Sunday, February 2, 2014

Do What You Love?

This is a slight departure from what we usually do on this blog, but it is certainly something that most musicians have to deal with. The issue is the deeply-rooted principle that in life you should do what you love and therefore love what you do. Sounds nice and unexceptionable and it is smuggled into our consciousness in a thousand ways in innumerable films, books, tv shows and self-help sessions. It is one of those unquestioned "truths" of our time.

I got thinking about this because of an essay by Miya Tokumitsu in Slate. Go read the whole thing, which is quite good. Here is a sample quote:
If DWYL denigrates or makes dangerously invisible vast swaths of labor that allow many of us to live in comfort and to do what we love, it has also caused great damage to the professions it portends to celebrate. Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia. The average Ph.D. student of the mid-2000s forwent the easy money of finance and law (now slightly less easy) to live on a meager stipend in order to pursue his passion for Norse mythology or the history of Afro-Cuban music.
The reward for answering this higher calling is an academic employment marketplace in which about 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors—contract instructors who usually receive low pay, no benefits, no office, no job security, and no long-term stake in the schools where they work.
The article does quite a good job of exposing the flaws in the so-called principle, so I would like to contribute more of a personal angle. Yes, lots of us have been fooled into pursuing something that we love at the cost of our long-term financial stability. But sometimes we have good reason for doing so. A while ago I put up a post titled "The Aesthetic Vision" in which I described the experience of being captivated/captured by, in my case, music. One difference between the way the article talks about pursuing one's vision and the reality, for me at least, is that my sense was that there would always be a certain amount of suffering involved, such as poverty or long hours of hard work or the misunderstanding of one's peers. I expected that! It seemed to me to be simply part of the deal one strikes if one is captivated by the vocation, not job, vocation, of being an artist. It can turn out to be a lot like being a Franciscan monk, but without the dental plan. It is more of a privilege to be an artist than a reward.

The problem with the article is that, while it describes the problems with simply pursuing some interest to the exclusion of economic reality, it does not describe well the situation of someone who really is captured by some kind of aesthetic vision. In other words, if you are truly some kind of artist, you may not have an entirely free choice and you may have to accept the downside as well as the upside.

Now let me describe a less extreme situation: if you do have some sort of aesthetic vision, yes, you should probably pursue it because, frankly, our extremely shallow and materialistic age probably needs more of that. But you should be prepared to discover that you don't have sufficient talent or genius. Just something to keep in mind. However, the bonus is probably that you have some talent or genius. In that case, it is entirely likely that you can have a very successful career in all sorts of different areas. As is often pointed out, real training in the arts develops all sorts of skills and abilities that are in short supply in the real world.

It's not an all or nothing world: lots of people work out interesting compromises and combinations that enable them to have useful and prosperous careers and also lives that incorporate real aesthetic goals as well.

A life is a life, it is always a lot more than just a job!

Let's end with some music by one of those people who spent a great deal of his life in a real world job, a successful executive in an insurance company, but who was also an important composer. I give you Charles Ives, "The Unanswered Question" written in 1906:

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