretend to be (or strive to be) something I am not. Instead, I opt to “make my own rules so that I’ll win the game,” as my quietly poetic friend Eric Maatta wrote some decades ago. I will figure out a way to produce and share my art my way, some day, without running that gauntlet of selling myself.
• • •
As I was doing research for this topic, I came across a site that echoed and distilled many of my own thoughts: a manifesto of amateurism by Anton Krueger. I am taking the liberty to reprint portions of that essay here, because links tend to be fragile these days:
The amateurist is interested in singularity, not in mass reproduction…
The amateurist manoeuvres with complete impunity towards any notions of success which might be measurable in terms of quantity…
In whichever plane the amateurist plays, he always operates with total individual freedom…
Oh to be an amateurist! To produce things that last vs. things designed to please the mass appetite: that indeed would feel like freedom. If I only produced those kind of things.
• • •
When I was sixteen and about to consider colleges and careers, I argued with my parents about what I would do for a living. I had been enamored with the syndicate columnist Sydney J. Harris and the idea of writing a newspaper column of such erudition and wit as he so often expressed. In my naivety, I presumed that the way to become a columnist was to first become a journalist, and so I told my parents that I wanted to major in journalism.
My mom and dad, who offered to pay for my college education, would have none of that. Journalists don’t make money. We are not going to pay for you to become a “two-penny journalist,” they said. If you want us to pay for college, you will be a chemical engineer — chemical engineers are in demand, they said. (This was 1969, four years before the OPEC oil crisis forced the closing of a large number of U.S. petrochemical plants.)
I acquiesced. I was seventeen and could have done something different, but I didn’t. Instead I did chemical engineering for thirty years. Could have stepped away any time, but I didn’t.
• • •
I have wittingly and otherwise emulated Sydney J. Harris on this blog, especially with respect to his “Thoughts at Large” columns. My current hero-of-letters, however, is Christopher Hitchens. For me, he is beyond emulation. In fact, I am so awed by his talent that it can intimidate me from writing, as neither my experiences nor my command of the language compare to his. Krueger drives this point home in his manifesto:
The crime of specialisation is that it inhibits and prevents people from acting, because if only some can be masters, then the rest must become audience…
Professionalism thrives on expanding a passive audience…so professionalism can inhibit personal creative expression by threatening the would-be amateurist’s confidence and enthusiasm…
As an amateurist, I do have to work to maintain enthusiasm and go forward. As I remind myself, Hitchens could not write this blog (even if he were alive), only I can. After all I am unique (if not special). I am the 100 Billionth Person. No cow can say that.
• • •
Our culture of consumption wastes the creative energies of talented people. It distorts our values and changes the kinds of things we would otherwise produce. We need to recognize and support those who respect quality but choose not to be consumed. And we need to preserve the distinction between worthiness (suitability for a particular task) and worth. Mister Rogers may have been a mediocre puppeteer but he knew what he was worth and what we are worth. He told us we were special. I would so like to believe him.