If an alien visited earth and happened to tune in to any public radio station in America he might get the impression we’re building Utopia somewhere. The adverts for the corporate and foundation sponsors promise all kinds of rainbows and unicorns—equality for all, an end to hunger, obliterating disease everywhere, stamping out global violence, et al., and don’t forget my personal favorite: building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. Really, it’s a parade of the best answers to those Huge Questions beauty pageant finalists are asked. And what is your hope for the future, Miss Maple Syrup?
They’re all pretty dang lofty goals. But most of the slogans include the word ‘helping’ or similar somewhere in the language, always the participle form of the verb, meaning there are no guarantees in life, and we might not find any rainbows or unicorns at all in our Utopic world, and anyway it’s a process (ergo, the participle). Or maybe it’s on the rest of us to achieve the verdant world, but they’ll help us. Or if we’re being a tad cynical, they will help achieve the verdant world in spite of us because we (or maybe the non-public-radio-listening among us) have made the world, you know, less verdant.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not agin’ any of it. All of it is worthy and important and I hope like heck every one of those foundations finds or makes the rainbows or unicorns or clean water or peace or the verdant world they’re hoping for. I wish them well, I’m all for it, and I’ll help if I can. Meanwhile most of us, self included, have less alluring-sounding and more immediate concerns, like paying the light bill.
There are no guarantees in life—that’s a reality I can work with. It’s also a message I’ve been trumpeting, whispering, texting, and beaming via telepathy, to a certain young person in the hopes it will sink in, even in some small, imperceptible way that gives me exactly no satisfaction for a long, long time. It’s a painful process, like watching a plant grow without the benefits of time-lapse photography to reveal an inkling of evidence something’s happening. You may as well make yourself comfy, because you’ll be sitting there for a while—and you might want to take something now for the headaches ahead.
When the unicorns elude you, as they are wont to do, it is time to make a plan: that has been my mantra for this young person for the last five or so years, with this addendum lately: all work is noble work, and that certainly includes washing cars on a hot tarmac, even if somewhere inside your head an annoying little troll keeps whispering, you’re too good for this.
Nope, you’re not, nor am I, nor is anybody. The economy gets to decide that, together with some other important adjudicators, like edumacation, for example, and able-bodiedness. But you’re still the boss of your destiny: if you are unhappy with the situation as you find it, you have the capacity to change it. If you imagine yourself a victim of external forces, coupled with a stubbornly held conviction the world owes you something, you will never improve your destiny. Once you embrace this idea, the rate at which you move forward is directly correlated with the measure of your personal dissatisfaction with things as they are. (Maybe not directly correlated, but it sounds good, anyway, and I think there is at least kernel of truth to it.)
I accept that the landscape is different for young folks now than when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I was in elementary school I had friends who earned a respectable amount of pocket change for ice cream from their newspaper routes. One summer I made enough cash babysitting to make a dent in my summer residential ballet school tuition. I could not wait to leave home at 18 and get my grown-up life started. And I cobbled together enough resources working part-time retail jobs to help pay for my in-state college tuition, books, and living expenses, with extra help from back home to be sure. Soon after college I made fast work of paying off a small student loan with a minimum wage job while I was figuring out my Next Big Plan.
No retail job can accomplish all that for a kid these days, and I recognize it. And the reality is, fewer young folk are able to leave the nest as I did at 18, or maybe they leave it and come back to it for a while before they finally launch in earnest. Remove the college education variable from that equation and it’s harder still for a young person to achieve independence. I really do get it.
I still cling to the notion that hard work is noticed and duly rewarded, and for most of us the only way forward. With rare exception there is no magnum opus, no single stroke of genius, no get-rich-quick scheme to jettison one to the top, however the top looks. There is only hard work. As renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp observed, Mozart wrote a lot of music, and some of it was exceptional: significantly, he wrote a lot of music. Prolific author Nora Roberts opined there’s no such thing as writer’s block: there is only writing, or not writing. Speaking as a writer, I think she’s spot on: to write requires writing, even badly. But maybe one day you’ll write something brilliant that earns accolades; and while you’re working on that the rest of what you write will help pay the light bill.
In the beginning, accolades bear an uncanny resemblance to the minimum wage you receive for washing cars on a hot tarmac.
Take your dissatisfaction, goes my message, whatever it is—being snowbound for days on end with young children as Nora Roberts was when she started writing, or merely the irksome boredom of living as an adult at your dad’s house (be thankful for the roof over your head)—and make your next move. Always show up to work eager and on time. Go the extra mile and come in on your day off if you’re needed—you’ll earn a reputation for being reliable and hardworking. And be helpful and polite—people will notice. All these things will add up, and soon you’ll find yourself rising above the rest.
That has been my message more or less, and there are signs, however minuscule, it’s finally getting through to someone heretofore of little faith.
But I’d also add this, to anybody still listening: never completely ignore the trolls, and keep on searching for the unicorns—one day you might find them.