The conflicts of life and work, like those of rest and work, would ideally be resolved in balance: enough of each. In practice, however, they probably can be resolved (if that is the word) only in tension, in a principled unwillingness to let go of either, or to sacrifice either to the other. But it is a necessary tension, the grief in both inescapable and necessary. One would like, one longs in fact, to be perfect family man and a perfect workman. And one sugars from the inevitable conflicts. But whatever one does, one is not going to be perfect at either, and it is better to suffer the imperfection of both than to gamble the total failure of one against an illusory hope of perfection in the other. The real values of art and life are perhaps best defined and felt in the tension between them.”
- Wendell Berry, Standing by Words
Nearly one-hundred years ago (and approximately thirty years before Bukowski uttered his famous statement "find what you love and let it kill you") W. Somerset Maugham wrote The Moon and The Sixpence, a controversial book loosely based on the life of the artist Paul Gauguin.
The protagonist, an English stockbroker, calmly but abruptly abandons his wife and children to pursue his lifelong dream of painting. Maugham -a far more dangerous writer than Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, or James Joyce- possessed a mild proclivity for upending civil order. He wrote a similar extremum about a soldier (Larry Darrell) who upon returning from World War I, sets out to discover a transcendental life by denunciating the conventional wisdom applied to most young men: settle down, marry, get a good job, raise a family.
We are, and likely will ever be, a society that unduly honors extremes.
We often (mistakenly) interpret underdog stories as overnight successes (a form of catachresis). We prefer our superstars red-hot and on a rocket ride from nowhere to straosphereical success, but we have little respect for the timid soul plying his craft in quiet oblivion. For every Paul Gauguin and Larry Darrell there are legions of lone individuals slogging away at some inner passion whose power resides unquenchable within their breast. Most people nurse some part-time obsession, be it art, music, crafts (the list is endless) but in some this becomes more than a mere avocation, it remains either a pulsating regret, a vapid hobby, or a ceaseless, deep abiding desire.
In a poem on the process of artistry, I attempted to express the grueling long-distance tedium that possesses most artists in private, a process the public never (or rarely) witnesses:
Poet, playwright, architect, composer, chef,
devour their oeuvre, callow to penultimate,
a parsed blindness obscures us to the sifted slog of
hidden years: sweat, blood, angst, agony, toil,
the primitive pieces placed tenuous,
bit by bit, line by line, word by word,
small tributaries of tiny tasks, woven
amid fallow, fruitful, barren wingspans.
In our culture, the lowly plow horse is no match for the thoroughbred. (After all, what is VC fundraising and start-up culture but a modern horse race)? We love stories of those who have abandoned all to accomplished their dreams but we show remarkably little deference for those around us in the process of struggling to achieve some private passion. Our fear and skepticism is near-xenophobic of those who betray the mold we’ve cast them in. When someone shatters our preconceived ideas of who they are (our characterization of who we will allow them to be), they either become an iconoclast to our prejudices, shattering our narrow stereotypes, or they seem merely foolish.
If you need proof, look no further than your own biases: note your response to the next student who tells you some outrageous life goal (they want to become an astronaut or a Hollywood actor); or, better yet, a fifty-year-old executive who expresses their life's desire (to record an album, sing in an opera). If disdainful disparagement runs across your face, imagine how your dullness tampers even the most ardent of passions in the listener. We respect success from afar but to those directly in front of us, we assail them with doubt (though largely in private, most scoffers lack the courage to express their cynicism directly to their victim). And since most of these vulnerable souls are crippled by debilitating self-doubt as it relates to their "sideline" passion, the arrow generally secures a deadly mark in the victim's dreams.
Today, the surest way to sell books on "success" is to affirm the obvious: tell people they are miserable in their jobs and that they should forsake everything (and everyone) and pursue their passion. Better yet, if you can do so and demonstrate you are a Cinderella story, you can book speaking gigs from now until the publishing rights run out. There is only one problem with this all-or-nothing solution: it sells books and speeches but it rarely works. Fact is, the odds of success in most passionate endeavors is marginal at best. This isn't pessimistic; it's realistic. It is a known fact that the majority of small businesses fail within the first few years of their existence. What is a personal pursuit of any part-time passion if not a microcosm of business? The odds are generally stacked against us in almost any worthwhile occupation.
If this sounds embittered or defensive it's only because I've done more than my share of inner searching through the years as it relates to my own passions (particularly the past few years, likely a result of blindly cornering forty). If some are born with silver spoons in their mouths, I'm afraid I was born with an existential fork lodged in my eye socket: every introspection is painful and I'm much too esoteric for my own good. But I have arrived at a few solid convictions about "achieving your dreams".
First, had someone told me that extremism would completely and utterly incapacitate my ability to pursue my dreams, I would be much further ahead in my part-time passion than where I am now. For years, I believed, as many believe, that someday I would pursue my real passion. Someday I would have the time (money, courage, ability) to achieve the fullest measure of my dreams. Dr. Roth, a character in a Jim Harrison short story provides the antidote, “The only reality you are ever going to get is the ordinary one you make for yourself. In other words, there’s no big breakthrough”. Waiting for some watershed, life-improving event? An “opportune” time? A season where it’s more “convenient”? Let me help you: it won’t mystically appear, you must call it into being, forcing it into the time-constrained, irrevocable busyness into which you currently live. The lottery windfall will not blow your way, no great Uncle will bequeath his heritage to your poor soul. You are waiting for an illusion. Harrison, in his memoir, sobers us with his cerebral but pragmatic wit:
It’s hard to step back from the incalculable messiness of life. In fact, the messiness is your life into which you hope to install a perceptible narrative line. – Jim Harrison
The verve of your messy life -deadlines, bosses, clients, familial commitments- is where your true passions play out. Not in imagined vacuity but in the interstices of life, the tiny (sometimes infinitesimal) moments available to you, the slivers of time, momentary pauses between. There are no “long weekends” or “extended vacations” long enough to fulfill your life’s passion. “Eschew the monumental”, Hemingway warns, “shun the epic”. My part-time passions have languished through the years, tarnished by years of hand-wringing over a (so-called and erroneously believed) unfulfilled life. Call it the proverbial wisdom of age but I squandered years of productive living rotting in the wasteland of regret. I am (now) a big believer in incrementalism. Bill Gates wrote, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
To wait for the opportune time to pursue your part-time passion is to eviscerate any hope of achieving your dreams. It’s akin to fratricide, for every mirror-filled moment you spend in anguish over your “other” life is wishing-as-wasting.
I know an extremely successful businessman whose part-time passion blossomed into a thriving enterprise and he still, to this day, toils in both his business and his passion because his life would ring hollow without either. He didn’t surrender to the notion that they were inner conflicts competing with each other for dominance, they became two parts of a whole, distinct but complementary. Both refine and infuse his sense of purpose. No doubt, were he to relinquish one to the other, he would have more time and energy for a singular pursuit but he would be half the man he is today.
I speak on occasion to college students and as I look in their eyes, I realize they are on two tracks: a professional quest, circumspect and strategic; and a personal journey, one in which their private passions are temporarily tucked into a small pocket in their overburdened packs. Some of them are in the process of either leaving behind or suppressing these passions to “get on with their life.” This young generation (probably unprecedented in this regard) enters the workforce with a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment than those of their predecessors and will likely not struggle as some of us have with conflicting passions but I still see it ahead for some of them, the years of one-way pursuit and dogged determinism. They are fortunate in that they enter a world where the platform for part-time passions has never been more accessible. Perhaps, rather than choosing between two divergent roads, they will simply release from their pack their paused passion, press play, and pursue their heart’s affection without malice toward their career. In so doing, they avoid becoming late-in-life carpenters of tin cathedrals: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them” (Thoreau).
As Wendell Berry warns, it is better to suffer imperfection in both (your career and your part-time passion) than to gamble the total failure of one against the other. Perhaps someday, I’ll look back on these words from some pinnacle of success within my avocation but most likely, I’ll still be immersed in a career I have learned to enjoy, with a life and responsibilities I am extremely fortunate to have, and I will smile because, though I might not have made my part-time passion my full-time vocation, I’m at least ardently pursuing and no longer keeping vigil over my “someday”.