If I had studied CS or math in school, I’d program for Google or Amazon, or work for a bank in NYC or San Francisco. And even though the train stations would be glutted with homeless people, I’d probably be able to forget about that, between shopping trips to Anthropologie and the excitement of restaurants and travel. But if my boss asked me to stay until 11 or 12 and work weekends, I’d look at my co workers and if they were all doing the same, then I’d remember all the homeless out there who could not afford rent in the exorbitantly overpriced city I lived in, and I’d probably say, “sure, that’s cool.”
But I did not study Computer Science or finance or business. I studied art history for no other reason than that I liked it. And in doing so, I learned something unexpected. I learned there is a great tradition of people who did not buy into ideas about what they “should” do, but did what they were convinced was beautiful and true. Yes, these were poets, artists and philosophers, the characters we laugh at today and call “useless”. But those people have existed all throughout history, trading material pleasures for the luxury of spending their time in freedom to use their vision and talents as they wished.
I learned about these useless people for 6 years, and what did it get me? Not any money, or even a job in the arts. Like the artists I learned and wrote about, I had to work a day job to pay the bills, (just an office drone, not the kind of high-salaried job that came with unending demands). Instead I got inspiration, a feeling of greater empathy for my fellow humans, (because how can you hate someone when you like their music or art?) and the pleasure of unapologetically letting art lead me on its journey into myth and life’s mysteries. I also learned that man and woman is in charge of his own destiny, and most importantly that you can choose what you want to be.
Is someone telling you to study business or finance because they think you will make more money? Only study those things if you want to. It’s not admirable to do an advanced degree if you are only doing it to compete or because everyone you know is. Try art! Read literature! You may still have to work a boring desk job, not a “cool” job, but you will become interesting and enjoy your free time more. And your desk job will get you by, especially if you are smart and don’t go shopping too much. You will feel more free because you made the decision for yourself. And knowing that you made that one important decision, you will never allow yourself to be treated like a slave. Who cares about “cool” cities. Let me give you a little insight. The coolest cities are the most expensive, overrun by people who have bought into the hype. Try a boring city. Make it cool!
There was a recent article about millennials as a “burnout” generation that is always internalizing expectations and working harder. Nothing wrong with working hard! But any animal can learn useful skills to get treats. Only a human can work purely for the fulfillment of their soul. If you are getting your kids to take math and physics classes on weekends, consider getting them art lessons instead, or as well. They have the right to do these things with their time, which is after all their life. It’s important for them to learn about history and philosophy so they can learn about this long human tradition I mentioned earlier, with its lofty people and ideas, who seem so silly at first, but who one comes to realize are the most important of all, because these people had confidence in their god-given ability as humans. The word inspiration is important. It’s learning because you want to not for fear of failure or the promise of external rewards.
We must not create a generation who can’t say no. They will be a stressed-out meek domestic labor force for future bosses to take advantage of. Saying “no” to work that you don’t want to do, is perhaps the most important skill a kid can develop. It’s a muscle he needs to learn to flex as soon as possible. And before you say it’s impossible, for example because you are from a poor county and your children must work hard to establish themselves in America, or because the job market is so competitive that art and theater is not an option, remember that a good lifestyle doesn’t require Coach bags, Anthropologie clothes, thousands of dollars spent at Disney resorts, or BMW’s. You can do quite well paying rent or even a small mortgage, enjoying books and movies and food, going to concerts, and spending time hiking or staying with friends on travel. There are many wonderful ways to enjoy life on a budget that justifies time spent communing with the humanities. And as you do, the appeal of the Disney resorts will fade away.
As media hype about global competition gives us all the impression that things are getting tougher and we must sacrifice all humanity to survive, just please remember that’s mostly not true. I don’t expect many parents to listen to my message. I expect kids to be forced to do math tutoring in summer and on weekends and be encouraged to find work in big banks, instead of getting guitar lessons or art classes. But all the forced skills in the world won’t make up for a kid who wants to learn because he’s doing something he loves.