Tag Archives: jk rowling

Coming Out of The Dark Ages

Growing up, I was surrounded by a lowbrow smorgasbord of R.L. Stine, Salute Your Shorts, and Mortal Kombat.  Instead of reading Chaucer, I double-fisted Goosebumps and the Babysitter’s Club.  I Chose My Own Adventure and got diphtheria on the Oregon Trail.  I listened to explicit rap.  And though critics may feign horror at my culturally-deficient childhood full of commercial drivel, I thoroughly enjoyed not being a hoity-toity opera kid.  (Plus, as a member of the cultural underclass, I was always able to make fun of the highbrows and their pretentious madras pants.)

I mention this background only because I’m about to double back faster than Joe Barton not apologizing for apologizing for apologizing (yes, you read that right).  Now, as a slightly-more cultured adult, I’m concerned that true art is dead.  In my view, we’re suffering from an ugly, modern-day Dark Ages (or perhaps, Twilight Ages?): hundreds of years later, historians will look back on this era, from the neon parachute pants of the ’80s to the plasticized “real” housewives of today, and they’ll think, “Jeez. What was in the water back then?”

You might not agree with me, but let’s take a look at this era in music, literature, and the arts.  In music, Michael Jackson is the singular ray of enlightenment.  He doesn’t have the same feel-good story as deaf Mozart or orphaned Bach, but his legend is still comparable.  Fine, I’ll give you MJ.  Let’s move onto literature, where we’ve failed to produce any seminal work outside of wizards and vampires in the last 20 years.  Outside of those two series, I can’t think of any book that has garnered attention as an “instant literary classic.”  (Maybe James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, but that only comes to mind because of the Oprah shakedown.)  And finally, I am hard-pressed to name a contemporary artist today who works outside of TV or film.  Maybe this is ignorance, but I’m guessing that we’ll never see the likes of another famous Picasso or Warhol in our future, tech-centered world.  After all, why spend years painting some masterpiece when you can just Photoshop?

So what are the implications of this?  Well, I’m worried that kids won’t be able to write sentences longer than 140 characters.  I’m afraid that genuine laughter at the theater will soon be replaced by muttering “LOL.”  And I’m terrified that Snooki is a household name.

But then again, my fun-killing crossover self is probably just resisting the inevitable change in our definition of art.  Perhaps hundreds of years later, we’ll have redefined  “highbrow culture” to comprise of scatalogical humor and excessive hair spray.  Maybe then we’ll recognize the Twi-Hards as a social and literary movement akin to the Beats.

But I hope not.  Because as a card-carrying member of the current cultural underclass, I still reserve my right to make fun of the hoity highbrows.  And I won’t be able to do that if I’m one of them.

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Always Doing What is “Practical” = Boring

Many people like to give job advice along the lines of being “practical.” Choose a major in college that is “practical”. Do internships and pursue work in industries that are “practical.” Being practical often refers to majoring in a field that will get you a job. It’s taking a job that will pay you well and get you further along some sort of practical career path to success. It’s the road most traveled.

The benchmark of practicality is often related to salary, job security, and chance for some kind of success. Acting and writing is not practical. Banking and marketing is. Unpaid work is not practical unless you’re trying to better position yourself for business school, law school, or med school. Practical jobs are steady, pay well, and will lead to other well-paying, steady jobs. The impractical jobs are risky.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing to be practical. But when is being “practical” just another synonym for being “safe”? After all, success does not always come from practicality. Dropping out of Harvard was probably not a safe move, but it worked out well for Bill Gates, Matt Damon, and Mark Zuckerberg. Quitting a stable job to write a novel worked out for JK Rowling. Will Smith turned down MIT to launch his singing and acting career.

Then again, our practical side reminds us that there are just as many (if not more) failed writers, singers, and Harvard dropouts who faded into oblivion by forsaking a more judicious, traditional path. A few years ago, I was at the UPS store in Cambridge when the guy packing my boxes mentioned he had gone to Harvard. He had been a chess champion, dropped out to pursue a career in chess, but failed to make it on the international circuit. Now he was working at UPS to support himself, while writing a book on chess and his travels.

There was a part of me that thought, “Wow, this guy went to Harvard and is now working at UPS and packing my boxes… what a failure.” But as he cheerily stuffed bubble wrap inside my boxes, the UPS guy told me about his travels around Europe, a chess match he had in the Soviet Union, and his hope that his writing would eventually land him a book deal. His life experience sounded far more interesting than anyone I know who had taken the boring old, “safe” route.

I’m not sure I could do what the UPS guy did and shove aside all thoughts of practicality: I think that our perception of success is still too easily determined by job titles and salaries and risk aversion. But there is financial success and professional/personal success, and perhaps we too often focus on the former. So, if we can get around the inclination to link what is practical to some narrow definition of success, then maybe taking the road less traveled won’t seem so risky after all.

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Chasing the Dream, Quitting Your Job

Following up on an old post, “Why Young People Hate Their Jobs”, the recruiting firm Experience Inc. recently published a study which reported that 70% of college grads leave their first job within two years. The Experience survey, however, also reported that young people aren’t leaving their jobs because they’re unhappy, but simply because they’re not in the career they “expected” to be in.

So, we’re happy… but we still want to quit our jobs.

It sounds like an illogical argument, but it makes sense. People like to say that your career finds you; that deep down, you know what you’re meant to do. Warren Buffett knew he was meant to invest. Bill Gates knew he had a budding idea in Microsoft. JK Rowling knew she could bring to life a character named Harry Potter. But not all of us are Buffetts, Gates, and Rowlings–we may not all be confident that we can revolutionize PCs or make billions in the stock market. We may have to find our own career, and deep down, it may not come to us naturally. What if Buffett had chosen to become a professor instead? What if Gates settled for doing IT support? What if Rowling had stayed at her job at Amnesty International? None of us want to shortchange ourselves by settling for a job that doesn’t meet our high expectations… even if we are happy.

So, yes, I am happy with my current job. But I’ve been thinking about what I want to do, and I’m not convinced that I’m going to stay in my current role after two years. One plan I have is to go to business school and develop a start-up. Another plan is to work within the public sector, focusing on education. A third plan is to quit my job, live on the beach, get a Costco membership (those free food samples serving as my daily meal), and become a writer. Three rather different paths… and for me, each one is intriguing in its own way.

I suppose the downfall is that we have all these grandiose plans and ambitious visions, but at what point do we give up and settle down? It may be wrong to discourage dream-chasing, but sometimes you have to tell those poor kids on American Idol that, no, they can’t sing. Ambition is tricky–it can help us do great things, or it can unwittingly remove us from positions where we could excel, in pursuit of positions in which we cannot.  As much as I’d like to think I could pull an Orwell and write great prose amongst the lowlifes in Paris, I don’t think I’m ready yet to trade in my corporate job for a cardboard house and a pen.

Still… chances that I’ll accomplish either plan #1 or 2? I think 70% is fair.

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