If you grew up like I did, within reasonable travel distance of the shore, you will have probably also spent many summer days playing in the surf, building sand castles, and joyously cavorting on the beach. For a kid its all fun and games. Life at the beach is a blissful drama pursued only for its own sake: To toss a ball back and forth, to ride incoming waves, dig for clams, hunt for shells and weathered glass, and laze about in the glorious sunshine…..
These are the days of our innocence.
I remember looking up to my much older cousins. When I was a kid my family used to stay with them at the house their family owned by the shore. They let me hang around some, but I wasn’t really on my own. As a kid it is so easy to link up with others of your own age and to spontaneously create friendships that give new meaning to our meaningless activities. But my cousins were much older, and I suppose its only natural that a kid develops a bit of hero worship along the way. These guys would take actual surfboards and paddle out into the sea, stand up, and then ride some decent Jersey waves. Amazing! In a sense they were still playing a game, like us kids, but a much more serious game. A game of daring skill and measuring oneself against the forces of nature. A game of concentration and performance. An artistry and execution of craftsmanship.
Maybe it only took as much concentration and focus as an intense little kid would need building a sand castle, but the game was played with more at stake. Get the wave wrong and you can hurt yourself pretty bad. But get it right and you are standing on top of the world! For one rare moment the sea and the world are at your feet. You bestride the razor’s edge of triumph and disaster, of terror and exhilaration. You earn not only the adulation of your younger cousins, but the respect of your peers, high marks for the disapproval of your frowning do-nothing elders, and, if you are lucky, some interesting curiosity from members of the desirable gender. You are a star…. Unlike the children’s games of frolicking pointlessly in the surf, this more adult surfing thing obviously has some extrinsic benefits and external rewards….
(Cue the sound of wheels screeching and the needle being yanked off the phonograph)
Well, actually, this is not a post about my childhood at the shore. Its a post about doing something just for the fun of it versus doing something for more serious/external reasons. Its a post about taking our passions seriously….
As we grow up we get all professional about what we do. We make a living. And some of us try to make a living doing what we like to do. Artists in particular. We try to manufacture a career around an activity that we grew to love as something pursued for its own sake: Potters who love making pots, painters who love painting, singers who love singing, writers who love writing, performers who love performing…..
The problem is, we are now attempting to do something that has its own internal nonsensical reasons, but in a way that is substantially outward directed. We are trying to get paid for what we enjoy doing. In a sense we are trying to have our cake and eat it too. And sometimes this creates a conflict. Sometimes, for instance, getting paid less than we think we deserve is held as a reason for not doing this thing. We went from needing no reason at all to needing to get paid. Before we required money to do this thing we would have done it for free, for the joy of it. Once money enters the equation it sometimes overrides even the love we initially were inspired by. Doesn’t that sound strange? Sad irony, anyone?
Somewhere we stepped off the beach of our innocence and walked out into the churning surf. And if our feet can no longer touch the bottom our reckless ambitions might come back to one day haunt us. We might get swept out to sea, where it becomes something quite different from a game: It becomes a struggle for survival. Its no longer innocent fun.
Welcome to the riptide….
Being a professional in any sense means you need to have a minimum of seriousness about what you are doing. And if you are supporting a family, building sandcastles no longer cuts it. Its something you need to do well, and do well off shore. You don’t aim your efforts at a stretch of sand that the tides will soon wash away. Its not all carefree frivolity. There is too much at stake when we play the professional game. Or so it often seems….
We now have different aims, more serious goals. We have expectations. If we are good enough and lucky enough we can still ride out on the currents and paddle about safely. But it is no longer as neatly in our control. And its not all blissful la-la land. The joy is mixed with terror. We are in the current. The waters are swift and treacherous. And deep. And it sweeps us where it will. Economic downturns and fickle consumer tastes swim by us like threatening sharks just beneath the surface. And some swimmers will thrive. If they can find the means to keep themselves afloat. And the endurance. Others won’t be so lucky. The currents are littered with the worn out husks of their drowned creativity….
The question is, even if we manage to eek out a career as an artist, will this move away from the shoreline make us happier? Do we even know what we are getting into when we set out? Do we ultimately even need to feel happy about what we are doing?
Barry Schwartz has had the gall to suggest that happiness depends on having low expectations. To expect too much almost guarantees that our happiness will be thwarted. And perhaps he’s right. But perhaps also an ideal of happiness is simply wishful thinking, something that has to be moderated by other goals and life’s necessities. As the Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need”. Maybe looking for happiness is beside the point. Maybe its not what we need. Don’t we all need to grow up, lose our naivety, and buckle down?
Maybe that’s true. True, that is, until we decide that being unhappy is a problem. We can get by, put up with all sorts of discomfort…. Until we can no longer get by, until we can no longer put up with it…. If we knew in advance that we might be poisoning one of the few things we truly enjoy doing, would we be so keen to take that risk? Is it also possible that happiness can be viewed as a need? Is it something only the innocent are allowed?
So, as Barry Schwartz suggests, maybe certain of our expectations are too big. Maybe we have goals that are pulling us too far away from the shore. Sure, get a job. But as an artist? Maybe we need to keep our happiness isolated from the things we need to do to get by….
Or maybe it goes much deeper. Maybe its that we are deluded to even expect a life where we can be happy. Our cynical and jaded material existence simply doesn’t allow for our adult happiness. Believing otherwise is pure fantasy. Didn’t the Puritans warn us against these seductions? Maybe the adult need to get paid is an uncomfortable but necessary sacrifice of our innocent joy, a necessary step away from The Garden….. Is it?
Unlike our dour Protestant forbears I’m not so sure a world completely filled with unhappy people is such a good thing. But where to look for joy when it has mostly been banished from the adult world?
What about the idea of “flow”? I haven’t gotten too deeply into the Mihály Csíkszentmihályi book (I have some issues with how he defines certain terms, chooses only congenial examples, and ignores contrary and contradictory evidence), but there seems to be a kernel of useful insight. What he suggests at one point is that for an optimal experience things need to be undertaken not for any extraneous purposes but only for the sake of doing it itself. We must be absorbed in the activity without thought of its purpose or utility. Its an observation he makes of adults as well as kids. Sound familiar? He quotes a rock climbing poet in the following:
“The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it could go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. Its not moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, p.54)
And there has been plenty of research to back this up. Read the “Flow” book (Its not all bad). Here is a bit from the always excellent “You are not so smart” blog:
“The overjustification effect:
The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.
The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.
Self-perception theory says you observe your own behavior and then, after the fact, make up a story to explain it. That story is sometimes close to the truth, and sometimes it is just something nice that makes you feel better about being a person. For instance, researchers at Stanford University once divided students into two groups. One received a small cash payment for turning wooden knobs round and round for an hour. The other group received a generous payment for the same task. After the hour, a researcher asked students in each group to tell the next person after them who was about to perform the same boring task that turning knobs was fun and interesting. After that, everyone filled out a survey in which they were asked to say how they truly felt. The people paid a pittance reported the study was a blast. The people paid well reported it was awful. Subjects in both groups lied to the person after them, but the people paid well had a justification, an extrinsic reward to fall back on. The other group had no safety net, no outside justification, so they invented one inside. To keep from feeling icky, they found solace in an internal justification – they thought, “you know, it really was fun when you think about.” That’s called the insufficient justification effect, the yang to overjustification’s yin. In telling themselves the story, the only difference was the size of the reward and whether or not they felt extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. You are driven at the fundamental level in most everything you choose to do by either intrinsic or extrinsic goals.
Extrinsic motivations come from without. They are tangible baubles handed over for tangible deeds. They usually exist outside of you before you begin a task. These sorts of motivations include money, prizes and grades, or in the case of punishment, the promise of losing something you like or gaining something you do not. Extrinsic motivations are easy to quantify, and can be demonstrated in bar graphs or tallied on a calculator. You work a double shift for the overtime pay so you can make rent. You put in the hours to become a doctor hoping your father will finally deliver the praise for which you long. You say no to the cheesecake so you can fit into those pants at the Christmas party. If you can admit to yourself that the reward is the only reason you are doing what you are doing – the situps, the spreadsheet, the speed limit – it is probably extrinsic.
Whether a reward is intrinsic or extrinsic helps determine the setting of your narrative – the marketplace or the heart. As Dan Ariely writes in his book, Predictably Irrational, you tend to unconsciously evaluate your behavior and that of others in terms of social norms or market norms. Helping a friend move for free doesn’t feel the same as helping a friend move for $50. It feels wonderful to slip into the same bed with your date after getting to know them and staying up one night making key lime cupcakes and talking about the differences and similarities between Breaking Bad and The Wire, but if after all of that the other person tosses you a $100 bill and says, “Thanks, that was awesome,” you will feel crushed by the terrible weight of market norms. Payments in terms of social norms are intrinsic, and thus your narrative remains impervious to the overjustification effect. Those sorts of payments come as praise and respect, a feeling of mastery or camaraderie or love. Payments in terms of market norms are extrinsic, and your story becomes vulnerable to overjustification. Marketplace payments come as something measurable, and in turn they make your motivation measurable when before it was nebulous, up for interpretation and easy to rationalize.” (The whole post is worth reading. Really)
So, the question we must each ask ourselves is whether being happy is important, whether getting paid is important, if and how these things can be reconciled, whether our self respect and self esteem come from internal or external sources, and how to make sense of these and all sorts of other issues all at the same time.
Doesn’t it make sense to be smart about these things? Does being smart also sometimes mean letting go of our bigger goals and expectations? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Does anyone navigate the professional seas and keep their happiness intact? How? Does being smart also somehow include not being quite as calculatingly practical? Not so clinical? Keeping the small flame of our childlike innocence somehow intact? Does being pragmatic sometimes mean telling the story about ourselves that has dumbed down expectations and sometimes pursues activities for no other reason than their own intrinsic value? Or do we simply hope that we can dog paddle long enough to get us to retirement, that the riptides won’t drag us too far away from the shore….
Is making art for a living a poor business decision, not simply because of how poorly it pays, but because it slowly but inevitably puts soul destroying pressure on the joys that made us want to do it in the first place? Is this bit of human psychology the final word? All there is? Or are their strategies for reconciling the two, for circumventing artistic kill joy and despair?
Make beauty real!