Month: July 2014

Dear Kids, It’s Okay To Not Be Different

Have you seen this article? I’m not sure how popular it is, or if it has been circulated widely enough to be deemed “viral.” I’ve seen it attached to a few irate Facebook statuses. Though, while I’m sure there are some who agreed with the article, I can’t say I saw anyone defending it. There is a good reason for this—the article is sloppily written and blatantly offensive to women and mothers everywhere, a point which the author of the article acknowledges and defends. According to her, she intentionally used provocative language “to start a conversation” (read: to get more views courtesy of the article’s sheer absurdity.)

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Whether or not it had the intended effect, I know not.  Whether or not it is wise, or helpful, or truly productive to make sweeping, offensive claims merely to get people talking, I know not. That is a question for another day.

I mention all this only to clarify that this is not a “response” article—not in the sense that this is a serious discussion and I am responding to her claims as serious claims. I do not attempt to debunk her arguments, not simply because I don’t take them seriously, but because the author herself doesn’t take them seriously. I’m not going to waste my time debunking an argument that even the arguer knows is unfounded.

I am, however, responding to one underlying assumption of the abominable article, an assumption made far too often and accepted far too universally for my comfort.

Referring to mothers, the author states:

“They are the most common thing, ever, in the history of the world……You will never have the time, energy, freedom or mobility to be exceptional if you have a husband and kids.”

Now, most of the responses I have seen address these statements head on, debating whether or not motherhood affords one the time, energy, freedom, or mobility to be exceptional. I am not going to argue about how much time, energy, or freedom motherhood affords. Likewise, I am not arguing whether or not motherhood is a historically common occupation (it is).

Rather, I am addressing the assumed position of the author that “exceptionality” is inherently desirable.

Before we move on, let’s define out terms. While we tend to use the word exceptional interchangeably with words like “great,” “exquisite,” or anything to the effect of “really, really good,” that isn’t what it means. Despite the modern colloquial usage, to be “exceptional” is simply to be an exception—to be different, in some respect, than others.

And being different from everyone else in some respect is not necessarily better than being the same as them.

 

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^Although that yellow umbrella is pretty sweet^

To be sure, it is entirely possible to become so good at something that you become an exception. Experts, connoisseurs, professionals are very often exceptions in their respective fields due to their level of knowledge or skill. But there is a significant difference between being exceptionally good at something and simply being exceptional at it.

To be an exceptionally good dancer you must be so much better than every other dancer that you become an exception. To be an exceptional dancer, you need only to dance differently than every one else. It is possible to be both exceptional and bad at dancing. Trust me.

Anyone can be exceptional. Live on Twizzlers and cream cheese and you’ll be exceptional. Stop showering and you’ll be exceptional. In fact, everyone is exceptional. Ironically, given that no two people are exactly alike, to be exceptional is the most common thing in the world.

My point is that “exceptionality” is no substitute for value.

This may seem like a trivial point, but it is one worth making. Why? Because today’s society worships the notion of being “different” and “unique” and “exceptional.” No one likes to be “typical”, and we go to great lengths to prove that were are not.

 

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I, like so many others, grew up in a world that constantly reminded me that being different is not bad, that we should appreciate the variations within humanity, that we are all unique and that’s a good thing, yada yada yada. No argument there; to be different is not inherently bad.

But the glorification of the unique is no less superficial or asinine than the worship of conformity.

It is as though we realized the stupidity of conformity for the sake of conformity and replaced it with the equally silly pursuit of nonconformity for the sake of nonconformity.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that it is as good to be different as it is to be good.  Artists, writers, fashionistas; there is no need to pursue greatness in your field, for you have only to be different, unique, exceptional.

 

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^Lady Gaga is certainly exceptional^

Unfortunately, applauding something for the simple fact that it is different is just as silly as criticizing it simply because it is different.

Regarding the original article, the popularity of marriage and childbearing does not diminish its value. In fact, it seems far more reasonable to conclude from its popularity that it is highly desirable, rather than shallow or un-valuable. (Let me be very clear; I am not saying that motherhood is valuable because it is common, but that it may be common because it is valuable.)

You may point out that doing things in new ways can be refreshing, and can lead to real progress, and I would agree with you. Changing things up, employing new approaches often leads to innovation and progress, developments with true and tangible value. But these differences are not valuable merely because they are different. If that were the case, any change would be an improvement, and that is simply not true.

That we are all individuals with various eccentricities, differences, unique qualities is a fact—one that adds to the beauty of the great tapestry that is the human race. That we are all humans with many similarities is also a fact—one of which we ought not be ashamed.

 

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There is no shame in falling in line with the rest of humanity. It may take some humility to admit this, but, given the many similarities humans have with each other, what is good for the rest of humanity is very often good for us.

We spend a lot of time consoling children, letting them know that they shouldn’t be afraid of being different. I think it is high time we started reminding them that they should not be afraid of being the same.

If You Haven’t Worked a Day in Your Life, You Probably Don’t Love Anything

You’ve heard it before, the beloved aphorism from the ever-intriguing Confucius;

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

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I’ve also heard it attributed to Albert Einstein, but the internet tells me that Confucius coined it, so we’ll go with that. Regardless, you’ve probably seen it in the form of a meme, pinned a thousand times on Pinterest, shared on Facebook, tweeted on twitter, etc…

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 ^stuff like this^

I understand why the quote is so popular. There is something inspiring, something hopeful about it. It is just poetic enough to sound reasonable, just vague enough to withstand any serious scrutiny.

The only problem, of course, is that it is almost entirely false.

If the phrase was not so oft-quoted, if I did not think it influenced people’s decisions, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But from where I stand, this Confucian concept is ubiquitous in today’s culture. And it’s a problem.

Case in point: a recent study from Brookings found that 64% of Millennials would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 at a job they found boring. Now, it isn’t the response that worries me. I would take a lower paying job that I loved over a high-paying boring job any day.

The problem is that this job, the one you love, probably doesn’t exist. And if you make it your primary goal to find a job that you love, you will be unemployed for a very long time.

Before everyone freaks out, lets make a distinction; loving your job is not the same as loving its end. Just because you are passionate about your children’s well-being doesn’t mean you love changing their diapers. And yet, most people would agree that a clean diaper is essential to a child’s well-being. No parent who loves his child allows him to stew in his own feces for too long. And any parent who says he loves wiping poop out of all the crevices of his squirmy, crying infant at 4 in the morning is a liar.

Here’s the thing: All of these “passions” (or vocations, or loves, or whatever you’d like to call them) involve metaphorical diaper changing—actions that we don’t love doing in and of themselves but are willing to do for the sake of something we do love. In fact, many of them involve doing things we hate—things we wouldn’t do but for the sake of the thing we love. Some are less challenging than others, some involve less fecal matter than others, but they all require the doing of boring, mundane, frustrating, tedious tasks. All of them require sacrifice.

Cooking requires chopping, and measuring, and waiting for the stove to heat up, and standing around, and sweating in a hot kitchen. To be great at cooking requires research, persistence, trial and error, failure. A devoted chef will accept failure as a stepping stone on his path to success, but he doesn’t love it in and of itself. If he did, he would be just as content to continue failing as he is to succeed. He loves producing delicious food and is willing to chop onions, sweat, try and fail in order to do so.

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Which brings me to my next point: Not only do all of the things we love require the doing of work we don’t love, the things we love often require more work than things we don’t.

When you are passionate about something, you hold yourself to a higher standard than if you simply like it. If you like writing then you will write, and as long as what you write generally communicates what you intend to say, you will be content. If you love writing, you will strive to perfect what you write, to say what you mean to say in the best possible way. Striving for perfection requires more work than settling for mediocrity. As such, if you are passionate about something you will likely do far more work for its cause than if you aren’t.

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life?

I doubt it.

Find something that you truly love, and you will likely work for it relentlessly.

Now the obvious response to my claims is that I am incorrectly interpreting the aphorism—that Confucius did not mean that a life spent in pursuit of one’s passion is a life without work. Rather, he meant that when you are passionate about something, the work you do for it feels less like work. The quote ought to be interpreted as such: “If you find a pursuit for which you are truly passionate, you won’t ever feel like you’re working even when you are working.”

To which I respectfully respond, “bull.”

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^She probably doesn’t even feel it.^ 

Yes, being passionate about something may motivate you to complete the work it requires, but the work required remains. Yes, your love for something may make the work it requires more rewarding, but the work required remains. And if you asked people who pursued their passions, I’d be willing to bet they’d say that, a lot of the time, the work still felt like work. Maybe not all the time—but a lot of the time.

This is my main issue with the proverb in question: it is a misleading measure of one’s love for something. However interpreted, it suggests that if you have found a pursuit for which you are passionate, you won’t really feel like you’re working as you pursue it.

It follows from this that if you feel like you’re working, then you haven’t found your passion.

Can you think of anything more destructive to the achievement of one’s goals than to be convinced that it shouldn’t require work that feels like work?

I thought that writing was my passion but, based on how work-like it feels, I guess I was wrong. I guess I should try something new—and then abandon it when it starts to feel too much like work, of course.

Imagine if we applied this reasoning to, say, anything else.

“Marry a person you love, and you won’t fight a day in your life. And even if you do fight, the fighting won’t feel like fighting.”

I hate to break it to you, kids. From what I’m told, if you fall in love and get married, you will fight with your spouse from time to time, and the fighting will make you feel exactly as crappy as fighting usually does. To stick it out and work through your marital troubles is well worth your time, but the fighting still feels like fighting.

The same is true of all passions, all loves.

And that’s okay.

Because you do not measure your love for something by how easy it is for you to accomplish it, or how easy it feels to work for it.

Your passion is not that for which you do not have to work, or that for which the work doesn’t feel like work, but that for which you are willing to work—even when the work is grueling.