Thursday, February 23, 2006

Leaving Bohemia

There is a myth in America about the lone, rugged, resourceful and persistent innovator who overcomes impossible odds to triumph in the face of naysayers, poverty, bureaucracies, being disowned, disbarred, defrocked, excommunicated, crippled, and in spite of all opposition, goes on to become a billionaire, win the Nobel Prize, and marry a supermodel. All by him (or her) self.

Like most myths of this sort, it’s also bullshit.

I know a lot of people will think me on a slippery slope here, because persistence, resourcefulness, innovation, and the ability to deal with adversity are definitely traits anyone who seeks to break new ground must have in spades. For the Guerrilla Scholar, it’s a must. What I find galling about this mythos, however, is the idea that you do it alone, without any help from anyone. That is, of course, nonsense. Everyone who ever “made it” or even managed to carve out a nominal niche for themselves had help from someone, be it family or friends, mentors or teachers, and perhaps support from a foundation or the Government. And for every storied success, there are uncounted failures who worked just as hard or harder, fought the good fight, and still came up short. Even the ones who make it almost always have a few failures first; Walt Disney is said to have filed for bankruptcy seven times before his got his success.

The “bohemian” lifestyle so romanticized (mostly by people who never really had to live it) as a necessary part of school or training is a pain in the butt. I lived like a graduate student when I actually was one and for some time thereafter as I looked for a job, but the romance of student poverty evaporated like the mists at sunrise about ten minutes after I graduated. I find that most people who have been through graduate school are reluctant to choose "bootstrapping" as the preferred means of finishing a project. In the real world, things usually get done by having enough help and enough money, and the one with the most of those things usually finishes first.

The point (I get to it eventually) is that the innovators and the creators and the independent scholars and tinkerers are better off when we have a strong economy and the sense that there is some wiggle room if this or that venture does not work out as hoped. Necessity is as much the mother of desperation as of invention, and wants will fuel the drive to innovate as much as needs ever did. Economic prosperity will fuel innovation as desperate poverty never could. Once, years ago, I got tricked into attending a seminar ostensibly on free-lance writing that was in reality a series of pitches to buy into various get-rich-quick schemes. But the hook was interesting: if you had a self-working source of income, the logic went, you could devote more time to your writing. Even in hindsight, it’s tough to beat that argument.

If you are an independent learner or scholar or amateur scientist, you have to look to your financial affairs perhaps even more than someone whose passions don't offer profound distraction. To win the leisure to read and study and write and experiment, even for just a couple of hours a day is a major accomplishment when so many of us are working longer hours, often for less money. Consider solving that problem a homework assignment; we’ll be revisiting it in the future.


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