Why Just Because Is Just Fine

2010 March 1

I love when an idea, inspiration or theme pops up in different places in a short period of time or when I see/read/hear variations on the same general notion and then get the uniquely nerdy pleasure of pulling them together into a unified perspective. Recently, I was at dinner with a group of folks and the topic of volunteering came up. One member of our party scoffed at the North American practice of giving away our labor for free. In her homeland, she told us, people might be socialists, but they expect to get paid for their effort. Point taken. And then there was this piece by a True/Slant colleague that got my brain churning. I agree with her point that an outlet like the Huffington Post relying on crowdsourcing free content from byline-hungry college students is crass, but I don’t sign on to the idea that the only writing worth doing is the stuff that nets you cash in hand.

Photo by Dan Callahan

The logic behind her stance is pervasive, though. Get a job, get a better job, get a promotion, get elected, get a girlfriend, get rich, get invited to an Oscar after party. Purely altruistic cause-based volunteering aside, the deciding factor when figuring out whether or not to undertake a project or activity is what the pay off will be and that pay off is measured in (relative) money, power or fame. And if it doesn’t contribute to one of these bottom lines, it ain’t worth your time. Unless you see a clear path from inspiration to near-instanteous monetization (the most emetic word in the English language, FYI), your business idea is useless. I refer to it as a Socratic bastardization – forget about the unexamined life, it’s the unprofitable life that isn’t worth living. Why take a bellydancing class when you could be front row at one of those Rich Dad, Poor Dad seminars? Why learn to silk screen when you could be hitting the golf course (that is what ambitious young go-getters do, after all)? Unless it has a hook that will land you on Oprah or pave the way to a book deal, forget about blogging*. Doing things for fun, free or without an eye to the immediate pay-off or incentive is for suckers or for the self indulgent.

Except that it’s not. Not every choice we make needs to be subjected to a rigorous upwardly mobile cost/benefit analysis. Doing something because it sounds like fun, challenges your brain, or just gets you out of the house on a Tuesday night when you might otherwise down a bottle of zinfandel and drunk dial your most recent ex is perfectly valid. Not every action needs to be vetted to see how it contributes to your personal brand (and if you’ve never heard of personal branding, please say a prayer of gratitude to the deity of your choice. Go ahead, I’ll wait). Your whole existence is not a cosmic job interview or college application. You’re actually supposed to spend it engaging in activities and pursuing choices that you believe will make you happy (and sometimes being spectacularly wrong in the process) or help you become a smarter/stronger/braver person vs. ones that you think look good on paper or help you get ahead as you stand around like that actorly cliche, one hand on your hip and demanding to know what your motivation is (How about feeling something? Is that good enough?) It’s okay to make typos, scribble over bad ideas or doodle pictures of T-Rexs in the margins. Forget about C.O.D., life is meant to be undertaken on spec. I repeat, LIFE IS MEANT TO BE UNDERTAKEN ON SPEC.

Maybe doing X will lead to Y, or maybe it will lead to B instead or straight into a brick wall or a U-turn. But of all the reasons not to do it (illegality, the chance of bodily injury, distaste for public nudity), the fact that you can’t clearly see how it will help you get ahead or that it might undermine your carefully constructed public persona (constructed for the purpose of being as inoffensively appealing as possible to those to whom you give the power of judgment over you – employers, potential partners, the gov’t, that really snotty barista who rolls her eyes at you every morning when you ask for your latte to be extra hot) shouldn’t be amongst them.

Now who’s up for eloping to Vegas? I pinky swear we can have the whole mess annulled in Reno 48 hours later.

* Here’s where I tell you that I don’t make money from GenMeh, not even loose change from AdSense. In fact, this site cost me a pretty good chunk of coin to create and manage. But it’s my platform, my theoretical test bed, my performance art. It’s where I practice my craft. Do I expect that my online writing will open the door to other online and offline opportunities wherein I don’t have to snag all my statistical data second hand from the Pew Research Center? Absolutely. Is that why I write here? Absolutely not. It just happens to be a more dignified medium than a soapbox in the town square next to the dude yelling something incomprehensible about the impending Rapture.

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Related GenMeh goodness:

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: On The Asymptotic Nature of Goodbye
An Experiment in Friday Philosophizing
You Are Hard To Kill