Having or Doing

I won’t delve into the sequence of thoughts that made me start thinking along these lines but I am astonished at how impoverished our society is in terms of experience. The interest in artificial experiences of all sorts whether reality shows or video games suggests to me that there’s a real hunger out there. I, personally, have no interest in being a car thief, a rock star, or a professional athelete but, clearly, there are lot of people who do. My tastes run more to being a wandering rascal who lives by his wits and saves kingdoms from wicked sorcerors and beautiful maidens from dragons. Heck, I am a wandering rascal who lives by his wits. The surroundings may not be quite as romantic but I have saved some companies from going belly-up and kept a few reasonably attractive young people from losing their jobs.

My point here is that I really wish our society were less geared towards having and much more oriented towards doing. Acting on stage, playing in a band, cooking in a restaurant, running a business are all fun, at least they’ve been fun to me even if I’m not Laurence Olivier, Louis Armstrong, Jacques Pepin, or Jack Welch. A handful of superstars who make phenomenal amounts of money is good; I have no problem with it except to the extent that they crowd out the thousands of potential actors, musicians, cooks, and business owners (and use their power and influence to limit access to future competitors as is all too often the case these days). We’ve preserved the product but lost the experience.

Much of the crowding out has been the result of technological change. Recording crowded out first musicians, then actors. Movies, radio, and television crowded out live performers of all sorts. Today you can watch and listen to the greatest actors, singers, instrumentalists, and performers of the last century but the opportunities to act, sing, play an instrument, or juggle are growing ever more limited.

Despite the potential capability for synthetic experience to fill the void from my vantage point it, too, is amazingly claustrophobic. You can get something of the experience of being a professional golfer or race car driver with a pretty fair degree of reality. Can you get the experience of being a surgeon, architect, lawyer, chemist, etc. with much verisimilitude?

I guess the response is that those are boring. Who would be interested in them? But they aren’t; they’re all fascinating. They’re fun. They’re experiences worth having, if only synthetically. As G. K. Chesterton put it, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Somewhere in the world, even if its in the artificial worlds of video games, there should be a place for doing things badly.

20 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    Two points:

    1) Nothing is more shocking to me than learning that you are not Louis Armstrong.

    2) If you think there’s no place for people doing things badly it can only be that you don’t watch American Idol or one of its many clones.

    You and I have both lived lives where we’ve done a lot of things and been a lot of things which don’t fit into some neat narrative leading inexorably to where we are.

    I gave a speech at a High School honors thing the other day and told them my three rules for avoiding serious trouble: a) Don’t get, or get anyone, pregnant, b) Don’t become addicted, and, c) Don’t kill anyone including yourself. If you manage those three things you won’t necessarily be happy but you’ll probably do okay.

    And I gave them three positive things to do: a) Take risks, b) Be stupid occasionally, c) Have a life.

    This narrowing of experience begins in childhood with safety-obsessed parents, and proceeds through test-obsessed schooling leading to “safe” career choices by means of credentialing. You can watch the joy and imagination being squeezed out of kids. If the meaning of life is to get from padded crib to Ivy League to corner office, where is the room for experience? And after a youth like that, where would they acquire a taste for doing?

  • steve Link

    I think that kids really like doing stuff if you let them. I have my son signed up for welding lessons before he goes off to college. We make a bit of our own gear for his glass work. I think he enjoys creating his own tools more than using them.


  • Be stupid occasionally

    My experience in life is that some of the best, most rewarding things I’ve done are consequences of doing some that I knew to be stupid.

    BTW, I had an amusing experience this morning. I was leafing through a magazine and stumbled across an interview with a couple of mature actors I’d known long ago. Husband and wife.

    In the interview they mentioned appearing together in a play I produced forty years ago. Must have made an impression on them. The relationship of this to the post is that if you don’t do things, you don’t grow and learn from the experiences or influence others and influencing other people is like throwing a pebble into a pond. The ripples can go on for decades, maybe centuries.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Without sheer stupidity I’d never have met my wife, and if I had missed that meeting I honestly don’t know what would have become of me.

  • Maxwell James Link

    Today you can watch and listen to the greatest actors, singers, instrumentalists, and performers of the last century but the opportunities to act, sing, play an instrument, or juggle are growing ever more limited.

    I agree with part of your point – that we value credentials too much and experience too little – but this? Don’t buy it.

    Let’s consider writing. Has there ever been a point in time where the opportunity to write has been more universal? If anyone wants to write, and to get attention for their writing, the vehicle is ready and waiting. They might not be able to make money doing it – the professional class of writers has arguably been somewhat decimated – but there’s nothing stopping them from picking up and trying.

    Similarly with making movies. When in the history of humanity has it been cheaper or easier to make a movie? Anyone can do it now. Anyone can make a great movie, quite cheaply, if they want it badly enough.

    Cooking? It’s resurgent. I’m a much better chef than either of my parents were/are, partially because I have better access to information about it, partially because I have better access to good ingredients and tools.

    Business? I went to MBA school, and the vast bulk of my second year there was spent starting a business. It was a business that failed, but the fact that I could get as much credit for doing that as I did, and learn as much I did in the process, was a terrific opportunity. And I went to a cheap state school with a full scholarship, getting out of the disabling student loans that crippled plenty of my friends.

    We may value paperwork too much, we may do too much to coddle the already-secure, but the opportunity for direct experience in all kinds of things has never been greater.

  • Cooking? It’s resurgent.

    I think we’re talking about different experiences. Cooking is one experience. Cooking in a restaurant is a completely different experience. Trust me on this one. I made 300 breakfasts a day, six days a week for five years.

    Singing in the shower is one experience; singing for paying customers is a different one.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I made 300 breakfasts a day, six days a week for five years.

    My breakfast cooking horror story. I’m assistant managing a Sambo’s. The kitchen is two six foot grills. As I walk in one morning I see we have two unexpected buses, orders are piled deep, the one cook is weeded.

    So I play the hero. Grab two fistfuls of tickets, run to the unused grill. Bacon down. Eggs down. Hashbrowns down. Pancakes boom boom boom. 24 square feet of food.

    Then I notice someone on the graveyard shift has turned off the grill. It takes about half an hour to heat up.

    You don’t get that kind of fun cooking at a Williams-Sonoma class.

  • Maxwell James Link

    Trust me on this one. I made 300 breakfasts a day, six days a week for five years.

    Sure, I’ll trust you. My brother cooks professionally as well (and has for about 5 years now). I am aware there is a gap between what he does for love and money and what I just do for love.

    But to the extent that there’s a lack of opportunities to cook – something I’d still question – that is due to the professionalization of the trade and the increasing division of labor in general. Amateur experiences are not less valid in this one important respect, and yet we pay them less and less heed. We shouldn’t – they enrich us as a society in many ways.

  • You don’t get that kind of fun cooking at a Williams-Sonoma class.

    I used to start an hour, maybe a couple of hours before we opened. Heat up the grill, make a batch of oatmeal, make coffee. Less pre-packaging in those days than now.

    Amateur experiences are not less valid in this one important respect

    I agree completely and this touches on my central point. I think that people of my age and people up to, maybe, ten or twelve years younger had a significantly higher range of opportunities than young people do now. As Michael noted both he and I have had a huge range of experiences (different but overlapping experiences). I think that provides insights across a range of subjects.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m sensing a bit of Boomer nostalgia. For example, I wonder michael if you are at all hesitant to let your children consider your academic trajectory? What I mean is, and hope this is taken with no offense, since none is intended, but don’t you sense that the opportunities for you to make mistakes and explore different futures for themselves is different generationally?

    I certainly do, and in that sense having a computer is the outlet for those who have one.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I was composing that whle Dave just made my point.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I tend to respect the effect of randomness — happenstance — and to accept that if I’m happy where I am I should not second-guess (at least not too much) the path that got me here. Occasionally I wish I’d gone deep rather than wide, but basically if you’re 57, happily married and making a good living, shut up and be happy.

    My daughter’s already had an interesting life at age 11: birth parents, life-threatening operation, orphanage til almost age 4, kidnapped by white people who then drag her through Chicago, NC, Italy and now CA. My 14 year old son was allowed to bail on school for his middle school years and is given free reign within his chosen sphere — computers, and he’s now a paid consultant to us and frequently travels with me on business — NY, Australia, New Zealand.

    But in terms of physical security I am a complete hypocrite and watch them like the Secret Service watches the POTUS.

  • Drew Link

    No Country For Old Men…..

  • Drew Link

    Such a fascinating essay. I’m in Boston (with a great view from my hotel looking out over the Charles at MIT) where they train eggheads who can’t design bridges, or economic policy…..but I digress. This is an essay worthy of one of those 100 comment threads. But for now, I must go to bed. But this particular piece caught my eye:

    “You can get something of the experience of being a professional golfer or race car driver with a pretty fair degree of reality. Can you get the experience of being a surgeon, architect, lawyer, chemist, etc. with much verisimilitude?”

    Not sure I understand where you are going, Dave. I played competitive golf. Not pro, but high level competitive. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t had a plus 1 handicap and played for all the marbles understands the game of golf in the least. It’s another world. Similarly, went to driving school earlier this year, and am going again this summer. Do that and make sure you take another set of underwear; 170 mph is cool……..but then there is REAL racing!

    Chemist? I effectively was one. Lawyer? It’s half of what I do, at least contract and M&A law. You didn’t mention it, but investor? That’s what I am; think of the fiduciary realities.

    I’m trying to figure out the code. Chemist et al seem boring and easily understandable by many. I defy anyone on this site, or among the vast majority of the general populace, to tell me they understand what its like to sit on #17, one down, …..pin right with short side bunker. Wind R – L, can’t fade it without being perfect. Long or left is certain 3 put. Cut a 3 iron in, or draw a 5 and ride the wind? Bad decision you lose. Bad execution you lose. Very few people can pull this off. Very few experience this…..

    BTW – that’s #17 at my club.

  • Dave,

    I would make an opposite case. Young people today have many more opportunities to do a variety of things. I think the difference may be that young people today aren’t doing the same things that young people of your generation did – in other words people to day have different opportunities, not fewer opportunities.

  • john personna Link

    I hiked up a mountain yesterday. I’m not sure if that’s the kind of pointless exercise you are endorsing. But for what it’s worth, we can count on pretty empty trails surrounding the LA Basin. That’s kind of amazing, given the population.

    And given that 80% of the hikers you will meet in the LA Basin are Korean, there is a cultural choice in evidence.

  • john personna Link

    BTW, the raging success of the Maker Faire might suggest something running below mainstream radar.

  • JP,

    The trails around LA are empty because all the hikers in California moved to Colorado (that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it). It’s hard to find a parking space at most trailheads near Denver on the weekends and I-70 is bumper-to-bumper on Sunday evenings.

  • john personna Link

    That could be Andy. Flocking.

  • michael reynolds Link

    The difference between something done at even the highest amateur level and the professional level has to do with stakes. There’s cooking, and then there’s cooking with 100 hungry people, 5 pissed off waiters and a manager threatening the only job you have.

    There is very little in common between the writing I do for fun (such as this comment) and the writing I do for money. The one is a pastime, the other is a business — deadlines, publisher, other jealous publishers, lawyers, agents, foreign markets, app developers, ARG writers, ambitious partners, market analysis, publicity, touring, getting paid, fans, reviewers, social media, game people, TV and movie pitches. And since I’m writing three ongoing series, and a single title, and developing the next series, that’s all times four or five. The actual writing is the least of it.

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