Rowe v. Carrey: A Case for the Good Life

(Via Pixabay)

(Via Pixabay)

"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

In the tradition of the inspirational, Great Man, life advice we have come to know and expect, actor and comedian Jim Carrey delivers a commencement speech at the Maharishi University of Management:

So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it. I’m saying, I’m the proof that you can ask the universe for it — please! And if it doesn’t happen for you right away, it’s only because the universe is so busy fulfilling my order. It’s party size!

My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12-years-old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive.

I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love. ...

My father used to brag that I wasn’t a ham — I was the whole pig. And he treated my talent as if it was his second chance. When I was about 28, after a decade as a professional comedian, I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. ...

Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory. ...

Like many of you, I was concerned about going out in the world and doing something bigger than myself, until someone smarter than myself made me realize that there is nothing bigger than myself! ...

So I just want you to relax — that’s my job — relax and dream up a good life! I had a substitute teacher from Ireland in the second grade that told my class during morning prayer that when she wants something, anything at all, she prays for it and promises something in return and she always gets it. I’m sitting at the back of the classroom, thinking that my family can’t afford a bike, so I went home, and I prayed for one and promised I would recite the rosary every night in exchange. Broke it —broke that promise.

Two weeks later, I got home from school to find a brand new Mustang bike with a banana seat and easy rider handlebars — from fool to cool! My family informed me that I had won the bike in a raffle that a friend of mine had entered my name in, without my knowledge. That type of thing has been happening ever since, and as far as I can tell, it’s just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it while letting go of how it might come to pass. ...

Take a chance on faith — not religion, but faith. Not hope, but faith. I don’t believe in hope. Hope is a beggar. Hope walks through the fire. Faith leaps over it.

You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world, and after you walk through those doors today, you will only ever have two choices: love or fear. Choose love, and don’t ever let fear turn you against your playful heart.
(Jim Carrey next to the giant, glow-in-the-dark painting he unveiled for the Maharishi University of Management)

(Jim Carrey next to the giant, glow-in-the-dark painting he unveiled for the Maharishi University of Management)

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:

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

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:

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing.

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:

Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next. I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

A Case for Rowe

(Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs)

(Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs)

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):

I’m here today because of my grandfather.

His name was Carl Knobel, and he made his living in Baltimore as a master electrician. He was also a plumber, a mechanic, a mason, and a carpenter. Everyone knew him as a jack-of-all-trades. I knew him as a magician.

For most of his life, my grandfather woke up clean and came home dirty. In between, he accomplished things that were nothing short of miraculous. Some days he might re-shingle a roof. Or rebuild a motor. Or maybe run electricity out to our barn. He helped build the church I went to as a kid, and the farmhouse my brothers and I grew up in. He could fix or build anything, but to my knowledge, he never once read the directions. He just knew how stuff worked.

I remember one Saturday morning when I was twelve. I flushed the toilet, in the same way, I always had. The toilet, however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then, everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.

Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join he and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.

By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset, we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.

Thirty years later in San Francisco when my toilet blew up again. This time, I didn’t participate in the repair process. I just called my landlord, left a check on the kitchen counter, and went to work. When I got home, the mess was cleaned up, and the problem was solved. As for the actual plumber who did the work, I never even met him.

It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.

At this point, my grandfather was well into his 80s, and after a long visit with him one weekend, I decided to do a TV show in his honor. Today, ‘Dirty Jobs’ is still on the air, and I am here before this committee, hoping to say something useful. ...

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of ‘higher education’ to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled ‘alternative.’ Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of ‘shovel ready’ jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber — if you can find one — is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.

I came here today because 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. We leave our check on the kitchen counter and hope the work gets done. That needs to change. ...

The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.

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:

The value of work and how we work and how we become civic beings is embedded in this concept of everyday living. I ask myself, ‘Why did so many people love the story about the oldest living man from Montana who just recently died?’ I don’t think that it was just about longevity, but that he was a railroad man who had practical advice and obvious wisdom. He distilled the complexity of life into practical advice that I believe he formed by working the lines and the farms. I think all of us long to know more about people like that, the quiescent majority.

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:

‘I’d rather be myself,’ he said. ‘Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.’

False Stars

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):