"Guys like my grandfather are no less important to civilized life than they were 50 years ago. Maybe they’re in short supply because we don’t acknowledge them the way we used to. ... That needs to change."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Somewhere in our twenties, we begin to panic about what we should do with our lives. In the past, they called this an existential crisis, and philosophers were there to guide us through it. Today, with little to nil philosophical training, without knowing how to describe this feeling, we denote it by its period: from quarter, to mid, to late-life. (And if we never gain the practical guidance we need, it becomes a pattern.)
Perhaps, because we are no longer in the age of gods and kings, and in an age of new medium, celebrities and personalities have replaced philosophers and intellectuals. Like the new medium themselves, celebrities are often glossy, larger than life, and cliché. They are not famous because of their level of insight, nor would fame give them an advantage into the insight of women and men; they are famous for being famous. They often reinforce popular opinion; why you are right to have them, and why you are right to agree with them — that the world does, in fact, revolve around you. But sometimes popular opinion makes for terrible life advice.
Dirty Jobs to Perfect Jobs
For ten years, Mike Rowe hosted a show called Dirty Jobs. The show followed the working lives of average Americans who did the "dirty" jobs many of us wished to avoid.
Rowe's path to notoriety came the opposite way of most celebrities; whereas an actor might use fame to avoid dirty jobs, Rowe's fame came by way of dirty jobs. And through this unassuming approach, Rowe became a bit of a reluctant life guru, giving practical (rather than popular), down-home life advice with a touch of humor.
Rowe's approach isn't contrarian for the sake of being different from the celebrity herd (don't try to be special, is a mantra for Rowe), but what he learned from his show was, many of the folks with "dirty" jobs were happier than those who had "dream" jobs. Known as "the good life," an observation shared by ancient Stoics in the West and Buddhists in the East. What you do is a part of the good life (is it meaningful), but so is who you are as a person (are you virtuous), and how you go about the things you do (the craft and ritual of doing).
This runs counter to many of our modern (post-romantic) notions. The dissonance isn't in the reality of ordinary people, the dissonance lies in our mental presets — our narrowed focus on what ought to make us happy closes the door to unknown, fulfilling opportunities. It defines the closed-mind.
But words are not always words, they can be vehicles for self-trickery. As with popular opinion, when we say "be open-minded," we might not mean "be open-minded," we might mean "think like me."
A Case for Carrey
Does fear drive us toward the practical or does fear drives us toward perfection? A practical person may sometimes face fear, but a perfectionist only knows fear.
Jim Carrey unveiled a giant, glow-in-the-dark painting that he had painted. (A strange celebrity juxtaposition, presenting his own work to a graduating class while giving a speech about them. But they are his captive audience.) One can't help but notice the symbolism, of a larger than life painting drawn by a man who struggles to be larger than life. (Fitting the larger narrative of a celebrity who has controversial views on medicine and science, who wants a science for himself that is better than the herd's, and thinks of individual immunity as being separate and special, and perhaps even more important than community health.)
Carrey explained how he spent thousands of hours on this painting and when he thought he was done, a friend made a comment about how it could be cooler if it had blacklight paint. So, off of one comment, Carrey did it all over again. Did he do this out of liberation or did he do this out of dissatisfaction? Is he free or is he trapped by inner criticism? The modernist's motivation: motivation through self-loathing and perfectionism as inspiration. (E.g., do this, so you don't hate yourself tomorrow; you're still not good enough, try harder; obsessed is a word the weak use to describe the dedicated.) There is this unfounded fear that we will only try harder or make improvements out of fear and hate, but that is not true, we will put in the effort and make things better if that is what we are used to doing. (The Japanese call this kaizen.)
The practical is the letting go of fears, that imperfection is not failure. (In Taoism this is known as wu-wei, in Western philosophy this is equanimity.) People fear they will never be good enough, but if the bar is perfection, they never will be.
There is a prevailing misconception that traditional wisdom is about self-taking from the universe, but in reality, most, if not all, traditional wisdom asks the opposite: What can you give the universe? Not, how can you attain greatness (the dangerous path of ego), but rather, how can you be a good person? Traditional wisdom exists to protect the health of the community. How much of our current ails come from those who are self-serving? Would society have lasted this long if the traditional message were of self-interest? Or is it more likely we are projecting our own beliefs onto the past? — to give ourselves permission to feed our egos.
In 1984, George Orwell writes of this recurring phenomena as a form of control:
And when an authority validates our overwhelming desire for more, we thank them. We mistake the feeling of inspiration and motivation as intrinsically virtuous, and it is not. Every great act of good or harm requires a spark of inspiration.
For you to be perfect, everyone else must be imperfect. That is how perfection works. For you to rise above, everyone else must fall below. We want to hear that we're special, that there's an exclusive calling for us. We don't want mere usefulness. That is not sexy, that will not bring us fame or fortune, it will be "dirty." But remember when playing in the dirt made us happy? Rather than the sterile environments of today and the manic desperation of trying to live up to who we think we ought to be — rather than the authenticity of the present moment. We are swans imagining we should be better swans. And life, like a before-and-after photo, yet after is always an illusion pulling further away from our grasps, and in that pursuit, we sacrifice the richness of today.
We live in a culture of hyper-competitiveness and hyper-achievement. We are told we are only bound by our self-imposed limits, so we are constantly under the burden of this belief that we're never doing enough, and satisfaction is for the weak. Paul Ford writes:
Feedback is not allowed, neither is criticism, only praise. According to Zadie Smith, this hyper-achievement culture is fueled by a "sociopathic illusion of [one's] own limitlessness." Perhaps nothing epitomizes this culture more than Manhattan. Smith writes:
A Case for Rowe
Mike Rowe once testified in front of Congress about changing how the country feels about work (take note of how Rowe speaks of his grandfather vs. how Carrey speaks of his father):
We can be useful in ways we wouldn't have imagined, that's open-mindedness. It's unempathetic, and sometimes it's insulting, to dismiss those who work so that the rest of us can be comfortable. This disconnect goes back to the days of aristocrats and commoners. It's how the elite piss off the working class — when they forget it takes a community to create progress. Maybe that's the lesson Mike Rowe learned from meeting pig farmers and billionaires.
A Life in Common
Walter Breuning, a railroad man from Montana, died at the age of 114. Before he died, he left the world some advice that became a viral sensation. This was a bit of a surprise to those who ran Breuning's story, since he wasn't famous, larger than life, and his words were neither fanciful, mystical nor any other cliché we're used to. People were finally in need of something different; they were thirsting for it. Trent Gilliss, an editor for On Being, writes:
Perhaps the barrier to happiness is not the inability to meet our expectations, but the expectations themselves. Why can't we live simply and simply live? But "simple" has become a "dirty" word (much in the same way "boring" has become a four-letter word). The elite and smug use "simple" as an insult; yet it often takes someone of high intellectual merit, like a philosopher, to appreciate simplicity.
There is an irony when the rich and famous flaunt the "enlightened path," yet when they find themselves at their darkest, they often flee to a poor country — to see people working with their hands, to find a common life, and happiness in the simple and ordinary. Common does not mean low-born, it means communal and community. A common life does not mean a lowly existence, a common life is the life in common.
Under the structural forces of ambition, we dismiss, devalue, and condemn those who do less "coveted" work. But when our isolated perfectionism threatens to destroy us, we mingle with the everyday, to appreciate the infinite amount of small enjoyments we normally miss out on.
We believe we are destined for something greater, but when there is destiny, there is no choice and no free-will. Yet making the wrong decision is the source of many of our woes. Clarity has been replaced with confusion and our personal philosophies, guided by celebrity wisdom and populist advice, is simply incoherent.
Perhaps in a past generation, the practical was the only advice given. Times have changed and times will continue to change. The young need to see there is a choice and telling them the opposite of what we were told by the generation before us only creates another backlash. Where is the synthesis of all the best ideas? Why did we not think this through? Perfect robots or dirty humans? Perhaps the path lies somewhere in between.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley writes of the need for imperfect humanity:
Do not get caught up in the star system: that there is only happiness when you are a star. Be open to the possibility that happiness is available to us all. W. B. Yeats writes, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It means the best are open to all possibilities while the worst are positively sure of the one answer.
Perhaps now you are more confused than ever, questioning what you once thought was institutional — but the best path of life is subjective, as long as we are satisfied, is this not enough? But you can rest assured that we do not only live once, we will live several lifetimes in just this one.
Do what makes you happy ... or be happy with what you do. However, rather than thinking you already know what happiness is, allow it to reveal itself. It may surprise you.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- "Learning from dirty jobs" - Mike Rowe, TED
- The Study of Sociology - Herbert Spencer
- Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity – Edward Slingerland
- Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work - Matthew B. Crawford
- The Case for Working with Your Hands, Or, Why Office Work Is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good - Matthew B. Crawford
- The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker - Mike Rose
- The essential book on Stoicism is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- George Orwell's 1984, considered one of the 100 best novels ever written and one of the most referenced books in history
- Aldous Huxley is considered by many as the greatest English writer of the 20th century and Brave New World possibly his greatest work
- The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats – Richard J. Finneran (Editor)
- Man's Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl
- The Road to Character – David Brooks
- Mike Rowe's work foundation
- "Jim Carrey is hit with new wrongful-death lawsuit over the suicide of his late girlfriend" – LA Times
- "Meet the 16-year-old artist illustrating your quarter-life crisis" – Vice
- "Stunning photos show the dark side of young ambition" – Business Insider
- In a Pew Research study, young people ranked fame and money as their top two priorities