There's a inspirational piece going around that got my hackles up. An artist did a Bill Waterson-style cartoon to illustrate a speech which Bill Waterson gave. Click on through, it's a quick read, and the artist does a good job of imitating Waterson's visual style, which is certainly one I have a great affection for having grown up on Calvin & Hobbes.
The message of this inspirational cartoon, leaves something to be desired. (And really, it's the cartoon much more than the speech that has be annoyed.) We see a dreamy illustrator, oppressed by using his skills to draw things such as Jeep advertisements. Finally, he quits his job, goes home, and paints dinosaur models instead. His wife gets pregnant, they have a child, she goes off to work to support the family, and he stays home drawing and watching after their child. His old boss shows up one day to offer him a new job, but he turns it down because he'd rather stay home with his daughter and draw.
Really, there are two different things that bother me here. One is entirely related to the story layered on by the cartoon. The reason why the artist shown is able to do whatever he wants is because he has a wife who is going off and making the living to support the family -- doing what he is not himself willing to do. He thinks that it's degrading to work for a living, luckily, he can skip out of that and make his wife do it for him instead. Now, there's nothing inherently selfish about being the stay-at-home half of a single income family. This is, of course, the way that MrsDarwin and I live. But the cartoon doesn't really show staying home to take care of your children as being needed work -- something that is worthwhile for its own sake but also (like any form of work) often keeps you from what you would most like to be doing if pursuing the "follow your bliss" creed. In real life, there would be a lot of days when taking care of his daughter and keeping the house in order and making sure that there was something to eat when his wife got home would keep the artist from being able to sit down and draw like he wants to. Because parenting and keeping house is also work -- not a vacation.
And, whatever any feminists may say, I would also add that the configuration shown here is harder on both spouses, but particularly on the wife. There are couples for whom it has to work, but all other things being equal it does not work as well to have the wife working and the husband staying home. When we have a baby, I'll take a week or two of personal time, work a bit from home while I'm doing it, and then head on back to work with nor more difficulty than a bit of tiredness from sleeping a little less well than usual with the tiny new member of the family in bed with us at nights. Two weeks after giving birth, MrsDarwin still has trouble walking for long, and she'd have an incredibly hard time going back to a full day of work. When we see the smiling mom heading off to work to support her stay-at-home-husband in the cartoon, we don't see the bags under her eyes from being up nursing the baby at night. Nor is there any easy way to show that mothers simply have a stronger desire to be with and bond with very small children than fathers do. That's not to say that fathers don't care about their children, but it's not the sort of bond that being gone for ten hours at a time strains at all.
The second thing that bothers me here has to do with how one reconciles one's desires and aspirations (following your bliss, in the oft quoted feel good phrase) with the need to make a living. Your job's function is not to allow you to fulfill all your dreams, provide your primary intellectual and artistic stimulation, and give your live a deep sense of meaning and purpose. And let's be honest: for most of us our jobs will provide none of those.
I feel that I'm very fortunate in my job. It pays well, it's relatively challenging and interesting, and I work with fairly nice people. Is it what I most want to be doing in the world? Is it what I would do if I didn't have to worry about earning a living? Of course not. But that's okay. Your job doesn't have to provide your main sense of excitement and meaning in life. It has to pay the bills and allow you to fulfill your real vocation, which for most of us means: supporting your family.
Sure, I'd love it if I could read and think and write full time about whatever I wanted. But a whole lot of people would love to do that, and very few people want to pay for it. I'd enjoy it if someone offered to pay me to work full time researching and writing a novel about World War One -- but as it stands I'm very happy to make a good living for my family doing pricing analytics and research and write in my spare time.
Yes, there are those rare people who have talents and desires (and opportunities) such that they can do what they most want to do and also make a great living at it. If you are Steve Jobs or Bill Waterson: Follow your bliss.
However, most of us aren't Steve Jobs or Bill Waterson. And I kind of doubt that there's anyone whose great dream and passion is plumbing or cost accounting or working register or supply chain logistics. And yet we need all these things, and they're not ignoble things just because they aren't the only thing someone wants out of life. It's okay (indeed good) to work to pay the bills while being primarily focused on your family and your hobbies.
Actually, at times I'm very glad that my job doesn't look too much like a vocation or a dream. One of the temptations that people seem to face in that situation is to let the job start to crowd out one's other (often more important) needs and aspirations. If I had a job that looked more like "my bliss", I'd be tempted to stick with it even if it wasn't providing my family with the income and security and time with them that they need. I'd be tempted to string things along miserably year after year of just barely making it (or not) on the conviction I was meant to do this.
As it is, one of the great things about my job is that my boss says, "Look, at the end of the day, we're just here to earn a paycheck. It's what we go home to that matters."
13 hours ago