A Facebook acquaintance of mine recently left her job to start her own business. It’s a wine pairing thing. She’s hosted events, posted videos, started a membership club. It’s neat to watch from afar, someone I don’t know very well – to watch her try to build something out of nothing. She posts about every occurrence, obviously able to overcome any sense of guilt she might have about flooding our newsfeeds. She pumps out videos, some garnering just a dozen or so views. She gets her name out there every which way, in random media outlets and blogs and things.
A former graduate student colleague started her own photography business. Another is a tarot card reader. A high school classmate designs prototypes – he posts every once in a while about the products they’ve inspired. I subscribe to a Youtube channel of a guy who travels and eats and pretty much talks about how he loves all the food he eats, another of a girl who rants and raves about various aspects of nerd culture. I listen weekly to a podcast from three comediennes – each with day jobs – who shoot the breeze about everything and nothing in particular.
I wonder sometimes if I could do something like that. I still harbor creative ambitions, as evinced by this blog. I wonder whether I still have time to turn things I love – writing, travel, food, movies, sports – and monetize that. I’m not sure. I feel the passage of time acutely. I feel more and more fully-formed. I empathize with the sentiment that “all the possibilities I faced and the sorts of people I could be, all of them got reduced every year to fewer and fewer.” I wonder if those possibilities still exist, or whether they ever existed for me at all.
In lieu of a more creative calling however, in these past couple of years I have managed to convince myself that the work I do contributes to the world. I hesitate to use the word “importance” (though throwing in the quotation marks might allow me to do so with the necessary degree of irony), but I have come to believe that what I have monetized contains a genuine level of substance. I have come to believe that the work I do contributes to society in some minuscule but decidedly meaningful way. Indeed, I believe I am making a difference.
Yet intertwined with this newfound self-worth is a quiet but steady judgment about the frivolity of some of these alternative pathways. Even as I admire the ingenuity, the dedication, the passion of others for instance, I cannot help but take note of the vacuousness of their work. Eating videos, wine events, wedding shoots. It all seems a waste. I’m not proud of this sentiment. I am well aware it reeks of self-importance, arrogance, and in light of the amount of pop culture I routinely consume, hypocrisy. But it is a sentiment that surfaces nonetheless.
The thought is defensive, I’m sure, to deflect from my own inability to pinpoint a passion or follow through on my creative ambition. It stems from my need to rationalize my work. I likely too have developed an intellectual snobbery acquired through many years of schooling and working in well-educated, cosmopolitan environments. Ultimately though, even as I remain envious of those brave enough to pursue unconventional pathways, even as no small part of me desires that for myself, I wonder if I simply empathize less with those privileged enough to actually do so.
Growing up after all, I watched my parents get by doing whatever they could, and in so doing, I was exposed to a world of people who survived in similar conditions. They sat at sewing machines, 12-14 hours a day for six or seven days a week. They pushed carts around in restaurants and got yelled at behind-the-scenes by colleagues 20-30 years their junior. They drove an hour across town at five in the morning to set up shop outdoors, sometimes in the rain, to sell a hundred dollars of merchandise on a good day. All work is noble, I came to believe. I still do.
But the concept of work I always envisaged was a necessary evil, in which good hard-working people garnered far too little while putting in far too much, in order to provide for their families. I never considered the possibility of the ignobility of work from the other end of the spectrum – with work that could be deemed comfortable, even luxurious. Certainly, people in those positions put in hard work too, to produce content, to build brands, to start from the ground up in many instances. But to what end? To outcomes that far too often appear ephemeral and devoid of substance?
Perhaps then my ambivalence reflects my discomfort with the society in which we live. That we put immense value on that kind of pleasurable work, and far more value than on the kind that far too many – including my parents – suffer through… it seems symptomatic of the selfishness and entitlement that characterizes the 21st century populace. Or perhaps it is far more selfish than that, and my hypocrisy is the lament of a man who recognizes with increasing clarity his personal lot, who sees alternative pathways closing, who fears of potential that will never be.
I don’t know. I need to be more open-minded. Indeed, if work builds upon the passion of the producer and brings pleasure to the consumer, then who am I to say that is not how meaning and permanence is actually derived? Who am I to say that is not what genuine happiness is about? And in being surrounded by those who have the ability and means to pursue that path, and in many ways having that choice myself, perhaps I should consider that this is what my parents worked for in the first place. What everyone strives for, rich and poor, in this world.
For now, I plug away, hoping – and believing – that what I do is “important” on some level. I have to, after all. Because while I can recognize that life is unfair, and the world is unjust, and societal values are misplaced, I don’t know that I can quite accept all of that on a personal level – with what I spend my life doing. My work is what I’m good at, and it is what I have been able to monetize. And if the result of that is something utterly inconsequential, something intellectually frivolous, then what does that say about what I contribute to the world?
(Photo by Alan D Cirker, CC BY 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)