A friend said something to me today that’s stuck with me. He was telling me about his job search, and how he’s about to do a writing job that he’s not particularly interested in. He joked about how he had to force himself to try to pretend to give a shit about the subject matter, and how draining and frustrating it was. And he framed it as something of a personal failing – like him struggling with doing something soulless was a sign that he was incompetent, or maybe naively idealistic, or arrogant somehow.
When I hear somebody else talking like this, I’m able to form a somewhat “independent” opinion – at least, I get a clearer picture of what I think about the behavior than when I’m analyzing my own. And personally, I think that sort of thing is a “good” sign. Sometimes in life you gotta do things that you don’t really want to do – I remember this was advice given to me by a much older (and seemingly successful, and well-adjusted) friend when I was in my teens. And I do carry a bit of that with me. It’s true. Life is not going to bend over backwards to present you with a bed of roses. And even if it does, under the petals are the thorns. Even if you realize your life’s dream, you’re going to find something tedious and annoying backstage. If you want to be a professional musician, you’re going to have to deal with rehearsals, and touring, and the inconveniences of that. If you want to be professional writer, you’re going to have to deal with deadlines, and the tedium of editing. There is no truly perfect job – there’s always some aspect of slog to everything worth doing.
But that’s not what we’re talking about, are we? It’s relatively easy to slog for something when you know that the something is something that you want. It’s a lot harder when you’re not sure what you want, and you’re not sure what the point is. Then it can be tempting to give up and just coast along. And I think I have a bit of that in my DNA, which I’d like to root out.
But this isn’t what I’m talking about either. Not the ideal slog, and not escapism from mindless drudgery. We’re narrowing it down. Within those boundaries, there’s more nuance to be navigated.
Within the space that you want to work in, if you’re LUCKY, there’s going to be some things that call out to you, and some things that turn you off. This is a great sign: it means that you have taste.
I have a half-written essay about how taste is one of the most precious and important things in the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the man-made beauty of the world is a function of the taste that some people were able to cultivate. And taste is an incredibly precious, delicate thing. If you’re not careful, it’ll get stamped out of you. Or you’ll never be allowed to develop it to begin with. When your taste is still in its infancy, other people will tell you that you don’t have any, or that your taste sucks – and because you don’t yet have any verifiable proof that your fledgling taste is ever going to lead you anywhere, it’s tempting to believe them.
It’s kind of like telling a child he’ll never be able to play a piano concerto, or lift 200kg over his head, or run a 4 minute mile, or -insert achievement here-. And it’s really not about the achievement. The achievement is really a sort of distraction, a sort of ‘nice to have’ trophy that doesn’t actually mean anything. If you think an achievement is going to satisfy you permanently, you’re probably in for some serious disappointment.
What really matters, what’s really glorious and pleasurable in life is to live in accordance with your taste. For some, that means becoming a professional athlete. I don’t really care for sports myself, but can you see how Kobe Bryant and Christiano Ronaldo are both, in their fields, artists? They apply themselves to a field that they find endlessly fascinating, and they commit themselves. They improve on their craft, hour after hour for decades on end. They modify their entire physiology in service of this goal – they eat, sleep and train in a way that they determine is optimal. (They might seek out coaches who help them determine those things, but in a sense those coaches are really extensions of themselves, extensions of their vision). They have an auteur’s vision, and they find a way to make it happen. That’s what it’s like to live in service of your taste.
How do you know if your taste is any good?
It could be possible that some people are really born with predispositions to amazing taste. But there’s no point worrying about those people. If you’re one of them, good for you (maybe). If you’re not one of them, that’s life. Either way, the path ahead is the same. You want to clear your mind, go into the silence, deep into the forest, the desert, the sea, and you want to listen for that little whisper that tells you what you want to see in the world. It’s a call to adventure. Most people reject this. In The war Of Art, Stephen Pressfield argues compellingly that rejecting this call drives people nuts. It’s something that’s contantly at the back of your mind, and you have to chase it away with some sort of coping mechanism, some sort of resistance. For some it’s drinking alcohol, for others its being cynical and abusive towards others, and there’s probably a whole range of more innocuous behaviors that most people just deal with. We’re all smokers, in that sense. Smoking our dreams away. And that’s okay, if that’s how we want to live.
But you get to ask yourself a question, and that’s what do you really want? Do you know it? If you really listen, you probably do. And the next question is, what are you going to do about it?