Saturday, June 04, 2011

Don't just be good, be useful

My previous post and the lengthy discussion thread it generated brought me back to one of my pet hobbyhorses (Flavialandia having insufficient grazing for actual horses), which is what desert and desire have to do with what we get, and how we cope when there's an obvious difference between expected and actual results. And that, of course, brought me back to Cosimo's college reunion.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this was a big reunion for his graduating class, and I imagine that for many people it represented an undeniable first step into middle age. But however anxiously defensive many of them sounded in their reunion book updates, they seemed purely delighted to be back on campus and seeing old classmates--so much so that everyone was perpetually squinting at my nametag and trying to engage me in warm, booze-fueled reminiscences.*

Since Cosimo was heavily involved in theatre when he was in college, sometimes doing as many as three or four productions a semester, a lot of the people we hung out with were his theatre friends; we also attended a panel on alumni in the arts, which included novelists and visual artists as well as those working in theatre, t.v., and movies. Unsurprisingly, almost none of the dozens of people Cosimo acted with are still acting (the most successful exception to this rule is on a well-known t.v. show. . . where he plays the dad of the show's teenaged star). However, about half of them are still involved in the performing arts, but on the writing and production end--often in niches they never imagined existed and that their 22-year-old selves probably would have had no interest in occupying.

I found it interesting to hear them talk about how they got to where they are. Some of these people are quite successful, but in jobs that aren't especially glamorous or even visible to the outside world. One person writes disposable blockbuster kids' movies, for example, and another is a producer at a special effects and animation studio. Several of them described their career trajectories as "following the path of least resistance," by which they didn't mean following the easiest path, but the path that turned out to have space for them: where there was a need and they had relevant skills, and that allowed them to flourish.

The lesson that I took away from this is that it's not just about talent. Some of the people in Cosimo's class may have been better actors or playwrights or screenwriters than many who have succeeded on Broadway or in Hollywood--but there wasn't space for them as actors or playwrights or screenwriters when they were coming up, so they went where they had the rarer or more valuable skill set. As an old acting manual of Cosimo's notes, children get rewarded for being good, but actors (like all adults) get rewarded for being useful.

Which is perhaps where this ties back to my own obsessions and the letter from the Times that I commented on the other day. Once you're an adult, your value doesn't lie in your raw talent or your potential. It lies in whether and where there's a use for it. Whatever college that letter-writer didn't get into simply didn't need her: it needed people with better scores, different extra-curriculars, or (possibly, but by no means necessarily) people from further-flung states, lower income brackets, or different ethnic backgrounds. That's not a judgment about her abilities or potential for personal success. It's a judgment about her usefulness in achieving what that college viewed as its own success: academically, socially, and otherwise.

Many of us academics in the humanities intended to be novelists, as both Cosimo and I did (though he pursued that route more seriously than I), but it turns out that most of us are better, or at any rate more useful, as scholars. It's possible that I could have written a novel and gotten it published, but it's almost certain that that novel would have had less impact than the book I hope soon to have under contract. People at cocktail parties might be more impressed by the former than the latter, but Weird-Ass Renaissance Shit (my personal subfield) needs me more than the world of fiction ever will.

*I'd written the initial of my own alma mater and my year of graduation on my nametag, but the first day no one noticed, requiring me to pre-empt conversations with "I didn't go here! You don't know me! I went to the other one!" The next day I inked it in darker.


Susan said...

Amen. And I'd add that *where* we can be useful will change over time. You may be X. But learning that enabled you to do Y.

Flavia said...

Susan: absolutely. That showed up in some of the alumni stories, too--that and the fact that often we don't know what our most valuable talents are.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Agreed. I'd just add that usefulness goes along with the overall trend as one moves from childhood to adulthood of realizing - or needing to realize - that everyone else is less interested in you than you are in yourself, and that rejection in a school or work context is rarely personal, and is far more likely to be about another's personal or institutional interests. That low grades are not because the prof has been thinking each night about how much he dislikes you personally, but rather the average calculated after the prof had spent the semester grading tall stacks of assignments of which yours each time was but one. That not getting hired... same deal. I think Withywindle was right in his comment to the post below re: "holistic" college admissions, that this trend encourages 18-year-olds to take things personally. But it's still wise not to take this kind of thing personally.