You’d think that it would be simple, wouldn’t you? Just: BE HAPPY. Like smile a lot, or something.
But, it isn’t that simple. And, stranger still, people look at you oddly if you suggest that being happy is what you want out of life. It’s like everyone has somehow been convinced that the only way to be an adult is to do things that you don’t want to do (and might actively dislike). I wonder why that is.
Contrary to the title of this post, I don’t have an answer. I don’t think that there is any universal approach that will work for everyone. But, I also don’t think that you should be taken any less seriously if that is your end goal. Why should making heaping amounts of money be a serious life ambition, but not being happy? Why should sitting in an office, at a desk in a cubical under fluorescent lights, be an acceptable occupational standard, but not one that involves experiences and art and joy?
So, what got me thinking about this? I’m sure that to some extent, a straight line can be drawn from my previous entry on graduating from Hamline to this one. And the two are connected. But that’s not all.
I’m spending the next two weeks chaperoning at a summer theatre institute at a university for high school kids. I live in the dorms with 20 incredible kids who think that this might be the path that they follow with their lives. They’ll experience the things that this university has to offer in its BA and BFA programs, but they’ll also have an incredibly intense immersion into what making theatre might be like for them. Really, the practice of making theatre, making all art, is just like going to school–while you may not be in a classroom setting with a professor instructing you, you’re still setting yourself up to be constantly learning and exploring. It’s a wonderful thing, and yet, not everyone would consider it to be serious (incidentally, some of the same people who think that pursuing a career in theatre is the same as indulging a silly hobby also think that it is perfectly reasonable to spend a fuck-ton of money to build a new stadium for a football team or to spend tens of millions of dollars to sign an athlete).
When I went through my undergraduate college experience, I majored in Theatre and English Literature. I loved both of these programs and I feel like they have impacted and influenced my life positively ever since (incidentally, I just met up with a couple of my friends from college last weekend and we enjoyed dinner and reminisced while the reminders of the lives lived in the last ten years played around us–each of my friends have had children, beautiful and energetic children). Professors and professionals in these programs are split in how the subject matter is presented. While theatre is treated like a vocation it is done so in a slightly esoteric way: the focus is always on “the art” and not in the work to sustain the practice of the art. I wasn’t exposed to, nor have I seen since, a course built around “the business of being an artist”. There were no classes in how to be self-employed, contract for hire. Really, there are a lot of similarities between being involved in construction and being involved in theatre: your work is on a contract basis when there are jobs at hand, you are building something for others, there is a team/ crew that you have to work in harmony with in order to accomplish the goals of your job. But these comparisons go largely unexplored in theatre programs. Parents are often less than supportive and there is little discussion about the jobs in theatre (and in the arts) that don’t involve the specific creation of the art. In the theatre that I work there are between 100 and 200 tax paying employees. Only a fraction of these are the performers on stage. We have the crafts people that build the sets and the costumes and the props. We have administrators. We have a development department. We have a marketing department. We have a managing director and an artistic director. We have a board. This is not unlike every other business out there. We have a product that we produce, our product just happens to enrich life as opposed creating a widget, a commodity. We educate, inspire, challenge and entertain. In short, we bring joy into the world and let families enjoy it together.
Yet, you never hear about all of these tangental occupations in a theatre program. You hear about playwrights and directors and actors (and if you’re lucky, designers). You create plays and then you’re unleashed upon the world to make your way with a general idea about headshots and resumes and auditions. When someone in the program (as in my program) wants to give you any extra advice about a career in theatre, it’s this: If you can think of anything else that you want to do, do that instead.
So, theatre education is about art and about a warning. Essentially: no good will come of this. But so much good does. We just seem to be ashamed to admit it. Ashamed to admit that this could be a career, that creating art is work and that not all of that work is about the creation of art but sometimes the selling of the art. And one of the biggest put-downs for an artist? Selling out. Not working for years at jobs that you hate to do your art for free, but rather making money for your art. And yet, isn’t that why we get into this? Because we love creating art and that we would like to sustain ourselves not only through our art, but also because of it?
Really, the message that should be going out is this: Find something that you love and do that. The money will follow. It will take work, so you should be prepared (and educated for) the work that it will involve, but don’t give up on the thing that you love in order to make money. That’s the wrong way to live life.
I think Neil Gaiman said it best in the commencement speech that he gave. “Make good art.” He didn’t go to school, but rather pursued the art that he wished to create as a trade. He had what were essentially apprenticeships to learn how to write, but were also jobs in and of themselves. He had his mountain that he kept moving towards. It was hard work and with the hard work came responsibilities, especially after he had a family. But he didn’t suddenly say, well shit, I can’t make money doing this art so I should work in this office instead. No, he kept manufacturing his product and then he sold it. Rinse, repeat. And a life was sustained by and through art.
Here is that speech:
His wife, Amanda Palmer, had a music career in the traditional way. She had a record company and contracts and fame. She made no money and had terms dictated to her about her art. She finally broke from that contract and record company, but continued to work on her music career. She found new ways to earn money for creating and producing her music. She works her ass off, but in return she is sustained by and through her art.
We are reaching a point in our culture where we realize (hopefully) that the business of only making money is not sustaining our lives in either sense. It is killing our culture. It is killing our livelihoods. It’s killing us.
Corporations don’t care about people, corporations are incapable of caring. They are entities that are created to make money; they’re about quarterly earnings. Quarterly earnings don’t raise families. They don’t dream. They can never be happy. But people have a shot at it.
So, how to be happy?
First, maybe start by saying: “I want to be happy.” And then take that goal seriously.
More later …