Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two kinds of careers

After getting books on Christmas plus some post-Christmas shopping, I should probably do another update to my reading list I started a few months ago. But first, something from one of the new books got my attention.

The book is The Conquest of Happiness by the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the passage jumped out at me because it elaborated on something I'd jotted down in a Moleskine notebook a little while ago.

So, here's my Moleskine entry, dated 10/30/08:

As I've observed myself and other young people trying to find their direction in life, one of the themes I've abstracted from people's individual situations is: there's a spectrum of work that expresses your own individuality vs. work that contributes to society. Some people have asked me why I went into law instead of a creative field -- "that seems to be what you're passionate about." Well, when you're an artist, you're struggling to have your voice stand out amid millions of other voices on the market. When you do a more society-oriented job, your voice still matters, but it's not the focus or the goal. The goal that's driving you is achieving the best results for the outside world. Adding your own personal touch is a detail at most. Also, there isn't an ongoing struggle to break through; once you're doing the job, what you're doing automatically matters.
Now here's Bertrand Russell,* published in 1930:
Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved. This is perhaps the chief reason why a modest estimate of one's own powers is a source of happiness. The man who underestimates himself is perpetually being surprised by success, whereas the man who overestimates himself is just as often surprised by failure. ...

Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating, and even marrying. Artists and literary men consider it de rigueur to be unhappy in their marriages, but men of science quite frequently remain capable of old-fashioned domestic bliss.

The reason of this is that the higher parts of their intelligence are wholly absorbed by their work and are not allowed to intrude into regions where they have no functions to perform. In their work they are happy because in the modern world science is progressive and powerful, and because its importance is not doubted either by themselves or by laymen. They have therefore no necessity for complex emotions, since the simpler emotions meet with no obstacles. ...

[T]he man of science ... has an activity which utilizes his abilities to the full, and he achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannot in the smallest degree understand them. In this he is more fortunate than the artist. When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.

Very few men can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind, unless they can shut themselves up in a coterie and forget the cold outer world.

The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues. The artist, on the contrary, is in the painful situation of having to choose between being despised and being despicable. If his powers are of the first order, he must incur one or the other of these misfortunes -- the former if he uses his powers, the latter if he does not. ...

[T]he most intelligent young people in Western countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes of finding no adequate employment for their best talents. ... Cynicism such as one finds very frequently among the most highly educated young men and women ... results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness. Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable.

* This is from pp. 114-117 of the book. I've fiddled with the paragraph breaks for readability.


LemmusLemmus said...

"The man who underestimates himself is perpetually being surprised by success, whereas the man who overestimates himself is just as often surprised by failure."

Underestimating yourself too much, however, isn't ideal either because then you may not achieve something possible because you haven't even tried.

Anonymous said...

Betrand Russell's home life was a strange, unmitigated disaster. So I'd take anything he has to say about marital bliss with a grain of salt.

He was good on logic and language, though.

tim in vermont said...

What a wonderful passage. It is so true, too. The real problem with literary types is that the painstakingly detailed analysis of relationships required to understand or even to produce top notch novels can't be turned off when applied to one's spouse, or one's children. Even though you have to tell youself they are not the same thing. One is an abstract, parallel world, where the rules are similar, but not the same. If a human being has a port wine stain on his forehead, it is a random accident of birth, but if you put one on a character in a novel, either you are a rank amateur, or the stain means something like "mark of Cain", etc. Or, to use Chekov's example, if you walk into somebody's house in real life, and they have a gun displayed on the wall, there is no guarantee that it is going to go off an kill somebody you know in the course of your relationship with the person, but in a novel, if there is a gun on the wall, it is going to go off and is going to affect somebody somehow.

Bob Hawkins said...

Oddly, artists used to be able to produce undoubtedly great works which also met with public approval. But today, as Russell says, an artist has to choose between the two.

Maybe they're doing it wrong?

Bruce said...

"When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient."

This is no longer true in many/most academic fields today, even within down-to-earth engineering. The way the system is gamed is that professors hide within obscure language which was once needed to describe precise, complex ideas but very often now is simply used to make things opaque.

I read an excellent blog entry (forget where) that descibes this phenomenon in terms of bank checks vs (essentially) secret handshakes. A jargon term, like a bank check, should always be instantly redeemable for an exact, unique definition. The bad form of jargon is like a secret code in which redemption is discouraged in order to keep outsiders from understanding anything. The outsiders then assume that they're simply not educated enough.


It seems to me that the "artists" in the view above are all attempting to create a new market for their own goods while the pragmatic workers are trying to figure out how to create goods which meet the existing market needs of their customers.

I see this same behavior within industry, with some people always looking to build some totally new type of product/service to serve some perceived need while others work on innovation of existing products/services in an evolutionary process. My experience is that the latter is more difficult to do in the sense that it requires a lot more understanding of the unpleasant requirements/issues of who you're trying to serve and requires a lot more continuous work, but it has much better chances of success and almost always adds more value to society despite its lack of glamor.


I would argue that most of the true artists of today: the Leonardos, Michelangelos, Donatellos, and Raphaels* are in industry "selling out" for cash rather than making "high art". I have no idea whether their marriage happiness is highly correlated with their creative satisfaction. I suspect that's very dependent on the individual.

* yes, I picked those names on purpose :-)

Anonymous said...

The theme of self and society never gets old. Your thoughts are sound, but you've chosen the wrong philosopher. To go further, look to Adam Smith and John Nash.

Smith taught us that we serve society by serving ourselves. Nash realized that we also serve ourselves by serving society. What Russsell never got to, was the essential element of productivity. Nobody benefits from junk. If art doesn't produce something that is generally amusing or useful, it is a waste of time and effort. That's just self-gratification for the artist.

Look to the wisdom of Horace. He advised poets to capture audiences with 'dolce et utile.' Easier said than done, and that is exactly why artists are far less successful than engineers.

Russell was perfectly incorrect to assert that we should serve art by educating ourselves to appreciate it. That is buffoonishly backward thinking. If an artist fails to interest and inform us with his efforts, he servers neither society nor himself. Fortunately we have an economic system that deals with this reality in an efficient way.


Anonymous said...

And yet, as I think Lenin once asked in an entiely diffferent context: What is to be done? I'm in the position of having been an artist type from childhood, and the vast majority of mainstream jobs and occupations don't interest me at all. As a result, as a result, I've lived a pretty marginal life (not just by mainstream standards, but my own). And yet denying who and what I am seems not the solution, and a recipe for unhappiness as well.

Mendicant Optimist said...

Actually, the best part of being a scientist is wearing jeans and T-shirt to work. That and being the only one who knows where all the plasmids are.

Anonymous said...

Bilwick wins the thread.

Peter Blogdanovich said...

I believe it was Tolstoy who noted that happy families are always the same. Same happy mommy happy daddy and happy children, and always for the same reasons. Unhappy families come from a million sources of misery however. No two are ever alike. The same is true for happy and unhappy careers I think. Good one's result from alignment of aptitude and interest bestowed on people from happy families. Bad outcomes are more complex, with no two ever alike.

Kev said...

Bob Hawkins said:
Oddly, artists used to be able to produce undoubtedly great works which also met with public approval. But today, as Russell says, an artist has to choose between the two.

Maybe they're doing it wrong?

Or maybe the public is doing it wrong in terms of which works meet with its approval.

Let's make a somewhat extreme then-and-now comparison: Ella Fitzgerald vs. Britney Spears. Each has met with high public approval at a certain time, but does anyone really want to argue that we're talking about the same level of talent here?

Quoting Bruce:
I would argue that most of the true artists of today: the Leonardos, Michelangelos, Donatellos, and Raphaels* are in industry "selling out" for cash rather than making "high art"

There are certainly instances where someone creates art far below his/her level of talent to make money, but I would argue that, in my above example, Spears isn't one of them. Rather, she's operating at a level far above her actual talent (thank you, Pro Tools!) and her CDs are promoted heavily to teenage girls, who buy them in droves. (Obviously, her looks don't hurt, either.)

Meanwhile, the Ella-level talents of today are probably waiting tables in Brooklyn. (Though, thanks to MySpace, they might actually garner some attention that wasn't available in Ella's day.)

Billll said...

I fail to see how anyone can describe Law as a non-creative career. As a lawyer, you claim the law is whatever you want, and if the jury agrees, it is. As a judge you have carte blanche to make it up as you go along as long as you can come up with a bit of snappy patter to justify your thinking.

Synova said...

Are these discussions of two sorts of careers or is it two sorts of ambition?

Acclaim has nothing to do with creation that I can see.

Unknown said...

Such a divide between careers has become largely irrelevant in modern times. It is possible to be both scientific and artistic within in the same career. You're using a very limited definition of an artist - a single person who tries to peddle art made entirely by them. Consider 3D animation and the vast amounts of small parts each artist plays. It is possible for them to take comfort in their small task and also feel like they are expressing themselves.
It is also a huge fallacy to say expressing individuality, or any art does not contribute to society. People are paid according to their demand, theoretically a pop singer is "contributing" more than a single average researcher. Even educated workers are replaceable, which is a fact that no one can escape.

Jamie said...

Kev, what about Madonna vs. Fitzgerald? Without knowing your age, I obviously can't tell whether you remember the level of scorn directed at Madonna in her "virgin" days; but (though she's not my cup of tea) it's hard to argue that she hasn't carved out a spot for herself as an artist. Cher, similarly: I thought she kind of sucked wind (not as much as Sonny, but still) back in their TV-show days, but then everything that happened with her life happened (divorce, movies, depilatories, etc.), and surely she's part of the pop pantheon now, purely on the basis of longevity, isn't she?

I don't intentionally listen to Spears, but is there NO talent involved in what she does? Was she EVER primarily a singer? Or could she be termed a "performer" whose performance features partially produced vocals, dance, and stage presence? Honestly I can't express a knowledgeable opinion about her; the point I'm trying to make is that time gives perspective, and that those of us who believe the performers of our past (or possibly our parents' past, whom we've rediscovered - I love Johnny Mathis and the Lettermen) had "real" talent compared to the performers of today might be applying different standards or judging too early.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. This analysis would seem to be additional evidence that doctrinaire Darwinism is not actually a science at all, since its practitioners seem to be rather angry, bitter, and contemptuous of the masses, rather than mellow and contented. Perhaps they are really more like misunderstood artists, then.

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