A friend was recounting a visit from a Mother and her nine-year-old daughter. As the daughter twirled away on his kitchen floor, he asked the question many of us direct at small children and unemployable relatives, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I’m going to Broadway,” she said, quite earnestly. He waited for the mother to discreetly wink, but this was indeed, the one and only plan.
Now, it is possible that she might get to Broadway. Clearly some people make it and no doubt all of them faced their doubters, but is this ambition or delusion? Dare we ask if she is supremely talented? It is great news if she is, but unfortunately, that won’t be enough.
I had breakfast in a Broadway diner a few years ago, where our toast and corn flakes were served up by singers waiting for their big break a few blocks away. They belted out fabulous, tear inspiring tunes as they wiped up our crumbs and seated the customers.
At what point, I wondered, would some of them catch the bus home and settle for being an enthusiastic member of the local drama club in Wisconsin? Would they be content with that? I watched La La Land and the theme song, ‘Audition’ (The Fools Who Dream), which is a beautiful song by the way, would no doubt inspire them all to keep going, no matter what.
Is it kinder to encourage people to pursue their dreams, no matter what, or to advise them to be practical and strive to be self-supporting? I have always believed in setting goals and working toward them. I believe that a goal is far more likely to be achieved if you plan for it and break it down into small achievable pieces. I honestly think that many great things can be accomplished with hard work, persistence and discipline, along with the ability to cope with disappointment.
But do I believe, at this age, in telling people that they must pursue their dream, or else they will be sorry? I’m not sure I do. I’m not sure that it is kind. Social media is full of these sorts of messages. Recently I saw the author of bestseller, Eat, Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert post – ‘You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings.’ Really? You have to? What blessings? Ms Gilbert made a lot of money from her first book. Good for her, but a very small number of writers today, and this has always been the case, can live on their publishing earnings. This is also true for the majority of actors, photographers, singers, dancers, models, artists … and I could go on.
Why is the creative life so superior anyway? Is it OK to aspire to be a plumber? I hope so, because we can’t run out of plumbers. In 2005, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple told a graduating class at Stanford that ‘your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Thanks Steve! Let’s slap the people who do not love what they do, but get on with it anyway. Let’s criticise those who clean the hospital floors and drive the garbage trucks for ‘settling.’
Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, believes that these kinds of speeches around dreaming big and never giving up are “… crap! A lot of people dream, and while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting engaged, powerful people are busy doing. It’s hard work that makes things happen. Be a doer, not a dreamer.”
Tim Minchin delivered a wonderful graduation speech at the University of Western Australia and shared some advice that was far less daunting; “You don’t have to have a dream. Commit passionately and with dedication to short term goals. Be micro ambitious. The next worthy pursuit may be in your peripheral vision. If you’re too long term focused, you may miss it.”
And Clive James wrote that ‘there is no conspiracy against talent. There is only a market. Which you can only get into by having something to sell and something to sell means something that people want to buy, and quite apart from the obvious nutters, many a good soul has come to grief through failing to accept that nobody very much wants what they have to give. Since necessary determination to press on in spite of failure – a determination that any artist must have – is indistinguishable from the futile determination to persist in a hopeless cause, the possibilities for self-delusion are almost infinite. You can even take universal rejection as a sign of your essential seriousness. With any luck, however, the penny drops and the aspirant redirects his courage into one of the support branches of the art form in which he longed to shine. It is desirable outcome. I did manage to notice that almost everyone who gave service to the cultural world was an unpublished novelist, and that most of the published novelists had been forced, over time, to accept the fact that they might as well have stayed unpublished. After they accepted it, they turned, reinforced by self-knowledge, to other and more beneficial things. They had made something useful out of rejection, which is a far harder test of character than to make something useful out of acceptance.’
I hope, I really do hope, that whatever happens to the little girl twirling in my friend’s kitchen, that she continues to love dancing and does not feel like a failure if the big dream changes or turns out to be out of reach. I think about the waiters in that diner and hope that some of them got a call back, but I also hope the ones heading home or taking the day job are glad that they gave it a try.
The last word to Clive James again, who wrote, “The sky has more stars than it knows what to do with, but it can’t do without gravity.”
Cartoon printed with the kind permission of Jon Kudelka.