When I was thirteen years old, I had a few dreams in my back pocket. I would play my second-hand off-brand electric guitar and dream of winning our local talent contest; picturing some scout in the sweaty middle-school gym waiting to pull me into stardom. That was one dream. This was pre-youtube, so you can fathom the imagined possibility of fame in the minds of today’s 13-year-olds playing their borrowed guitars and wishing away the hours between school and sleep.
As it turns out, those dreams don’t die. They get sidelined. Replaced in adulthood by interest in an obscure talent in hope of recognition. Most of us probably don’t pursue that obscure talent. But imagine you could. This girl you met in a coffeeshop was finding a way to intercept clothes from department stores before they made it to the trash. Didn’t she also start her own app? Or was it a non-profit? Well, maybe if you also took the time to devote to something like that you’d be able to spend your time doing something you felt was valuable. Or at least more creative than what you’re doing now. Something only you can do, because you’ve seen what others your age and younger are accomplishing, scrolling through your screen. No use trying to take over their field.
The polyglot speaking 13 languages. The award-winner. The 30 under 30. The two-person team rebuilding society. The one man saving the world’s ocean. The savant who plays The Beatles on the saw. Jim Carey in an unexpectedly successful painting career.
Besides, it’s too late now to be trained in sustainable science and save the planet. Maybe it’s because you wouldn’t want the responsibility of saving this sinking ship any more than the next hobby-scientist, but really it’s because there’s only so much brain-power left in the day after working a full day and watching a few episodes of Atlanta. But if Jim Carey can take up painting in his fifties and be successful, then maybe it’s not impossible? But isn’t he famous already? Doesn’t that grease the wheels a little?
What separates a polyglot with a scattered mind?
Did I mention the polyglot was 14?
The trick with these artists and thinkers and musicians and builders is, first of all, the lifetime of struggle and dedication that most of us haven't dreamed of. In this fantastic video about what it takes to achieve a lifelong pursuit, we begin to understand the years, sometimes tens of years, it takes chiseling away at a craft before major recognition is won. And these are the lucky ones. The ones whose Long Game paid off. There are the other ones, like Charles Bradley, toiling in his vision of soul music until being discovered in 2011 at age sixty-two and rocketing to fame, who finally achieve some popular applause for their vision. And his came late, as he died last year of stomach cancer after a lifetime of chasing a dream sparked by a 1962 James Brown concert. Who is your James Brown? What genius gave you the spark of possibility, the pipe dream that makes you lose track of time?
There are so many, like the black punk trio, Death, who played their hearts out in relative isolation until a 2012 documentary A Band Called Death came out chronicling their fascinating and somewhat tragic career. How much of what we do is for fun and how much of it is done to be recognized, to be seen?
As a self-described curator of creativity, I find myself pulled in every direction by every creative pursuit that comes my way. Wire-wrapping? Yes! Silver-smithing? Why not? Fire-spinning? I bet I could try that! The punchline in friendly conversations that I dole out for fear of being taken too seriously in these pursuits, is that I’m a Jack of All Trades but a Master of None. What a self-indulgent and modern problem. No longer burdened with the isolation that the Renaissance man had. Instead, we have technology to help project the image that we are creating all the time. The unrecognized polyglot. The talented scatter-brain. So lives the frustration of not producing highly valuable items but having many interests and showing your progress along the way, up-to-date in the stories section of every major social network.
If modern society’s measuring sticks for success is internet fame, or being published, or having a show in a gallery, or being the headliner in a lecture series…..then most of us will be and most likely are disappointed in the inevitability of failure. That by not being seen our pursuits are futile and childish.
What happens when all of those futile devices are removed? When the audience is forgotten about, the phone is turned off, the deadline is erased——maybe then we can move closer to what brought us to those hobbies in the first place. I’m reminded of Bill Withers, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and his humble origins and really unremarkable life outside of his top hits. The dream of fame ignites a fire in most of us, but it’s not a sustainable one. It’s certainly not what makes the polyglot practice his languages with shopkeepers in the various boroughs of NYC. It’s not what made Charles Bradley sing in that rough and raw voice for years without any due return. Creativity is not one of those habits we take up because we know it’s good for us. It’s one that teeters on the brink of collapse, usually after a late night or neglect of everyday duties. It’s one we practice anyway, even when it takes great energy to continue. Sometimes it appears to be the abusive partner in your life, demanding so much and playing on all your insecurities; distorting your inner critic’s voice to the volume of a lion’s roar, confusing your worth with your productivity…
But the things that are worth doing are worth the energy they take to make, even without any fame or encourgement. At least, that’s what I’d like to tell you. I hope you don’t give up on your dreams either. The world needs more starry-eyed inhabitants if we’re to enjoy this century.