Page 4: You Can’t Teach Authenticity, but They Don’t Even Try
This year I moved to New York and in an effort to become a native, I started reading paper copies of the people’s magazine: The New Yorker. Of course this magazine doesn’t cover issues of excusive interest to residents of the city or state, but instead it imbues each ‘globally’ relevant story with that upper middle class, urban intellectualism in which people like me self-indulge.
That aside, I find particular pleasure in biographies. While reading finger to page, I feel vaguely attracted to the subject of each person’s life’s work, but my eyes scan hungrily for the personal details assembled by the biographer to artfully capture the unique humanity, the personal spark of the person behind the fame.
Three in particular that dug into my skull and took root were Vijay Iyer, Martha Nussbaum, and the incomparable Aly Wong.
Vijay found himself in music, while simultaneously following a conventionally technical path. (Please excuse the digressive confession: I, like Vijay, find myself increasingly repulsed by my quantitative profession; however, unlike Vijay I don’t have a genius hand at piano to turn to.) Vijay is a jazz pianist and Harvard musical & cognition professor, a distant, upright South-East Asian, often mistaken for an accountant and, in actuality, a mathematician and physicist by training. Nobody told Vijay he would be a musician, but he just went for it in his free time. In his “quiet and industrious” way, he wandered out beyond practical realities, playing in the college dining halls and composing and performing in his free evenings. It takes discipline to do so. Like him I will rise above the harsh reality: Numbers pay; sounds, sights, and tastes usually don’t.
Martha Nussbaum, is a headstrong philosopher, a beast-woman, a sharp and confidently sexy person. She is mechanistic and logical to a fault, and yet, perhaps as a woman, she is keenly aware of the influence of emotions in thought and moral judgement. She rightly believed in the duty of the philosopher to address details of an individual’s life rather than swaths of society as a theoretical whole. She is highly influenced by her personal experience and reliant on her personal strength. She runs several miles every day and always stays friends with her former lovers. Her short stint at a potentially sexist Harvard philosophy department was quickly replaced with a long, fruitful career at the University of Chicago and the international political ethics stage.
Aly Wong is a comedian, but more than that, a woman who honestly embraces and faithfully recounts the banal, the gross, and the embarrassing experiences of the modern 2nd gen Asian American. And beyond the truths she tells, is the artistry in her portrayals. Her stage personality is outrageous and quirky, she’ll squint under her thick-rimmed glasses to whisper secret universalities and then yell immigrant- or gender-specific thoughts in a growling throat voice, suddenly & curiously Asian in accent.
Notice what’s the same about all these people, they’re successful and they’re unabashedly themselves. And that required overcoming some expectation of what or who they should be. Furthermore, each of these people didn’t cave to failures (imagined or experienced), instead pushing for what they felt pulled toward — what they were naturally inclined to do — what some might call a calling.
Given all that I ask, “why not encourage this behavior in schools?” Why is education not more of a search for and execution of activities that one finds most personally gratifying. Instead herd mentality and social/parental desires for stability take hold. But what can be less stable than piling years and years of training on the narrowest point of interest? Why is it assumed that people will grow in the direction of their hearts, when the world monetarily and socially rewards those who push numbers. Sometimes I think this is an assumption that only I falsely believe, but nope. It’s a harsh reality that too many liberal arts majors make no money and that conservatory graduates get stuck in non-paying community orchestras. But guess what? As real as the job-dearth in the arts may be, just as real is a big lie out there about the tech industry — if work at a top 5 company and you’ll find Nirvana. Or how about this one: if you work at a company that uses tech to do something, it is always better than a company that uses a traditional method to do that thing. Sheeple aren’t born; they’re made.
So, let me tell you. Money isn’t everything. If you have enough to survive, be happy and thrust forward with a career that has more meaning than earning potential. Your life will be more rewarding if you attack a problem you care about, push your mind or heart in a direction that feels like progress. I hate the forces that drive people toward existential apocalypse. I rage against them and tap tap this long post as a means of frantic escape. I believe I’ve found a crack in the established brick wall, and I’ll continue to stick fingers, arms, toes, and face through that wall until I can frolic in the flowers on the other side. I’ve seen them. They’re real.
So here I plea to the universe: don’t strangle me! let me do my thing! You people out there, do yours! And maybe we’ll all be interviewed by the New Yorker some day.