Career

The way the modern world expects us to live is kind of absurd. Around our early twenties, we are expected to choose the thing we are going to do for the rest of our lives, then we are expected to do the same job year after year until we drop dead, and be happy with it. The thing is, I’ve never really found this way of living appealing, because there are many things that interests me and I want to do all of them at the same time, but because of the way society expects humans to function it’s just not possible. It’s not possible to be a farmer in the morning, a chemist at noon, a computer programmer in the afternoon, a philosopher in the evening and a novelist at night. (Technically it is possible, but I don’t think there is an employer who will pay to do all those different things.)

I think this way of living developed due to two different ideas that somehow collided together through the course of history. First is the idea of the “calling.” Back when Christianity was still influential, it was believed that some people are “called” by God to serve him. This service took many forms, sometimes it was going into the desert and pray, but other times it was to do some important work such as caring for the poor, making beautiful artworks to glorify God or even doing practical work such as making furniture. However, it wasn’t expected that everyone has a calling, it was believed that only a few people are selected by God and the rest will do mundane things such as farming or cleaning dishes.

The second idea comes from the Industrial Revolution, and it was the discovery that division of labor and specialization increases economic output. The key notion here is “specialization.” If you make a person do the same thing over and over, that person will perform that task much more efficiently due to experience. This is a good thing for the productivity of the economy, but not necessary good for the individual. In such a system, an individual might get stuck in a job he or she may not like, but finds it difficult to change career because that person has only one or two skills they are very good at.

But if this idea of “specialization” causes so many problems, why do we all accept it? I think this idea of “specialization” merged with the older romantic version of the “calling.” Many of us do not believe in God, nonetheless we believe that what we should choose to do with our lives should come from something deep inside our soul, not something demanded by society. The idea of choosing a “career” is a very romantic one. When we choose a career, we are expected to first find “who we really are” and then find an occupation that fits the truth of our being.

The thing is that the search for a career first starts out as romantic, but it doesn’t (always) stay romantic. For some people, they choose a career became at first they find that career exciting, but as time goes on they discover the less enjoyable parts of the career, and eventually become jaded. It’s the equivalent of falling deeply in love with someone and getting eloped, but later discovering that the person you married is kind of a jerk and now you’re stuck with living with him or her for the rest of your life. I don’t think this always happens, but people do get stuck in a career they initially thought was good.

There’s another problem, when I look into myself I find that I am a lot of many different things. I am a scientist, a poet, a programmer and even gardener. Each of these identities is completely authentic, and choosing one means denying another. I don’t think this is a personal idiosyncrasy, I think many people would prefer to do more than just one thing throughout their lives.

I also have doubt as to whether the idea of “career” makes sense in the 21st century. During the Industrial Revolution “specialization” was one of the things that increased economic productivity, but that’s less of a case nowadays. The professions have become so specialized that people are often unaware of anything outside their narrow realm. Specialization have built walls between professions that shouldn’t be there. For example, the “science” of bioinformatics was developed because computer scientists and biologists are so unaware of what each other are doing. Bioinformatics shouldn’t exist if the two communities took more notice of one another.

With the Internet, it makes less sense to over-specialize. Knowledge is no longer scarce, it’s easier to find high-quality information on any subject, which reduces the need for formal education. But in order to actually make the 21st century possible, we need to rethink this particular notion, as well as a lot of other notions. We also need different institutions, both private and public, but this is outside the scope of this essay (and is probably far more controversial to discuss).

 

The Lawrence Welk Show

Throughout the years I have seen many mediocre television shows, and for the most part I am not too bothered by them. When I was a child I watched television mostly to quell the constant boredom I felt, and even when there were no shows worth watching I would sit through infomercials. However, there was one show that I couldn’t stand, and that was The Lawrence Welk Show.

For those people who are not yet retired, The Lawrence Welk Show was a musical variety show that originally ran from 1951 to 1982, with continued reruns on PBS well into the 21st century. The reason I knew the existence of the show at all is because I am a regular viewer of PBS, and in my opinion it was one of the worst shows ever on that network (and I’m including Barney and Friends).

The terrible thing about the show is that all the musicians and performers on the show are very talented, but they were all incredibly boring. All of the music on the show are performed in a very similar style, so by the time you hear more than two songs you become completely bored. Even when the show tries to play more contemporary music, the style they play it would transform it from enjoyable to mediocre.

Another thing I couldn’t stand is the show’s unrelenting cheerfulness. Everyone on the show puts on an unnatural smile, as though they have been lobotomized, all of the songs are either incredibly sugary or sentimental, and everyone dressed like they were stuck in the past. None of the performers seem to have any kind of personality, except in that 50s conformist kind of way. I would go as far as to say they were more than automatons than real human beings, but even robots would create music with more personality than the “musical family” of Lawrence Welk. I would much prefer to listen to Kraftwerk, who literally built robots to perform their music.

The Lawrence Welk Show is a fascinating example of art that is excellent on a technically level but is devoid of creativity or imagination. Many musicians do not have level of talent of the people on that show, but many of them are better musicians because they express their imagination or personality in their music. On the other end of the spectrum are garage bands who may not be talented but nonetheless can be creative.

I think this lesson extends to all forms of art. You can achieve a high level of technical mastery and yet be missing crucial elements. I have been calling these elements personality, imagination, and creativity, but to be honest I think what makes art good is still quite mysterious.

All forms of art depend on science, but cannot be reduced to science. Painting, for example, requires (some) understanding of geometry, color and even some small amount of psychology. However, even understanding all the science will not allow you to produce a masterpiece, only by combining science with imagination will produce something interesting.

Is Fiction Useful?

I have thought about becoming a writer since I was very young, but my parents actively dissuaded me from this profession, and that’s why I became a programmer. However, the dream did not completely die, and I ended up writing a few novels, all of them unpublished.

It is hard to justify to any reasonable person why it is a good idea to become a writer, especially one who writes fiction. Does fiction do anything useful, or a mere diversion from the main task of earning a living. Scientists sometimes get flack for the things they do, but at least they can cure cancer or design practical things like computers. Is there a justification for the existence of fiction, besides the facts it helps otherwise useless people earn some money?

Some people argue that fiction does have very important uses, I have heard a writer making an online video saying that you need an understanding of fiction to persuade others. This comes from a long line of postmodern thinkers who argue that fiction is the way through which we understand reality. There might be some truth to what they say, but in the end I don’t believe that fiction requires any justifications for its existence, the same way that nothing requires any justification for its existence.

Most societies believe that it is important for the things we create to be useful. It is understandable, because societies that concentrate on creating useful things are the ones that survive. But the idea of usefulness is a human invention, it isn’t a part of nature. Things like honeybees and pine trees never had the notion of usefulness in their minds, and they are still able to survive. The idea of “usefulness” may have been an evolutionary adaptation by humans to survive, but it doesn’t express any ultimate meaning of the universe.

Some people have elevated the idea of usefulness to an absurd level of importance. The universe itself is ultimately pointless and absurd, but that may be the best thing about it. As some philosophers have pointed out, if the universe did indeed have some purpose for which we humans partake, human action would always be limited by some cosmic principle. For example, if it is true that we live in a universe where the goal of life is to he useful, we would cease to have freedom because we would always be compelled to take actions that are useful. It seems the only way we would have any meaningful freedom is if we are able to pursue activities that are not useful.

Any life that pursues only useful things is a life not worth living. In order for our lives to be meaningful, there has to be a fair level of meaninglessness in it. I have met many incredibly driven people who accomplished many things, and at some level they do what they do because they enjoy their work, not because what they do is useful to anybody, even themselves. The feeling of marvel at the majesty of the universe is what drives most people.

The Pressure to Be Creative

I am a writer and a computer programmer, both professions that require creativity. (Okay, admit that I’m not making any money off my writing, but I’m treating it as a profession nonetheless.) The thing is, being creative is not something you can follow a formula to achieve, otherwise it wouldn’t be creative. Most of my most creative ideas do not come from any brain-storming session or writing exercise, but when I am being utterly bored or having an episode of insomnia. Ideas, especially very good ideas, come to me when I am not expecting them to arrive. I would be walking in the middle of the street and a new scene for my novel would appear in my head. The same thing happens when I am working on a programming assignment. In fact, I often found that I was most productive programming work at times when I was not supposed to be doing it. For about a year I would take the train to work, taking about one hour each way. There were tables and power outlets on the train, so I would plug in my laptop and work on my programs. Those two hours were some of the most productive hours of work in my day.

A while ago someone did an experiment on creativity. The researchers took two groups of people and asked them to do a task that required creative problem-solving. One group was told they would get a small reward for doing the task correctly, while the second group was told they would get a large reward. The result was usually that the two groups performed similarly, or that the group given the large reward performed worse. It does not only hold for creative tasks, but for tasks that required “subjective engagement”, a concept I do not fully understand but I think means the person finds the task they are doing interesting.

Why do rewards fail to motivate people to do interesting tasks? Psychologists don’t yet have an answer, but perhaps this is the key to being creative. My theory is that creativity comes from taking risks, and when there is reward at stake we tend to take fewer-risks. Sometimes we have to come to the realization that not everything we do will be a resounding success. The creative process, along with many other human activities, will sometimes be beset by failures, and that’s okay.

But I think there is also another lesson to be learned, and that is we shouldn’t be afraid of being unproductive. Sometimes the only way to be productive is to do things that appear unproductive, but are really activity that gives rise to interesting ideas. If you have trouble coming up with an idea, take half an hour to do some light work such as feeding the cats or washing the dishes, and when you return you may find that you’ll have tons of ideas. Even day-dreaming can sometimes be a productive activity.

Finally, we have to face up to the fact that we can’t be creative all the time. Or that maybe we are not creative at all. The ancients viewed creativity as a gift given by the gods. But the modern world requires many of us to be creative all the time, which is impossible. The plague of procrastination does not reveal any laziness in modern society, it just is a symptom of a modern world that demands more from us than we can give. People are creative all the time, just not in ways that the economy finds productive. Just look at the vast amount of time people dedicate to writing witty comments on social media. Most of the time nobody asked them to do it, they just find the activity engaging and fun. The fact that most creative activity is economically unproductive is the reason why creativity seems so scarce in our world. It is not a flaw in human nature, just the way the economy is run now.

Handwriting

Handwriting is an oddly intimate form of communication. Just like everybody has a different voice that is special to each individual, everyone has handwriting that is unique to each person. My own handwriting is very recognizable; I write in a very wild and free-flowing cursive script that some people find illegible. Nowadays I type up almost everything, although from time to time I still write on paper in cursive. I still like seeing my own handwriting, and despite being slower and less efficient than using a keyboard sometimes I write down sentences just to see how it would look in cursive.

I can write in normal, non-cursive writing, but unless legibility is an issue I usually use cursive. Not only do I prefer its aesthetics but it’s also much easier (at least for me) to write using a series of connected curves rather than having to constantly lift my pen off the paper. Sometimes I admire people who can do neat, normal handwriting instead of the scrawls that I write. On the other hand, many people compliment me on my handwriting because they find it beautiful.

Americans tend not to value legible handwriting. I had a teacher who went to school in England, and she described how in grade school the teacher made her practice handwriting until it looks almost exactly like the letters from the templates she was given. When I went to school in China I went through a similar thing. We were made to write the same characters over and over again until they look exactly like the ones in the textbooks. I can no longer write Chinese characters, but I still find it marvelous that my parents can not only write them, but do so almost perfectly, as though they were making copies of printed text.

Chinese characters usually look neat and clean, but there is a cursive version of the characters that look like a wild mess of squiggles. Even though Chinese schools emphasize on writing legibly, Chinese cursive is often far from legible, even to natives of the language. Despite how difficult it is to read such characters, they are often admired for their aesthetic qualities. Sometimes the less legible the writing, the more highly the calligrapher is praised.

Some people think there is an association between a person’s handwriting and their personality. Handwriting that looks messy and is difficult to read may indicate a personality that favors personal expression and lack of respect for authority, while handwriting that is neat and uniform indicate a personality that favors propriety, law and order. I don’t know if that’s true, but there is a part of me that resists following rules and distrust authority. But then again, there is a part of me that favors methodical thinking and respect for laws discovered by science. Even though such ideas have not been scientifically tested, it is still fun to contemplate them.

Disposability

Until recently, I did not have my own car. I drove a Toyota that my parents gave me. It is incredibly old, with about 170,000 miles on the odometer, but still managed to function very efficiently, getting more than 30 miles to the gallon and reach 70 mph on the highway, although I wouldn’t know it from personal experience since I would never go over the speed limit (wink). But due to the age of the vehicle, it could not pass smog check. While it was possible to fix the car so that it could, it didn’t make sense to throw so much money at such an old vehicle while buying e new vehicle would have been a better use of the same money. So I decided to retire that vehicle and buy a new one.

The year before I retired that vehicle, I noticed a change in my driving behavior. I was being much more reckless, pushing the gas pedal much harder than I had been, and making swerves that were probably too dangerous for the speed I was driving. 1 became a much more distracted driver, looking down at my phone while I was supposed to be looking at the road. It was as if knowing that the vehicle I was driving will soon be retired, I had become Evel Knivel. But as soon as I got my new car I became a much more responsible driver once again.

This got me to thinking about how the idea of disposability leads us to treat objects, as well as people, differently, usually for the worst. We usually treat things we consider disposable very poorly. Unfortunately in the world we live in, more and more things are considered disposable. The most obvious cases are the commodities we buy. Most people nowadays buy a new phone every year, and at least in the circles I go to if you don’t buy a new phone every two years you are considered some sort of cheapskate.

Human beings today are becoming more and more disposable. Romantic relationships can last however long it is convenient for either of the couple involved, then you can dump him or her when you are no longer interested. Entire organizations have become disposable. There is no nostalgia around the fact that Yahoo is slowly slipping into oblivion, despite the fact that it was once a tech giant. Even the entire global economy is disposable. It is clear from the behavior of the big banks that they knew very well that their actions will eventually lead to economic disaster, but they all seemed to have the attitude of “Après moi le déluge“, which translated from the French means roughly, “I won’t be around long enough to suffer the consequences of my actions, so I don’t give a shit.”

Ultimately, the entire Earth is disposable, the way we pollute makes it appear that we do not care whether the entire biome will survive. Capitalism has always lived on the logic of disposability. Only keeping objects that are useful to you and throwing them away when they have outlived their usefulness is the most efficient way to do business. But there are some things that are not disposable, like human beings. The Earth is also not disposable, because we have to live on it. That is, until Elon Musk develops a technological breakthrough that allows us to colonize other planets, at which point I would be glad to say goodbye to earth. But until we become space-faring cyborgs, we cannot treat everything as disposable.

Divided By A Common Genre

When people ask me what music I like, I find myself struggling to answer. People usually answer by saying the name of a genre or a set of genres , like rock, hip-hop, country or even classical, but the thing is I don’t just like music from a particular genre. If it’s rock, country or classical, if I like the music I usually overlook the genre it is in and enjoy the piece of music for what it is. (Although to be honest, there are genres of music that I haven’t found pieces that I like, namely rap and jazz, but my guess is I would enjoy those genres if I am exposed to them enough.)

When you think about it, musical genres are a funny thing. On the one hand, fans can be very emotional about musical genres, often deriding people who do not enjoy the same music they do to be idiots, and criticizing musicians who compose in style that is significantly different from the norms of their genre (think of all the people who declare Tin McGraw or Green Day as not authentic country or punk). Then again, it is difficult to make a proper classification of music into distinct genres. What is the difference between Heavy Metal, punk and emo? Fans often have very strong opinions on this and would fight to the death for the integrity of their genre, but to outside observer the small differences that makes those genres distinct from one another is totally absurd.

On the other hand, there is a world of difference between the music of Loretta Lynn and Tim McGraw, yet both musicians are still considered Country. The same can be said of early rock and roll and modern rock and roll, or early Beatles and late Beatles. And what about songs that combine genres? “Stairway to Heaven” starts off as a folk ballad and ends as almost a heavy metal song. And what about entire genres which are blends of two different genres such as Rockabilly, which is a blend of rock and hillbilly (country) music?

Most people think of classical music as a single monolithic genre, but music historians divide classical music into three or four distinct periods that are as distinct as jazz, rock and hip-hop to be distinct. The four periods of classical music are Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary. (Some historians regard the 20th century as being a continuation of classical music, while others think classical music ended some time in the early 20th century, replaced with popular music.) But a person who is not an expert in classical music will find it difficult to distinguish between the genres in classical music. But you have to know such arcane knowledge in order to be considered a “real” classical music fan, which is ridiculous.

The problem with musical genres is that it makes people see music not for its artistic value but simply use it as a social label. People who enjoy classical, jazz or heavy metal often regard themselves as superior to people who enjoy pop or country. This is not only absurd, but also a kind of cultural arrogance, the same way that Europeans look down on Americans because we enjoy fast food and Disney movies.

We should enjoy all kinds of music regardless of their genre. In fact, the different genres of music have more in common than we might suppose. Almost all western music share a set of characteristics developed from classical music. The 7-note major and minor scale system is almost universally used in all modern Western music, including jazz, rock and pop. Not all music stick with a 7-note octave, for example traditional Chinese music use only 5, while Indian music can contain anywhere between 14 to 44. Most Western music use 4/4 time signature, although 2/4 or 3/4 are sometimes used. But other musical traditions use significantly different time signatures, or to be more accurate they don’t have a notion of time signatures at all because it was a Western invention. There are also tons of other features such as the phrase structure of songs that can be found in modern pop music that can be traced back to classical music.

The point is that we should regard all the music we hear with an open mind. We should make the assumption that there is good music in every genre, and all we have to do is to find it. We should also not judge too harshly the people who do not enjoy the genres we do not enjoy or enjoy the genres we hate. Also, we should not regard an artist who deviates from the norms of a certain genre as being a sell-out or unauthentic. There can be good art that comes out of blending different genres.

Music is a powerful thing, at its best it can tap into our deepest emotions. But it is also dangerous because certain songs can get stuck with certain deeply held beliefs and memories. The music you enjoyed in your childhood and adolescence will always be the best music. Getting stuck into thinking that certain music is the best is what prevents us from enjoying other types of music as we get older. This is a great loss because we should learn how to enjoy new music as we get older. It keeps us hearing to what is happening in the outside world, and opens us up to change. If we can listen to and appreciate the music of the younger generations it could also keep us young at heart.