On Tortoises, Hares, and Ferdinands

So, I was just reading up on swimming, because I am the kind of nerd who cannot go to an open swim at a Park District pool without doing research first. And in the course of that research, I found this article, which attempts to define a “fitness swimmer” as opposed to a competitive one. As it turns out, the article really doesn’t draw a very clear distinction, but that’s beside the point. Here’s what caught my eye:

I started thinking about this, as I have never really considered myself a Fitness Swimmer, as I am a Competitive Swimmer who signed up for the Fitness Committee for a couple of reasons, one being that of trying to understand how someone gets up every morning at 4:15 a.m. (we work out early) and comes to swim with no “real” goals in mind, or any that I could see.

I know, it’s a dizzying sentence, but let’s just focus on the part I emphasized.

It has been said around these parts many a time, but it always bears repeating: if you exercise just because it’s fun and keeps your body happy, you can meet your goal on day one and every damn day thereafter. If you exercise because you want to lose weight or win a race or do it better than the gymbunny next to you, it’s probably going to take a looong time to meet your goal, and there’s a strong likelihood of getting discouraged along the way.

That concept came quite easily to me, and it never even occurred to me that it might be difficult for someone else to grok. What’s not to understand? What I didn’t think about is the fact that I’m not naturally a competitive person, and the older I get, the more any sort of competition makes my skin crawl. I would much rather meander along at my own pace, enjoying myself and indulging my curiosity, than win the race. I am neither the tortoise nor the hare; I move slowly and stop to take naps. Perhaps I’m more of a Ferdinand.

I know that some people genuinely thrive on competition, and more power to them — but the problem is, in a capitalist society*, people who thrive on competition are held up as gods, and those of us with more Ferdinandy dispositions are dismissed as lazy, useless, undisciplined, etc. It’s awfully hard to advance in any career if you don’t want to compete, and it’s awfully hard to make enough money to live on if you don’t advance, so coming in last because you felt like walking instead of running isn’t much of an option. And if you do stop to walk because the running is killing you, or refuse to fight because you’d much rather sit and smell flowers, the whole culture makes sure you know what a freak you are.

Every time I have decided to remove myself from a competition, the overall relief has been enormous — but the feeling that I was “copping out,” or “taking the easy road,” or just not being fucking normal sapped the joy right out of it. Deciding not to continue on an editorial career path because I knew it would eventually make me stop writing altogether was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself — but to this day, I cannot stand having the “What do you do?” conversation with new people, because when I say I’m a writer, they want to know about my books and my magazine and newspaper articles. They want to know where they would have seen me. And when I tell them there are no books — only a few blogs, a few publications in literary magazines they’ve never heard of, and an unfinished novel — then they want to know what I do, really. And 9 times out of 10, I eventually end up admitting that my grandpa left me some money, and I zanily decided to throw caution to the wind and use it to focus on my writing instead of socking it away and continuing to kiss senior editors’ asses.

And then the world is set right again, because now this person understands what I really am: a spoiled dilettante. Certainly not a writer who spent two years working to earn a master’s degree, and who now churns out at least a couple thousand words a day, most of which are read by at least a couple thousand people a day. I cannot be a real writer because they cannot purchase my work. I cannot be a real writer because I do not live in New York and strive to get invited to the hippest cocktail parties. I cannot be a real writer because I do not currently have a “real” job that would make writing nearly impossible. Ergo, I am not a real anything. Except, of course, a real spoiled dilettante.

That bugs me. But not nearly as much as continuing to work in a veal pen for little money and less recognition — all the while knowing I could give it up for a few years and do what I loved — would have bugged me. As in, one of those things irritates me, and the other chipped away at my soul. Big difference. It’s not easy to be a non-competitive person in this society, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to be a non-competitive person who’s forced to compete.

And making matters worse, even when non-competitive people leave their jobs at the end of the day, they’re supposed to carry over that competitive spirit and Puritan work ethic into their personal lives. They’re supposed to care deeply about who in the neighborhood has the cleanest house, the nicest lawn, the most charming and well-rounded children, the best-trained dogs, the priciest cars. And they’re definitely supposed to treat diet and exercise as an ongoing challenge, a competition with the whole rest of the world to see who can exert the most control over his or her mortal coil.

So intense is the cultural pressure to compete in every aspect of our lives, to work toward long-term goals set by other people, to mark success only in terms of specific external accomplishments rather than an overall sense of well-being, there are people who can’t even comprehend why someone would exercise just for fun and general fitness. Not for any “real” goal.

That makes me incredibly sad.

And I might write more about how sad it makes me, but I’m off to a water aerobics class, which I expect to be an absolute blast.

*I am not really anti-capitalist, though I think there ought to be a lot more limits on corporate greed. I’m just saying, competition is the lifeblood of capitalism.

109 thoughts on “On Tortoises, Hares, and Ferdinands

  1. Yeah. I am having a really hard time at this boxing class I am taking because of the whole, “well, if you don’t want to lose weight, why are you here?” As if I hadn’t gone in before I signed up to talk to the instructor and make damn sure that she wouldn’t be focusing on that.

    I am anti-competitive, too. And, strangely, it bothers other people.

  2. I think you sound like you’d make an excellent next-door neighbor. And I’d like to thank you for a few things:

    I’d like to thank you for the effort and care you put into blogging.
    I’d like to thank you for letting me read what you write.
    I’d like to thank you for doing it from a place of passion instead of a place of production or competition.
    And I’d like to thank you for consistently talking about exercise from the “movement that feels like good living” perspective, because that rings true for me, and so few people get that. But it *does* feel really good and that *is* why I do it–and it’s nice to feel understood like that (though whether I could get up at 4:15…well okay, if that were the only option, I probably would.).

    Thanks,

    ae

  3. now this person understands what I really am: a spoiled dilettante. Certainly not a writer who spent two years working to earn a master’s degree, and who now churns out at least a couple thousand words a day, most of which are read by at least a couple thousand people a day. I cannot be a real writer because they cannot purchase my work. I cannot be a real writer because I do not live in New York and strive to get invited to the hippest cocktail parties. I cannot be a real writer because I do not currently have a “real” job that would make writing nearly impossible. Ergo, I am not a real anything. Except, of course, a real spoiled dilettante.

    Ahem. This sounds more like the voice of your own deepest insecurities than the conclusion that reasonable people would reach about you, upon learning what you”do.”

    Just sayin’.

  4. I have goals when I exercise, but they usually have to do with some internal thing that I want to do (like swim so many laps). This is not a competition, so much as a way of helping me focus. I have a bit of exercise ADD, sometimes.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Kate. It hits home, but I am basically a turtle…I have been all my life, I love turtles, collect turtle shirts, earrings, etc., I identify with them as a totem animal, using the word in my user IDs very often, etc. I am built for comfort, not for speed, I have a disability & am physically unable to be athletic, but I am very active, I walk a lot, but at MY speed. I am also very non-competitive. I just want to live my own life, mind my own business, & be happy & allow others to do likewise, though I do confess to being quite passionate about fat liberation, because the fat hatred in this culture seriously impacts our ability to just live & let live & be ourselves & be happy.

    You are fine as you are & I think it is wonderful that you are taking some time to smell the flowers. You know, we get where we are going too, & perhaps we can get there more happily, with less pain, stress, & burnout than some of those bunnies who scramble around as if their lives depend on being first in everything & beating everyone. Continue to march to the beat of your own drum, I think that the world might be a happy & more peaceful place if more people did so.

  6. You are a real writer. Anyone who writes as well as you do, and is read by as many people as you are is a real writer. IMNSHO, you rule as a writer (and I’ve been reading for 50 years, probably at least 2 or 3 books a week on average, so I’ve done enough reading to know a good writer when I read her works). You make us laugh, you make us cry, you make us mad, and you make us happy to know that you can express so well what a lot of us feel and can’t put into words half so well as you. Competition is all well and good in its place, but not everyone needs to compete and that’s fine (I’m not competitive when I game online, it’s why I play mostly one-player games, I’m competing with myself, to better my score, and I don’t care how it racks up against anyone else’s score).

  7. Wow, I really identify with this Kate. I too am not competitive and I too have found it difficult to explain my choices to others. I’m getting a PhD for reasons that have nothing to do with how much money I will make or how successful I will be and I need to exercise for the joy of it or I won’t do it at all. I find people who do it for competitive reasons hard to fathom. A friend of mine is hell bent on getting “really skinny” so she can win running races. She claims that to be truly competitive she has to have a very low percentage of body fat. I keep thinking “Why does it have to be about winning?” but for her, that is what matters. She’s an obsessive dieter and has lost and gained over 100 lbs 3 times in the 5 years I’ve known her but to her it really is all about the competition.

    Some part of me wishes I could be more competitive. Maybe it would motivate me to get out there and do more physical activity, but the rest of me knows that’s just not in my nature. I’ve found a few activities that I love (yoga and hiking) and I’m interested in trying some others that I think will bring me joy (I’m trying to find a hooping class here in LA and am going to try a water aerobics class after being inspired by the exercise thread) and gosh darn it that’s good enough.

    By the way, I completely relate to being the kind of nerd who does research on everything. I’ve put off joining my local Y because I can’t find what the exact process of joining is online.

  8. Oh and I have to say I agree with your sister that you might be projecting a little bit there when you guess what other people are thinking. Most of the time I bet people are really thinking. “Wow, wish I had the guts to follow my passion like that!”

  9. Score three for the non-competers! Noncompetent? I don’t like the way that sounds…
    I feel you as far as being a “real” actor. No, I haven’t been on your favorite TV program. No, I’ve never auditioned for it. No, I don’t even have a theatrical agent. And whoops, sorry, instead of mailing out thousands of photographs of my face, right now I’d rather spend my energy convincing and wrangling my talented friends into making videos for the internet that strangers across the globe may or may not find all that funny.
    o bla di..

  10. I used to be competitive (in physical things; my competitiveness in non-physical things is a matter for the next Paralyzed Perfectionists Anonymous meeting). Fencing was definitely about competition for me — against myself, but also in a totally non-metaphorical sense against my opponents. It was really hard to sustain, though, because it wasn’t very natural for me and basically required me to be angry all the time. (I had a hard time winning against people I liked, so at least while on the strip I had to try to kinda hate them.) It’s much more rewarding to try to improve — or even just stay exactly the same — without feeling like you have to beat anyone.

    But that’s not an easy approach to defend, because it’s unfamiliar, and because contentment is supposed to be stultifying — it’s the same attitude we see when people first encounter fat acceptance, i.e. “how can you ever improve if you actually like yourself how you are?” How can you ever get thin if you don’t care about getting thin? How can you ever win if you exercise for the love of it? When you change the standard goalposts it really throws people off.

  11. Kate, this post speaks to me on so many levels. So much so that I fear this comment may take on epic proportions!

    My career path sounds incredibly like yours was – work hard at uni for a bachelor’s degree than an MA in writing (while working as a bokseller), then starting at the bottom in publishing. And of course, at the interview for that lower-than-low publishing position, the managing editor asked me if I ‘still wrote’ – because if I did, and if I thought the job was a way to get published, then I’d better think again. So I lied and said I didn’t – which, four years and two publishing houses later, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I don’t write, and I’m dissatisfied editing sub-par work all day long. Everyday I tell myself to just write. A. Little. Bit. But I never manage too.

    All because I felt that competitive pressure to get a real job after my studies were finished, because being a bookseller wasn’t a ‘real’ job.

    As for the competitiveness of exercise? I don’t enter into it. At my first publishing job the company subsidised memberships to the local gym. Great, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t, and I grew tired of the colleagues who kept trying to bully me in to going to the gym with them at lunch. I preferred using that hour to relax and regroup, which I couldn’t have done while being shouted at in a spin class. At my current job, I just don’t enter into exercise conversations; how I work out has nothing to do with how I work.

    I do struggle a bit with inner-competitiveness, though, in all parts of my life, and that has more to do with the ‘fantasy of being thin’, something I’m slowly replacing with the reality of being fat.

  12. Okay, I keep trying to write a comment to this post, but it keeps coming out incoherent, so I’ll just say: good post. :-)

  13. I’m bookmarking this. It’s brilliant. It’s something I’ve tried explaining to people time and time again and never gotten out right.

  14. And another thing… To thine own self be true.

    (Yeah, I just made that up. Pithy, no? wink,wink)

    Anyway, failure to heed that advice is probably the source of much of the depression floating around in and among us.

    p.s. As it happens, you’re a phenomenal, world-class writer. You happen to currently write in a brand new medium, so there are few models to compare yourself to, or COMPETE with, so to speak. You’ve written some masterpieces on this here little ol’ blog.

  15. Well. I used to be a writer too, although I only have my undergrad in journalism. And I left the field because I got burnt out on the politics and the realization that I would never be able to make my way up the fucking corporate ladder that had become the world of journalism and media. Quite frankly, I only had it in me to write so many features storiesd about Shit That I Did Not Care About before I nearly gagged on my own spittle.

    So, good for you for bowing out. That rat race will eat your creative spirit alive, and cause good writers to churn out a bunch of garbage that stuffs the landfills and kills poor trees. True story.

  16. See, my problem is that I AM a competitive person. So I have trouble sometimes remembering to just have fun exercising. If I’m slower on the treadmill than I had been because I haven’t been active in awhile, it’s sooo hard to not get down on myself for “slacking off” and “losing what I had”. It’s going to take some time and quite a bit of mindfulness to change this inner mindset.

  17. I used to be totally competitive. I was a classic overachiever in school – teacher’s pet, straight As, bell-curve-wrecker, 99th percentile in everything, competitive storytelling, competitive singing, yada yada blah. I loved being acknowledged as the “best” at whatever I took on. (I had a small problem with external validation. Sue me.)

    When I dropped out of college (because, as it happens, I don’t want to be an engineer, even if I am hella good at math), it was the biggest relief ever – and it was the first time I made a choice fully grounded in my own standards, and only my own standards. That decision to stop chasing the top of the pile, and figure out what it was I really wanted for myself was really eye-opening for me, and it’s led me down some really strange and empowering roads.

    Nowadays, I confuse a lot of people in my life by my choices. I could play corporate games and climb a ladder, but I’d rather put my energy into music and activism. I could keep trying to be “the best,” but I just don’t care how I stack up to other people anymore.

  18. I’m only competitive when I’m winning. Which is why I prefer not to be competitive at all when I can, because it takes all the fun out of it for me if I lose and I’m a bitch when I win. I guess I’m fortunate that I’ve never felt the need to compete at work we’re just all here to do a job and get it done. Yay for nerds.

    I do wonder sometimes if the emphasis on competitive sports growing up really ruined my enjoyment of doing physical stuff. I was always terrible at sports, and so I was always the weakest link on the team and that was frustrating. But I HAD to go to every practice and I HAD to play in every game, and I HAD to play at least one sport every season or i’d turn into a fat fat fat fattie. So I rarely ever did any activity growing up because I wanted to, and I can’t really think of any activity I would actually enjoy doing. I guess I just can’t get myself out of the “excersize or your a lazy fatass” thing. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for my inherent laziness.

  19. I’d still love to see a book from you. Mb cuz I know pple would read it (and thus “spread the word”), mb cuz I know it adds credibility to what the person is saying, and probably because I would love to be able to buy it and give it to all my family, friends, etc…

  20. Our culture has this weird obsession with what we do for a living. I got called a “whore” for taking a job when I was 18. Simply working where I did made me a target for harassment.

    There’s nothing wrong with working, or not working, as long as you’re able to support yourself and your family, who gives a shit where the money comes from?

  21. I’m just starting to delve into the fear that I’m a lazy, spoiled brat, as I recently cut back to 30 hours a week to “go to school” (which I will do in April, but it wasn’t the reason for the cutback).

    I can balance my budget with the lower income, but I’m definitely starting to feel all sorts of fears about class and self-worth that I didn’t expect.

    I think the fear means I’m doing the right thing.

  22. When I was a little kid, I could swim like a fish and loved it. My mother forced me to go to a little-league swim team practice where she was an assistant coach, and all the yelling and drilling and competition made me hate it. I can clearly remember being maybe 6 or 7 years old and having a coach yelling at me for holding the side of the wall in the deep end. From then on, I had absolutely no desire to be a part of any type of competition, ever.

    Flash forward 15 years; I have a degree in writing for television and walk off a plane in Los Angeles, determined to break into entertainment. Except, every single person I met in “The Biz” reminded me exactly of those coaches – push yourself to exhaustion, tunnel-vision on your goal, think of nobody else or no other thing. To make ends meet, I take a job in the burgeoning dot-com world and discover that other businesses are not like that at all. Guess which job I stuck with?

    At first I felt like a failure because I didn’t do what I set out to do, not even close. I didn’t even get the post-grad degree like everybody else; I struck out on my own and did something different. Except… it worked for me. Being in a competitive workplace would not have.

    Alternatively, my husband *is* competitive and works in a very artistic/competitive world (he’s a computer game designer). My role as his cheerleader/supporter has been far more fulfilling than pushing myself to do something I didn’t enjoy.

  23. I love that book probably because it was like me. I never really understood the need to compete. Usually I find people are upset because its hard for them to win when no one else is playing.

    Its upsetting that you’ve run into so many people who don’t think you can be a realwriter because you don’t make a living off of it. You can be anything you want to be! Its part of how people identify themselves, their jobs. Yet in conversation instead of using it in that way, a person’s job is used to determine their value in relation others. another form of competition :(

    but I have another children’s book I need to add to my collection now. I can’t believe I forgot about ferdinand.

  24. Wow, this post really speaks to me. I just graduated from college last spring, as did my friends, and we’re all really struggling to figure out what we want to do next. And it can be pretty hard to ignore the voices that say “go for the high-paying job” or “get the job that will look best on your resume”, because there *are* people out there willing to sacrifice their happiness in order to get ahead. Or maybe getting ahead does make them happy. Either way, it’s not something I want to be a part of. But I also feel that following my heart is such a risk and a leap of faith.

    But in the end it’s about avoiding the Terrible Shoulds. Whether it’s taking a specific job or losing weight or whatever, if you’re doing it because you think you “should”, you “shouldn’t” do it. :)

    And I have to agree with the other posters here. I don’t know what a “real” writer is but your writing makes me happy and keeps me coming back for more. Which is real enough for me, and I hope is real enough for you.

  25. Dude, if you’re not “real,” nobody is.

    And if you think people look down at you when you tell them you’re supporting yourself with an inheritance, try telling them you support yourself as a medical transcriptionist. That’ll get you an instant invitation to all the hot spots — to clean the toilets.

  26. My competitiveness comes and goes — I have an odd relationship with competitiveness.
    For a long time, I didn’t acknowledge my competitive streak because I didn’t feel like a “contender.” As I believe in my abilities more and more, there are more moments when the competitive side comes out. And since I didn’t get a chance to come to terms with it as a young person, that competitive side can be very immature. Argh!
    Then there are the things in which I feel supremely competent and I don’t feel the need to compete about them — I’m sort of beyond competition. When my ego is small but my excitement is big — that’s when fun can really get going.
    Complicated.

    And I want to echo ae who wrote: “I’d like to thank you for doing it from a place of passion instead of a place of production or competition.”

    But it does drive me crazy when people aren’t able to accept that sometimes people do things just to do them — not to be “the best” — but because the activity itself has intrinsic value.

  27. the next Paralyzed Perfectionists Anonymous meeting

    I’m there with ya, FJ.

    Actually, I’m just plain ol’ competitive. Anything I can compete in, I will. It’s probably better that I have something to compete about, or I’ll channel it into things that aren’t healthy, like relationships or clothing or something. Whereas if I’ve got something intellectual to channel it into, I’m in hog heaven.

    And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a chapter of my pre-law textbook to read . . .

  28. Honestly, I’m relieved to find out you are living off an inheritance. I always wondered how you managed to write thoughtful and brilliant pieces on a daily basis. I imagined you faced the dreary realities of a full time job, a mortgage, a marriage, an exercise routine, etc yet you managed to slave away hours into the dawn crafting words into powerful ideas. It’s a romantic perception not meant to make a judgment to detract from what you do and who you are. If people think you are a “spoiled dilettante,” it is more from a place of envy rather than objective fact. I am glad you have the security to follow your dream to the fullest and bless us with insightful humor.

    I am reflecting on how I tell my siblings (I am a graduating undergrad) that degrees in art and philosophy* are only for those with trust funds. In reality, I would be happy to be a carpenter; my sister a cook and my brother an artist. Our dreams are reduced to hobbies because our security depends on income and a profession. It’s more complex than that. I’m the oldest and I worry whether I will be dependable when my parents get older and my siblings pursue higher education. Even though my parents immigrated so that I could follow my dreams, I’m not because of ‘dreary realities’ both inherent and self imposed. So, I do think you’re spoiled but certainly not a “dilettante” because you have a real and enviable talent for writing. Either way, since when has it mattered to you what bitter people have to say?

    *Really any number of degrees that do not garner substantial incomes – now I realize how it reflects on my ingrained bias of competitiveness.

  29. Paralyzed Perfectionists Anonymous

    Um.

    Did someone say where the meeting was?

    But it does drive me crazy when people aren’t able to accept that sometimes people do things just to do them — not to be “the best” — but because the activity itself has intrinsic value.

    ^^^ Yeah, that.

    Our society is not the most Zen. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that it also seems to be in complete denial about the possibility that there just might be a dark side to all the endless competition.

    I … stop to take naps.

    So did/does Bill Clinton (who is also an author, as I recall).

    Make of that what you will. :D

  30. I always thought the “You must have a goal” people were crazy. My goal is to work out. I am not exactly an athlete, don’t enjoy athletic competition, and don’t really have any idea of what my body is reasonably capable of doing when it comes to weight lifted, miles run (hah!), etc. I’ll find out when I get there. And enjoy watching this TV show while I’m on the treadmill.

  31. Great post, Kate! I am also fairly averse to competition, and I notice that the competitive spirit interferes with enjoyable exercise. I particularly dislike how it infects all exercise magazines, so that if you’re a runner and you buy a running magazine, it’s full of “inspirational” articles about people who run EXTREMELY far or fast, or crazy training regimens. The same thing is true of most hiking, bicycling, and rock climbing magazines, so I just can’t enjoy them.

  32. Oh, and also, I think the worst thing about that spirit of competitiveness is that it makes so many thousands of us think as children that WE’RE NOT ATHLETIC. It took me *decades* to figure out that I AM, in fact, quite athletic — I’m just not interested in or good at competitive sports.

  33. I write fanfic (as well as original stuff) so I hear this all the time! It’s really great to have a hobby that’s non-competitive (for most people), community and discussion oriented and really creative. I also make paper crafts, embroider and sew but people always ask me when I’m going to sell my designs or enter them in competitions! So not the point!

  34. There are a lot of great things to focus on in this post but I can’t get over the madness of waking up at 4:15 in the morning. I can’t even imagine it. Yes, that is what I focused on in this post. :)

  35. You’re spot on, Kate. It troubles me when even the wealthiest people in our nation feel compelled to keep earning more money, rather than do something non-profitable.

    I never exercise, but I play with the kids every day. I took a dead-end job with bennies, because I want to be able to leave work at 4pm, and not think about it. I gave up working in publishing because it sucked the joy out of reading and writing.

    I’m a dilettante, and proud of it. Although, clearly, you found a way to do it better .

  36. I used to fitness swim. I had “real goals” — getting and
    keeping my heartrate at aerobic levels. Swimming 30
    minutes without stopping or touching the walls. Improving
    my strokes — I taught myself to sidestroke on my non-
    preferred side and an overarm backstroke (I don’t know the
    proper name). I was quite proud of myself each time I
    achieved one of those goals. Those who loftily assert that
    private, intrinsic goals are not “real” are clueless.

    But more than that, I reveled in the feel of my body moving
    through the water, the coordination of muscles and body
    working together to make me competent in a foreign
    environment. Because I wanted to exercise both sides of
    my body equally, and therefore needed to circle in both
    directions, I devised / taught myself a real slick move. I
    could stop dead in the water, tuck and flip end-for-end on
    my own axis, and head off in the opposite direction without
    missing a beat. I was soooo proud of that move!

    In short, I got a deep, intrinsic pleasure from my activity and
    my skills. What a concept! And how sad that it’s foreign to
    so many people.

    I can’t honestly claim to be noncompetitive, but I try to
    squash those impulses — because being competitive
    decreases the sense of fun. Yeah, I like to ‘win’; who
    doesn’t? But I also like for my friends to win, and I can’t
    have both at once. For me, celebrating the fun and
    controlling the competitiveness is the way to go.

  37. Oh, this post so resonates with me. Do I EVER know the pain of the “So, what do you do?” question.

    I consider myself a professional author. I ought to: I make my living solely on the fruits of my writing. But when I quit my “day job” to focus on it, my coworkers wanted to know what I would be doing for money and when I told them I was going to be writing, they wanted to know when they’d see my name up on the book shelves.

    Maybe you’re fortunate in your circumstances, but what you’re doing is still an incredibly brave risk. Turning away from a career (the “proven path”) to try to make something for yourself? That’s something few people would dare try.

    For what it’s worth, I also get called the equivalent of a dilettante (or harsher words: lazy, loafer, leech, parasite) because instead of “selling something of value”, I make my living primarily on ad revenue and donations from readers.

    My opinion? It’s a defense mechanism. People sacrifice their hearts and souls to climb the Ladder Of Success and most of them never find satisfaction with whatever level they reach. If they see you ignore the ladder and take the gently sloping path instead, it makes their sacrifices look hollow. Of course they have to dismiss you, if not put you down.

    (Actually, it’s pretty much the same thinking behind the “How dare you be happy and overweight?”)

  38. In the car on Saturday, my son and his friend were talking about a video game his friend owns (they’re both 5).

    Son’s friend says, “If you come in first, you’re happy. But if you come in second, third, or fourth, you’re sad.”

    Son says, “Why?”

    Son’s friend says, “Because you lost. Losing is sad.”

    So I break in at this point and say, “Losing CAN be sad, but if you did better than you did before you can be happy about that. Or if you ran as fast as you wanted to. You know, you can’t just be happy if YOU win, because although you’re probably going to win alot, you’re going to lose sometimes. Losing is something that happens sometimes. You need to be able to be happy about how you did when you did your best or met your goal. No matter whether or not you won. Do you understand?”

    Both: “No.”

    Oh well. I’ll talk about it with my son again sometime.

  39. Alexandra Erin, I’m surprised you don’t go with “I live off donations from my adoring fans.”

    Hooping class tonight was full of newbies who were doing a little better than me (also a newbie, but with one more week of experience), and I was SO PISSED. It didn’t ruin the experience for me — the fact that they were all early-20s males did — but it definitely started me on a self-recrimination spiral. So… maybe still competitive. (Again, I guess I should save this for the PPA meeting.)

  40. @liz: I’d bet from the “come in first, you’re happy” bit that he was talking about an onscreen animation showing the character’s reaction. If so, that’s probably a good time to stress the difference between games and real life… the guy on the screen might be crying but they can still be glad they got to have fun playing.

  41. @fillyjonk: See, but that’s what makes me lazy. If I were to charge directly upfront, I’d be a Serious Businessperson and therefore worthy of respect. (Except for the part where I’d probably be broke.) But donations? That makes me a guitar-strummin’ hippy bothering people on the street corner. Why don’t I pack it in and get a real job? If I have to rely on donations, I can’t be any good!

  42. Right, you’re only a REAL writer if people have to pay you BEFORE they know if they like your writing or not.

  43. Y’know, if this post had been made in a less niche-specific venue, I’d bet somebody would probably have already cried” HARRISON BERGERON!” That’s got to be the Godwin’s corrolary for discussions of competitiveness.

    “I think the important thing is that everybody has a good time, regardless of who wins or…”

    “Oh, I guess you’ve never read a little story called HARRISON BERGERON!”

    I swear to goth I read a newspaper editorial that cried HB when the issue was making accomodations for professional golfers with mobility problems.

    Apparently, the thing with the stick and balls is just a sideline… the meat of the sport is the walking, and if we let somebody lacks the strength in their legs to walk the length of a golf course actually compete then it’s just like HARRISON BERGERON!

    Considering the central message of Vonnegut’s works was pretty much: “Hey… don’t be assholes.”, it pains me to see people twisting one of his stories this way.

  44. I’m cracking up because I’m remembering when my sister decided to get involved in one of those masters swimming programs (I’m probably not saying that correctly, but I mean the type referenced in your link).

    She told me that the swimming coach gave her the best advice:

    “OK. If you want to learn how to swim fast, then you have to swim fast.”

    On the one hand it’s like duh, but OTOH, it’s so damned true! I’m totally the type of person who will study articles and research how to do things instead of jumping in and getting my hands dirty. I’m working on getting past that.

    So if you want to be and call yourself a writer, then clearly you are, because you do it (very well) every damned day! And fuck that dilettante shit. That’s not spoiled, that’s called taking an opportunity and using it to follow your dreams. Pretty smart, if you ask me. Most people wouldn’t have the balls. The writing you are doing here is *so* important — it’s changed the way so many people think!

  45. So… maybe still competitive. (Again, I guess I should save this for the PPA meeting.)

    It’s funny, ’cause I think of PPA as being separate from competition. Maybe we need to collaborate on a post about this via gchat or something. Or just do dueling posts.

  46. I know I mentioned this in another post’s comment thread, but after reading Joy Nash’s comment way up there, I’d just like to point out again that Amber “Tara From Buffy” Benson writes and produces her own movies with her own money. You aren’t likely to see them in theaters or on cable, but you can buy them on DVDs.

    Because my mind turns to money (because money is what lets you do something All The Time instead of When You Can), I wonder how well she’d do making short subjects for the YouTube audience and selling value-added (commentary, outtakes, extended version) DVD compilations?

  47. Maybe we need to collaborate on a post about this via gchat or something.

    Maybe we should actually HAVE the meeting on gchat, and just blog the results. :)

    I think PPA and competitiveness are definitely related for me, because it’s equal parts not doing things because I’m afraid I’ll fail and not doing things because I’m afraid I won’t be better than other people.

  48. “Oh, I guess you’ve never read a little story called HARRISON BERGERON!”

    Ugh. That story bugs me enough without being grossly misinterpreted.

  49. Regarding fitness swimmers: like fitness itself isn’t a goal? Just because it’s not competing against someone else? I’m not a competitive swimmer but I have goals – usually it’s the goal of getting into the pool and getting my workout done, and I consider completing that as a goal well accomplished.

    I am a somewhat competitive person, and I did the whole corporate thing, even rose up some in the organization, and it damned near killed me. What I wasn’t prepared for was how invisible I became to people I used to know after I left, or how much this society defines you in terms of what you do, instead of who you are. It’s been an eye opener.

  50. Kate, do you have any advice on helping someone who’s non-competitive? My husband, bless his cotton socks, is disabled and deals with a lot of flack for being non-competitive and not being “the man” of the house and all that jazz, since he can’t work. I want to be able to help him deal with the people who think he’s some sort of freak because of it, and I don’t really know how because – well, I’m competitive. (I just don’t expect him to be, you know?)

  51. HB was actually something that spoke to me as an over achiever/competative person. I always felt like I was being told to not go there, and if I did care about reading, my school work, and (heaven forbid) practice my instrument for hours a day, I cared Way Too Much and ‘Wasn’t Effortlessly Cool and Talented’ like my friends. But you know, I can be very ‘chill’ as my friends in rowing like to describe me outside of the boat. However, I joined rowing crew because I love the sport, and it just happens to require that you be competative with yourself as well as with other people. I don’t have hate for people when I row, but I am going to give everything I have, so that when the day is over, I know my true athletic abilities. Our women’s 8 had the lead until the last 500 m one race, and even though we lost, it was amazing. I felt like a winner.

    HB is also about what happens when society takes equal to such an extreme that it deprives everyone of beautiful and great things. This ‘normalizing’ hurts everyone because people who are talented are brought down, and average people are encouraged to think of talented people as deformed and not appriciate true talent. In short, a HB world kills true talent (like this blog).

  52. For what it’s worth, I have definitely quoted you more in conversations over the past month than any of the writers I am officially studying. And I still get choked up when doing it, too.

  53. In total seriousness, I thought that “blogger” was a perfectly socially acceptable occupation these days. I sure hear enough people described by it. And it is SO no one’s business where your income comes from.

    I really get this too. I have only ever been competitive at what I was really good at (straight A’s/teacher’s pet/blowing the curve – check, check and check!) And even then I like being *good* at something, but being better than other people never really figured into the equation. I’m particularly thinking of when I got into ballroom dancing – I wanted my teacher’s approval (some things never change) but I really wanted everyone else to do well too, because that meant more fun and more moves for the whole group.

  54. It’s awesome that Kate has enough money that she doesn’t need to work for a living. She clearly is a productive writer. But it’s natural for people to take her wealth into account when they decide what they think of her. Being self-supporting, being an adult who makes his or her own living through labor, is a fundamental part of personal honor in the United States. Many, many people work hard at jobs they dislike because they take this very seriously, and there is a certain respect that goes with that.

    I’m not saying that Kate should quit writing and go work at 7-Eleven. I think she has made good choices, also in choosing creative work over the “more money is always better” mantra. All the same, rich people who choose to fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get the same kind of respect as poor people who fit their artistic work into a money-earning, self-supporting life. I’m not saying that rich creative people don’t deserve respect — but that particular kind of recognition is what you give up; it’s one of the tradeoffs that comes with wealth.

  55. Wow. I think some of the other comment-leavers have hit on some of my issues. I used to kickbox. I loved kickboxing. However, if I did it more than twice a week (which you really have to do if you want to ‘compete’) I would have violent dreams and walk around all tense. I think it might just be that the whole ‘fight and compete’ aspect was diametrically opposed to my non-competitor self. I run because I like running. I’m not training for a race. I train for triathlons because I like it not so that I can actually participate in triathlons. Luckily, my husband gets it. A lot of friends just don’t, though. Which can be trying, to be honest.
    Thanks for the post, definitely something to ponder.

  56. “…rich people who choose to fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get the same kind of respect as poor people who fit their artistic work into a money-earning, self-supporting life”.

    This may or may not be your personal view, nell, but it doesn’t half make me cross. It belongs in the same box as, “White middle class people are incapable of making valid, meaningful art because they have no concept of True Suffering” – as if only certain types of suffering carry value, and as if suffering is the only thing folks want to to read about, look at or listen to anyway. Furthermore, I’d suggest that since it’s predominantly white middle class people who review books, music and art, it’s a classic case of inverted snobbery. And very condescending to boot.

    Sure it’s admirable if people keep following their muses alongside or inbetween their soul-sucking day jobs. Not only do I help creative people, (illustrators) realise their potential for a living, I’ve done it myself and know exactly how hard it is. But persistence doesn’t necessarily equal talent. And anyone who curls their lip at good writing simply because the writer isn’t a burger-flipping drudge or a corporate drone is probably sucking on a sour grape.

    With regard to competition, two big mouthfuls here:-

    “Usually I find people are upset because its hard for them to win when no one else is playing.

    People sacrifice their hearts and souls to climb the Ladder Of Success and most of them never find satisfaction with whatever level they reach. If they see you ignore the ladder and take the gently sloping path instead, it makes their sacrifices look hollow. Of course they have to dismiss you, if not put you down. (Actually, it’s pretty much the same thinking behind the “How dare you be happy and overweight?”)

    Wow. Analogy City. Could anything spell out the reasons for the particularly vitriolic nature of opposition to FA any better than this? How many times do we get accused of being “losers” when we’re not even fucking playing? How can someone be a loser if they have no interest in competing and not the slightest bit of interest in the game? They’re not losers. Their interest – our interest – is simply invested in other areas.

  57. rich people who choose to fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get the same kind of respect as poor people who fit their artistic work into a money-earning, self-supporting life.

    The same kind? No, I agree; rich people who fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get respect for fitting their artistic work into a money-earning, self-supporting life. Unless, of course, they earn money and support themselves and just happen to earn a LOT of money. I suppose you meant “independently wealthy people”?

    It’s only when you expand that to “rich people who fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get respect for their artistic endeavors” that it becomes a ridiculous thing to say. If art is legitimized only by the type of money behind it, we haven’t really moved beyond patronage — just turned it on its head.

  58. i *needed* to read this today. i had a mild but untreated stress fracture three years ago due to training not even close to properly for a marathon and then running it anyway because i “had” to. not only that, but my knee wiped out at the halfway point and i continued running until the end with shooting pains at every footfall. why? and now, ever since then, i start to have knee pain during my runs whenever i’m doing more than 12 or 14 miles a week. even at 10 miles a week, i feel like i’m gingerly walking the line of pain.

    so why haven’t i given it up? because i’m a RUNNER. duh. because that’s what i do for exercise. because i spent too much money on spandex leggings to give it up. oh, and also, because my husband runs a 3:15 marathon without breaking a sweat. three great reasons to risk being hobbled by middle age.

    however, i’m coming to the conclusion that i just… can’t… really run anymore, or at least not as much as i’d like to. it’s because of a stupid decision i made three years ago, but it’s nonetheless a reality and i need to accept it. i can’t continue to allow my “goals” to hurt me because they aren’t goals like brokering a peace in the middle east deal or curing AIDS in africa. they’re pointless goals of being bib number 12,671 in the NYC marathon and cutting my 5K time so i can be faster than… well, just faster. silly arbitrary me. running for me has always been half fun and half trying to get somewhere (and i don’t mean the latter in the literal sense).

    ah. thank you kate. i really needed this today because it’s tuesday and tuesday is run day. i need to remember that not running is not a sentence in the third circle of hell. i can still do all the other things i like — snowshoeing, yoga, just plain walking in the woods. none of those are competitive but so what? neither is my slow-ass running : ) i admit that i will miss the competition, but perhaps that’s a good thing since the only person with whom i was ever competing was myself, and i have been beating myself way too often.

  59. PS: i’m a writer, too, and i constantly get the “who do you write for?” question. i do contract reference writing and editing work to pay the bills, but what moves me is writing stories that have not as of yet been published. so i say both of these things, because they’re true — but after it’s clear that oprah has not picked me, the question becomes “what does your husband do?” since, of course, i can’t possibly be making a living diddling at home on the computer.

    which reminds me, i have work to get back to…

  60. I really get this too. I have only ever been competitive at what I was really good at (straight A’s/teacher’s pet/blowing the curve – check, check and check!) And even then I like being *good* at something, but being better than other people never really figured into the equation. I’m particularly thinking of when I got into ballroom dancing – I wanted my teacher’s approval (some things never change) but I really wanted everyone else to do well too, because that meant more fun and more moves for the whole group.

    Yeah, this is pretty much me too. I was never really competitive at anything until I got to high school and University and realised I was really good at this school thing. And even then it was more about doing my best and getting the approval of my parents and teachers than about outperforming my classmates (although I did get a slight glow of pride at being at the top of the class). Now I’m in the corporate world, and I want to be good at my job and to have the approval of my manager, but I have no interest in climbing the corporate ladder. And I know exactly what Kate is saying in this post… in the corporate world, not being ambitious is seen as a huge failing. My manager (who has taken a personal interest in my career since I had my first summer job with him 7 years ago) is always telling me how I can be a Vice President at this company one day, and I don’t know how to tell him I don’t want that. I don’t care about the title, and I don’t need the money, and I really don’t want the responsibility and long hours. I just want to do my job well and make enough money to be comfortable. But I feel like to tell him that would be to let him down, and I hate to do that after he’s helped me so much.

  61. Kate, you are now officially my hero. Your veal pen of publishing is the same as what I call the puppy mill companies that grind out meaningless publications with too small overstretched staffs.

    I’m finally out of the puppy mill environment and working for a small, family owned magazine. Becky, I am so with you on the misperceptions regarding a so-called “lack of ambition.” Back in the puppy mill days, when i was #2 at my magazine, a job as editor in chief of one of the company’s other titles opened up. Almost no one from outside the company applied for it and even though I suspected I’d have a good shot – I was a little too experienced for the position I was in – I opted not to apply because 1) I knew it was a dead end – the book was failing and would eventually be shut down and then I’d be out of a job altogether and 2) as an inside, female candidate I was not likely to be offered enough money to make the overwhelming amount of work worthwhile. Well, guess what – that killed my chances at that company because I was labeled “non-ambitious.” um, no – lets try realistic.

    Even where I am now very few people understand that I am not waiting with bated breath for my editor to keel over or retire. I’m a good right-hand-woman, a good second-in-command. I don’t have to be at the top of the totem pole to be happy – in fact, I rather like the ability to get my job done while I’m at the office and not be on demand 24/7. Perhaps in a few years, when she’s ready to step down, I will feel differently. But why can’t our society see that it’s OK not to want to be in charge?

  62. All the same, rich people who choose to fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get the same kind of respect as poor people who fit their artistic work into a money-earning, self-supporting life.

    I was going to respond to this, but instead I’ll just say: what buffpuff and FJ said.

    Seriously, being in the rat race is, for many many many many many people, completely antithetical to creativity. I write poetry. I am currently a grad student at a fancy pants university, studying poetry, writing about poetry, thinking and talking about poetry every day, and I DO NOT HAVE TIME TO WRITE POETRY. I’m doing this partly because I love to teach and want to be a professor, and partly because if I have to have a full-time job to support myself, then by god I’m going to have one that has something to do with poetry. If I had the money to not work for a few years and really try to enjoy life and finish my manuscript, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

    When I saw the movie Sicko, I cried — for the heartbreaking stories in it, yes, but also for the bizarro world version of my life I could see myself living if I had been born in a different country. Because if I could work part-time at a bookstore or coffeeshop and know that if I fell ill or got hit by a car I would be taken care of (and if I were in France, my doctor might “prescribe” me vacation time!), I would work half-time and write half-time, and I would be so. goddamn. happy.

    Creative people are born into all classes and groups of society. The extremely persistent, hard-working, energetic, and focused ones can eke out some artistic work while holding down a full-time job. The extremely lucky ones can devote their whole lives to what they love without having to do that. It doesn’t make the latter unworthy of respect for their art; it just makes them lucky.

  63. I’m in the rat race and competing, and what it means is that art is sidelined. No energy, no bandwidth. It’s reality. It mildly sucks (I’m not a tremendously creatively driven person so it could be worse). But the thing is, it’s not that it’s “me” to be competitive. Feh on competition. The fear of running out of money someday has more to do with it, but, realistically, I can always make enough to manage at some level. Honestly? I think a lot of it is that the one thing that makes work tolerable is imposing a narrative on it. I’m drven to progress from A to B to C and keep acquiring skill sets and responsibilities and changing things up, purely because the idea of just running in place doing the same thing for twenty-five years is unbelievably grim. So I don’t see myself as competitive in a zero-sum way that’s got to do with getting ahead of other people, but in real life, the outcome is pretty much the same thing. It’s disturbing to me in some ways that it works out like this, but it’s got as much to do with the structures of Western narrative and reading too many novels growing up as it does with the pressures of the capitalist-consumer society (as locally exacerbated here in NYC).

    If I won the lottery tomorrow there’s no way I’d be doing this. I could go develop my OWN narratives and goals and whatnot. A few of which would relate to what I do now, but it’d all be much calmer and saner and leave more room for other things.

    At any rate, I fully applaud your willingness to take advantage of the opportunity your money’s giving you. I hope it’s enough that you won’t wind up in troub in a few years’ time. But hell, why should you? You ARE a real writer, and you can pull out a great book, no problem, and do articles and public speaking and so on and so forth, if and when you have to or want to.

  64. “All the same, rich people who choose to fund their own artistic endeavors cannot expect to get the same kind of respect as poor people who fit their artistic work into a money-earning, self-supporting life.”

    As an artist, I call shennanigans on that one. Almost
    any artist or writer or musician who has to Work The Day Job would be delighted to have some time to actually be able to Do Art Full Time without worrying about where the next meal is gonna come from. Presented with that chance, hells yeah I would jump at it. Even if it was only temporary. Even if it meant that the money might run out before I made it big. Even if I might have to start all over at the bottom when the money runs out and I must return to the Day Job.
    Yeah, it’s harder and takes longer to make art while working, and you produce less, but that DOES NOT mean that the art you produce is BETTER than that made by someone who has the luck/ luxury to make it their full focus. Shennanigans.
    Kate, your writing is excellent. If / when you choose to sell it, your skills you have built up during your “fallow period” will serve you well. What do I tell people? I tell them I am an artist. I make less money as an artist than I do at the Day Job, but so what. If you write, and that’s what you do, you are a writer. You have a body of work to show to prove it and it’s a hella better body of work than catalog copy or a crappy newspaper column that you don’t get to choose the topic on. I’ll buy whatever you sell, when you decide to sell it.

  65. When I saw the movie Sicko, I cried — for the heartbreaking stories in it, yes, but also for the bizarro world version of my life I could see myself living if I had been born in a different country. Because if I could work part-time at a bookstore or coffeeshop and know that if I fell ill or got hit by a car I would be taken care of (and if I were in France, my doctor might “prescribe” me vacation time!), I would work half-time and write half-time, and I would be so. goddamn. happy.

    Sweetmachine, I second this whole-heartedly. My job is not what I expected to get right out of school…I’m the asst. editor at a small medical publishing company. There are some great things about working here…the hours are easy and flexible, it’s not a bad commute, the people range from nice to decent, and I have some benefits. But I’m not entirely happy. The work is a little boring and at the end of the day, I have at most three hours to myself before bed in which I have to cram in my writing, my friends, and (before the strike) the occassional TV show, and a lot of times, my motivation for my writing is zapped and all I do is waste time. If I had some security, if I knew that if I got sick or hurt it wouldn’t ruin me, if I knew that my parents wouldn’t have to worry in their old age (in spite working hard their whole lives), if I could make a living wage working part-time, I know I’d bow-out of the full-time world…at least for a little while. I don’t care about being the best in my field, or the top earner at my company…I’d much rather be happy. (Although several articles say that this is in fact the downfall of my generation ::rolls eyes::)

    And Kate, don’t let anyone rain on your parade. You are obviously a fabulous writer, and I am thrilled you have the oppertunity to do what you do. My grandfather’s philosophy on money is that it is only worth having if you are going to use it to make your life and the lives of people around you better; there is no question that this is exactly what you are doing.

  66. My grandfather’s philosophy on money is that it is only worth having if you are going to use it to make your life and the lives of people around you better

    I love that.

  67. So glad to see there are other Ferdinands out there! :) I work as an administrative assistant, (currently, i also moonlight as a store cashier, though that’s a recent development and is because I’m trying to save money for a trip), and have been told by several of my friends that it’s high time for me to get a “real” job, now that I’m 30, and “make something of myself.”

    What I can’t get through their heads is that I don’t want a “real job” if that means “striving for the corner office and being married to my job.”

    What I want, instead, is “something to pay the rent and keep baby-flavored donuts in the fridge but that won’t eat my soul alive, so that I can leave my job at the office every day, come home, and work on my writing.” Secretarial work fills the bill, and I’m good at it, so why not? But I clearly am a loser if I don’t want to be the CEO of Mucketymuck. *eyeroll*

    Which is a long way of saying, Kate, that you’re doing an awesome thing with your money and time, and that I for one will never judge you for being a Ferdinand. :)

  68. #
    lilacsigil, on January 22nd, 2008 at 2:43 am Said:

    I write fanfic (as well as original stuff) so I hear this all the time! It’s really great to have a hobby that’s non-competitive (for most people), community and discussion oriented and really creative. I also make paper crafts, embroider and sew but people always ask me when I’m going to sell my designs or enter them in competitions! So not the point!

    Lilacsigil! :) :) :) This is kethlenda.

  69. Amen, sister! Leaving the NY editing life was the best decision I ever made for myself, although my coworkers were shocked and some of them even disgusted. HOW on earth could I give up the opportunity to work for little money and no recognition for a bunch of self-important jerks publishing crapola when, one day, I COULD BE one of those self-important jerks publishing crapola? It just did. not. compute. with some folks.

  70. Sumac, when I left my job editing for a dot-com company, like 80% of the people who found out I was leaving to go back to school assumed I was going to get an MBA so I could come back and become a corporate superstar. The idea that I wanted to study literature and *that’s* why I gave up a well-paying job was mind-blowing for some people.

  71. Ok , so this will be my first time writing on someones blog, I’m mostly happy with just lurking, but I really wanted to get my thoughts out so bear with my really bad all-over-the-place writing. Firstly, Kate I really love reading everything you write and I come here everyday, it makes me so happy to now that people like you and the Shap. I’m 20 and about to be 21 in two months and the pressure to go to college and make lots o’ money doing something I don’t care about at all (Pharmacy) is really starting to get to me. Not to metion the fact that I feel like a complete loser for still living with my parents and quiting my temp job at the post office a few months ago, it’s just happening so fast and I still feel like I’m a 17 year old in Highschool! Going to college for art is out of the question since as soon as “You HAVE to” is attached to something I instantly don’t want to do it and put it off for as long as I can, you can imagine the “Why can’t you just do it!” arguments I have with my Mom on a daily about the dishes. That and you can’t make any “good” money by being an artist…..atleast not while you’re alive anyway. I’ve pretty much given in and let my Mom take control over my college decisions because I get so worried and stressed and confused about what to do. I’m so afraid of the future now. I don’t want to stuggle all my life cause I’ve watched my Aunt struggle all her life, but I also don’t want to be stuck doing somthing I hate, which I’ve also seen my Aunt do many times. it’s soul killing. Also, I kind of feel like I don’t have the “right” to be a pharmacist because I don’t care about it at all, it’s the same thing that’s holding me back from taking Bharatanatyam classes, a classical South Indian dance that takes years of dedication to learn, because I’m not Indian and I’d feel like a fake version of the real thing which is ridiculous. Well I’m gonna stop now as I’ve been rambling too long and don’t even remember what the original post was about.

  72. Holy baby-flavored donuts! My post is way longer than I wanted it to be and I am such a bad writer. I’m sorry about that everyone I’m such a noob when comes to actually participating in other people’s blogs.

  73. Adrienne, you can make “good” money while being an artist, if by “good” you mean “enough to meet all my needs and have a few luxuries”, and in a way, with the handcraft revival, it’s easier now than ever before. If you want a billion dollar home and a gold plated pony, art might be a difficult career for you. But remember, one of the greatest luxuries in the world is not having a job you hate. That is what all the sour grapes from the non-Ferdinands is about- the one luxury they can’t really buy. After killing themselves at a soul-sucking job for 40 years with no time to create their inner life, many people can’t enjoy the life left to them because they have nothing beyond their work.

  74. I can’t comment on competitive sport, because it’s something I ducked out of as soon as I realized I was generally going to be jeered for being last over the finish line. But I reckon I’m another Ferdinand. Or at least, one who will only really be prepared to work hard in order to get closer to the particular flowers I want to sniff.

    I’m totally with you, KellyL, because I’m in one of those jobs too. And while it’s not mental torture like the one I used to be in (I mean, literally – I spent some months of with depression from my last job), it’s not what I consider myself to “do”. I’m a musician, artist, and yes, also a writer. I hope one day to be able to combine this somehow into helping people discover their own creativity, and into connecting that with both spirituality and mental health somehow.

    Now, this is not a straightforward career path – I got ‘art therapy’ come up in some test at school to find out what I’d be good at, but I never got any kind of clue as to how you became one. So I’ve spent a lot of my life doing things because they were interesting – dance, community theater, psychology evening classes – without having much idea of how they could tie in together, if at all.

    (I do now know what the usual way into art therapy involves – going back to art college, for one thing, to get a degree – and that really isn’t a route I want to take, if it’s as nasty as it was back when I last went. Very little emphasis on what a foundation year was supposed to be about, which was discovering what kind of art you wanted to do, and very much more on out-weirding each other. To me, any kind of creativity isn’t about competition and elitism; it’s what you do as an individual. What you have to say to the world. Most of what we call mainstream art seems to have forgotten that – it’s a game of who’s the most hip, young, pretty and outrageous on the block – and I don’t want to be part of that.)

    Many people really don’t understand that I don’t have a simple ambition I can put into one sentence…at least, not one that will make sense to people who live in the world where other people can be referred to as ‘human resources’. So, I generally stay quiet about that side of myself.

    I do have every admiration for people like Kate who know what they want to do, and have the resources to go for it full-time. I emphatically can’t stand people like a certain very famous male British author, who shall remain nameless, who has stated often that nobody who doesn’t give up their job to do it full-time can write anything of any value. Fortunately views like that are rare, and most writers I’ve ever come across are entirely supportive of others, whether they have a day job or not, because they know that actual writing – good writing – is damn hard either way.

    When it comes down to it, a writer is someone who writes – whether they sell it or not, whether they do it full-time or not, and whether they go to the ‘right’ parties or do something more interesting. Kate is a writer. She writes. (And rocks, incidentally.)

  75. SweetMachine: I know it’s like “What?!? You want to think and read?!? And live in poverty for 4-8 years?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!? OMG, UR Crazy.” I’ve just stopped telling certain people I’m going into a PhD program because I’m afraid sparks will fly out of their ears and their brains will start to melt.

  76. I visited this blog after reading the NYT article. You hooked me when you wrote about two of the things I really like to do: swim and write.

    US Master’s “fitness swimmers” is just a catch-all category for people who are swimming primarily for fun and exercise. Their goals are more fitness-centric: swimming further, improving their stroke, swimming faster, etc. Competitive swimmers swim for fun and exercise, too (why else would they do it?), but their goals are more specific: dropping their time in their events, qualifying for championship meets, etc.

    Competition can be a great motivator. Entering an open water swimming race inspired me to get off my ass and hit the pool again. I swam competitively until I was a senior in college, but got burned out and quit. For years afterwards, I swam in a desultory fashion, not even bothering to count the yards because I was so over that competitive thing. Then my sister invited me to do some open water swimming with her. It was totally different from pool swimming and great fun; I fell back in love with the sport.

    One summer, we decided to do a 5K open water race together. I spent the entire season training for this race. It motivated me to do more swimming than I’d done in years. Competing in the race was a blast! Yeah, I placed towards the end of the pack, but it renewed my enjoyment of swimming. And it had tangible benefits: better physical fitness, improved mood, better shape.

    I’ve done open water races for several summers now. My time in the 5K has dropped every year. I even joined my local master’s swim team. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t decided to enter that race. I’m competing mainly against myself to improve my time, but also to beat other swimmers. (It’s particularly gratifying to swim rings around skinny people who’ve written me off as an athlete because I’m overweight.)

    Racing gives me a goal to shoot for when I’m training. It motivates me to not give up in the middle of a tough set because I know my effort today will pay off when I’m fighting the current out in the middle of the lake. Competing in these open water races has inspired my mom to swim them, too, which gives her something to do with her children. And it’s fun to go to races and practices just to hang out with other swimmers.

    I guess I used to be more competitive in my career as well. But it never seemed to pay off. I’m a writer, too — I work as a technical/professional writer and write fiction and poetry on my own time. Years ago, I sought out jobs with lots of responsibilities and leadership opportunities in the hope that they’d lead to bigger and better things. Usually I got stuck holding the bag as a “group leader” — namely, I had the responsibilities of a manager but no budget or real power to do anything. It got old after a while. These days, my main criteria for taking a job is whether it’s interesting. I passed up an opportunity to be the lead writer for a software company in favor of a part-time job at a university’s research and development center. It was the best career choice I’ve made in years.

    And I’m writing my own stuff again, after years of drought. The crappy, stressful jobs on top of family responsibilities sucked the creative juice out of me. I think the swimming has helped, since I feel more energy now that I’m back in shape. And swimming is very contemplative. Even hard sets, because it drives other thoughts out and forces you to concentrate on the now.

  77. By the way, this is sort of unrelated to the original topic, but all you wonderfully smart folks who have left editing and shed tears of joy for doing so make me wonder what I’ll be doing three years from now *lol*

  78. I feel like I’m very competitive sometimes, but I also feel like…I never win anything. I have been an A-/B+ student my whole life, have always come in for honorable mention. I can’t decide whether this is laziness or just that I suck. It stinks because what’s the point of being obsessive if it doesn’t pay off with big shiny trophies?

    I think about this re: writing my blog all the time. “Why aren’t I internet famous? Why don’t I have thousands of readers? Why hasn’t someone read my blog and offer me a book deal?” I’ve been writing my site since 2001 and nothing has really happened with it–except that am still doing it, and I’ve met some amazing friends through it, and I had people to pick me up at the airport when I arrived in Auckland in the middle of the night because of it, and because I LOVE IT. But in some ways those don’t seem like valid reasons to do anything, which is really sad.

  79. Because if I could work part-time at a bookstore or coffeeshop and know that if I fell ill or got hit by a car I would be taken care of (and if I were in France, my doctor might “prescribe” me vacation time!), I would work half-time and write half-time, and I would be so. goddamn. happy.

    YES. Reason number 4,327 that I want socialized medicine: it would make it easier to do less starving as a starving artist.

    And, seriously, if I fell into a box full of thousand dollar bills, I’d quit my day job in a heartbeat and go be an itinerant troubador. Sadly, hard to pull that off without funding. My only negative reaction to Kate’s bloody luck is seething envy. ;-)

  80. If I was single i’d ask you to marry me.

    I too find it shocking that people cannot grasp the concept that not everyone wants to fight their whole lives away.

    I want to just break even and have a good time doing it.

    In the USA you’re either moving so hard and fast you’re risking a stress heart attack, or you’re a “slacker”. Fine, i’m a happy slacker.

  81. oh my goodness, thank you, so much…i’m not a competitive person either, to the point that i’m doubting how cut out i am for the art world that i’ll (hopefully) be getting a college degree in soon. words are failing me, but yeah, thank you, this is a great ‘i’m not the only one?!?’ moment

  82. OMG

    I feel like I’ve just entered the Twilight Zone. I get a lot of that smug pity about my writing, too. It’s been one of my pet peeves for years that I tell people I like to write, and they ask if or where I’ve been published. Then I tell them I write for me, and they cannot comprehend it, until I ask them, you like to watch TV (or cross-stitch or read or garden or whatever)–do you expect someone to pay you for that? Good grief, what’s wrong with doing something simply because you enjoy it?

    I work at my dreary, awful job to pay the bills. It happens to be the kind of job where I have to work hard physically, but I don’t have to concern myself with “moving up.” It’s union/factory work, so I just put in the hours, and leave the empire-building to people who don’t want to do honest work. I clock out at the end of the day, and the job’s behind me that very second. Which means, of course, that I can turn my attention right then to the things I enjoy, like writing. Or reading. Or goofing off on my computer. :)

    Good enough for me!

  83. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that wealthy people’s *art* can’t be as good as that of day-job-working-people. I don’t know why anyone would think that. Every other great novelist in history had independent means, right? Virginia Woolf was quite definite on the need for a writing woman to have her own (non-work) income. What’s more, I absolutely agree that protecting one’s creative life if one wishes to be creative is important.

    Seriously, the only kind of respect I meant that Kate doesn’t have a claim to is working-for-a-living-respect. Everything else (general human respect, writer respect, whatever) is fair game. If you’re rich enough not to need to work, yeah, people are going to think you are spoiled.

    For example, I once went to some open-houses of artists working in Manhattan — gorgeous, airy, light-filled studios, bigger than any apartments I’ve ever had, fantastically luxurious by NYC standards. The painting was clearly not paying the rent. Those artists may have been good people, industrious painters, committed artists — but, damn, they were spoiled dilettantes! Of course, I’d love to be spoiled like that! :-)

    I’m spoiled too, though, because no one is financially dependent on me. I can be a grad student and make a meager living to do what I like because my family doesn’t need my income. It doesn’t mean my work isn’t good, but it does mean that I have options other people don’t. Pretending class doesn’t exist in this country doesn’t do the poor any favors, guys.

  84. I hate competition, but I think it’s because I’m actually insanely competitive. If I lose, I am pathetic and worthless, and if I win, I was just lucky there wasn’t someone better around, because it’s not like I’m the best in the world.

    I particularly hate sports because I have always sucked at physical stuff. The contrast between PE and every other damn subject was very drastic. Mostly I learned that exercise is a torturous hell to be avoided at all costs. And that not being sufficiently enthusiastic about sucking extremely is reason enough to lower your grade.

    But it’s very immoral and dangerous to my health to hate being filled with rage and despair and even more self-hatred than usual, so of course I’m always on the defensive.

    Co-worker: Soccer is so awesome.
    Me: I don’t like sports.
    Him: But they are fun!
    Me: It’s not fun for me because I suck.
    Him: You just have to practice.
    Me: So I spend hours upon hours of my precious spare time practicing something based on the hope that at some point in the future I might be good enough that it would actually be fun at all? I’m thinking no.

    And it’s not even like practice causes guaranteed improvement on even the tiniest scale. I’ve experienced the phenomenon of practicing really hard and getting worse. I guess I’m just supposed to enjoy sucking really hard. The thing is, there are other things I could do with my time, things at which I suck considerably less.

  85. Nell, thanks for clarifying, but do you see how when you said this:

    But it’s natural for people to take her wealth into account when they decide what they think of her. Being self-supporting, being an adult who makes his or her own living through labor, is a fundamental part of personal honor in the United States.

    you are basically implying that Kate has no “personal honor,” whatever that is? No one is claiming that “class doesn’t exist in this country;” you keep using the word “spoiled,” however, when I would use “privileged,” and to my mind there’s a significant difference. Being “spoiled” implies that you have been ruined by overcoddling; being “privileged” means that in a certain arena, you won the social-hierarchy-jackpot by luck of your birth. Acknowledging and checking your privilege is hugely important, and I think that’s part of what this post is about.

  86. I’m so with you on the identity thing. When I quit my finance job to explore freelance writing and art, I would panic at the thought of meeting new people and having to explain myself. I’m slowly getting over it, but I still worry about how I come off, and often feel the need to overly reference my past “real” career.

    Oh, and my business cards currently list my job title as “international dilettante”. :)

  87. I’ve read a bunch of the above comments, but not all, so I apologize if I’m repeating anything.

    I have such an odd relationship with competitiveness. It really only comes out in a classroom setting… even then, I don’t need to be “the best”, just one of the best. It’s actually been very difficult for me to take our rescue dog (who has some issues, to put it mildly) to agility class, because I can’t stand that she and I are at the bottom of the class, even though she’s come miles from where she was. And with dogs, you can’t push them. She does what she can do, and then that’s it. If it were just me, I’d push myself beyond all comfortable limits to succeed in class. Good thing the dog is there to stop me. The instructor kindly reminds me to stop when she starts to get overwhelmed — something I’ll do for her, but would never do for myself.

    That said, I’m not competitive in any other area of life. Uncompetitiveness is part of why I hate reality TV. Survivor, especially, makes me very anxious. WHY CAN’T THEY ALL JUST GET ALONG?! Why are they all pushing themselves past all normal human limits? And why are we watching? It’s a strange worship of competition for competition’s sake, and I can’t stand watching it.

  88. Argh, started and then the page went somewhere else.

    Kate, like you, I once wrote hundreds and hundreds of words that thousands of people read daily. People came up to me and thanked me for giving them a reason to procrastinate in college. Like you, there was a community around it, that required care and feeding.

    And the writing I did on that web site got me to the next point in my writing career.

    However, despite all that writing, people would actually say (or type), things like:
    “Well, she SAYS that she’s a writer, but I know she happens to work for BIGCORPORATION”
    “She keeps going on about being a writer, but as far as I know she’s never actually been paid for writing.”

    People really do think like that.

    I am glad to hear about the inheritance as well, because otherwise you were going to be one of Those People I talk to my therapist about. You know, Those People who manage to work three jobs, raise two children, write a novel in one week, have it sell for millions of dollars, and volunteer for Mother Theresa in their copious free time.

    (FWIW, her take on this is that these types of stories are promoted to keep people from believing that they, too, can accomplish something, or that their small accomplishments might be noteworthy.)

    I quit my job at BIGCORPORATION to move back home and finish my novel and get an agent. And I did all of that – only to find that the book didn’t sell, despite everyone’s predictions of great success, despite a dozen editors wanting to buy it.

    Try explaining that one to people. The same people who were so busy telling me I wasn’t a writer are also so happy to find out that I haven’t been successful.

    People are fucked up.

  89. Thanks so much for this post, Kate. I’ve recently made the decision to step away from a structured environment (specifically, academia), and begin that creative career I’ve always wanted. I got my PhD in literature in 2005, and just finished a two-year postdoc. The last ten years of grad school and postdoc life have been a treat. But I’ve found that going career (i.e., becoming a professor) is a little too competitive for my blood. I’m not as well suited to that path as I thought I’d be.

    Here’s the thing, though: even though I was only making a pittance as a sessional lecturer (for those outside of the ivory doghouse, that’s contract work, as opposed to the coveted tenure track), pursuing a creative dream means letting go of even that pittance. So, it came down to asking my partner (read: most wonderful man in the world) to help me out for a year, possibly two, while I work on my stuff.

    Talk about humbling! Fortunately we’re okay financially, and this plan is do-able, but relying on someone else for income feels so, so, so tricky. As a feminist, I’m struggling with the concept of relying on a male partner for support. I feel a bit like a hypocrite.

    But balancing all that worry and guilt is the focus on the dream. Now that it’s so close, and I can spend all the time I want on writing and art, I’m hanging on for as long as I can.

    So carry on, Kate! There are more of us in your situation than you think! You are an inspiration.

  90. Sweet Machine,

    You might be right about spoiled vs. privileged. I have a fondness for the first, because I think this country suffers from too great a tendency to assume that wealth (and poverty) are deserved, but I might be using it in an idiosyncratic manner which could be misleading.

    About the honor, thing, again I see your point. But I still think there’s an essentially American honor that prizes the dignity of labor over more traditional forms of honor that see work as rather degrading, and instead value inherited wealth, pedigree, leisure, and so forth. And I do think it’s important to remember that inheriting money is nothing to be proud of, whereas earning one’s own living is something to be proud of (in moderation!). It’s especially important because labor is becoming increasingly devalued: if a kid thinks it’s more respectable to live of his parents than become a janitor, to my mind that’s a bad sign for our culture.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the dignity of those who work is worth a bit of embarrassment for those who don’t, if they have to go together.

    Fortunately work isn’t everything, and Kate has plenty of other reasons to be proud and — I don’t know her, but it seems likely — to consider herself an honorable person.

  91. Nell, I see what you’re saying about the dignity of labor, an I agree that it’s certainly preferable to associate dignity with working over, say, inheriting something by the luck of the draw. But I think your comment still misses two things that are really crucial: 1) inheriting is not something to be *ashamed* about either, because it too is luck of the draw, and 2) writing is work even when you’re not being paid for it. In the US, artists of all sorts are forced to choose between laboring on things they don’t care about and that sap their creativity in order to make a living and things they do care about but won’t ever pay enough to live on. To say that those who have another source of income (whether an inheritance, a grant, or what have you) aren’t working — and that honor and dignity are somehow essentially attached to paid labor — is to devalue the making of art.

    Believe me, if someone wanted to pay me money to write poetry, I would do it. But no one will ever want to do that — even the most financially successful poets in the country are financially successful because they won big awards for work they had already finished — meaning there was no income while they were actually writing.

  92. But I still think there’s an essentially American honor that prizes the dignity of labor over more traditional forms of honor that see work as rather degrading, and instead value inherited wealth, pedigree, leisure, and so forth.

    In theory, definitely. In practice, I think not. Speaking as a filthy foreigner who’s lived in the U.S. for seven years, I’m often amazed at how strong the American class system is. I see people who feel entitled to look down on and mistreat “service” workers all the time, something that was pretty rare in Canada. I also see the glorification of dubious celebrity -people who are famous for being famous. I also see way more poverty here and more looking down on the poor than I ever did back home. Don’t get me wrong – Canada isn’t the socialist paradise many assume, but there aren’t such huge gaps in income and opportunity. For example, I grew up in a poor-ish part of Canada, but there were no poor schools because of our funding system. Now I work at a poor school, and holy dog, what a difference.

  93. I’m with sweetmachine here.

    I do essentially the same thing Kate does: I sits at home and I writes for teh interwebs.

    But because I have a great many readers, because I’m on a private hosting account that gives me revenue opportunities, because I have no debts and live in an area with a moderate cost of living, and above all because I leverage like a motherfucker (a motherfucker who is good at leveraging, like Archimedes played by Samuel L. Jackson), I can make a living off my writing.

    Does the addition of money to the equation mean that what I do really is “work” and what Kate does is not? If somebody gave her a fixed wage for what she’s already doing, would that change it from an idle leisure activity to toil and drudgery?

    Kate might not make money off her work, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t work hard for that not-money.

    She is blessed to have the option of working towards an end that does not immediately reward her financially*, but her labor is “honest labor” and therefore as honorable as that of any other creative person.

    *In much the same way that somebody who has the opportunity to work at their “dream job” is blessed: the circumstances work out that you can afford to do what you love.

  94. Speaking as a filthy foreigner who’s lived in the U.S. for seven years, I’m often amazed at how strong the American class system is. I see people who feel entitled to look down on and mistreat “service” workers all the time, something that was pretty rare in Canada. I also see the glorification of dubious celebrity -people who are famous for being famous.

    You’ve smacked the nail on the noggin here!

    Honestly, I don’t think people value work. Most (but not all) people talk about the value of earning an honest living as a way to discourage any kind of social welfare, not because they truly respect those who work. I have yet to meet a person who worked in a service position who was not treated like an lowly idiot on a daily basis. My friends and I have been: spit at, insulted, cursed at, had customers do things like pee on the floor to get revenge on us (true story, though not mine). We’ve been called losers, idiots, mental retards, wastes of life. We have been told that we are too stupid to perform normal functions. We have been condescended to. We have been told that our sole function is to grant our customers every desire, no matter how impossible or degrading.

    While I’m sure that not everyone out there is like that, I do believe the many people see only their own value in society, and not anyone elses.

  95. I must emphasize that I’m not even suggesting that Canada is asshole-free, just that our health and education systems set up opportunities I just don’t see here. I paid for my degree by myself, and a highly-ranked university. My parents didn’t have to take out a loan because my tuition (20 years ago) was $3,000 a year. I just checked and it’s gone up to just under $5,000 a year. I’ve always had regular checkups and treatment for chronic health problems no matter how broke our family was.

    Here I see parents way richer than my family was going nuts trying to figure out how to put their kids through college. I have students – several students – who can’t hear well because of untreated ear infections in infancy. Hell, I had a kid with ulcers whose parents resorted to faith healers because they couldn’t afford the treatment. There’s a lot of stuff like that. I realize that there are also absolutely top-notch schools within a few miles of mine, with drama programs, and technology, and great student-teacher ratios, but the existence of these schools doesn’t help my kids one bit.

    Sigh. Depressed now.

    Sigh.

  96. Ugh. The whole class thing.

    My webhost (which is otherwise quite a good service) recently accidentally charged many (or all) of its users for the next, uh, 2 years or so of service all at once. That’s $200-$500, depending on how the accounts were set up. They paid everybody back and then some, even paying overdrafts for folks, but banks being banks it didn’t happen right away and people got understandably touchy about their cashflow problems.

    On the message board where people were talking about this, there was such a division between the people for whom suddenly missing a couple hundred dollars is, y’know, a problem… and I really think that’s probably the vast majority of people… and people for whom it’s apparently not. People were saying, in so many words, that if you couldn’t afford a multi-hundred dollar upset that should never have happened, that you shouldn’t be running a website in the first place… you should be looking for “a real job.”

    Like this billing fuck up was some intrinsic economic barrier that naturally existed in addition to a $10 a month or so fee in order to regulate who had access to the privilege of web presence. If you’re running a cash register or slinging coffee, you ought to know better than to try.

  97. And it’s not even like practice causes guaranteed improvement on even the tiniest scale. I’ve experienced the phenomenon of practicing really hard and getting worse. I guess I’m just supposed to enjoy sucking really hard. The thing is, there are other things I could do with my time, things at which I suck considerably less.

    I know what you mean. I suck at bowling. If I break 100, it’s an unbelievably rare occurrence. About 75 is more typical. And yet, I bowl in a league. I was talked into it by people who “needed a fourth” and there was a giant handicap for me and therefore they insisted that my suckitude would not be an issue for them at all. I haven’t gotten any better at it and I don’t expect to. But the team is in first place. And they think it’s because I function for them as a good luck charm. And they don’t mind in the slightest that I am terrible, and they genuinely enjoy my company as a person. Otherwise there’s no way I’d keep doing it.

    Yeah, this “dignity of working” thing is a bunch of crap. It sounds good, but really, anyone who doesn’t have the leisure time to spend 20 hours a week in the gym basically gets spat on in America. I’d be a trustafarian and do what I love all day in a second if I could. (Not of course that I actually want anyone I love to die and leave me money. I’d rather it came from some secondary relative I hadn’t even met more than once or twice when I was too young to remember them.)

  98. Most (but not all) people talk about the value of earning an honest living as a way to discourage any kind of social welfare, not because they truly respect those who work.

    BINGO.

    Uh, in the good way. :-)

  99. Kate, no “spoiled dilettante” could lead the FA revolution the way you do: with brains, wit, style, and balls. Long may your bacon-banner wave!

  100. Re: trustfundtarians. I hear you. Actor George Sanders once said, “My ambition as a boy was to retire. That has never changed.” I could retire tomorrow (20 years early) and never be bored.

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  102. I’m a pretty dedicated lap swimmer and I found that damn article bloody well absurd.

    Did I go from swimming 400 yards a session to a mile a session? Yep, sure did.

    But a competitive swimmer would have been unlikely to notice it as it took about 18 months of just naturally building up to it to do it.

    But for God’s sake, why tell people they’re not moving enough or RIGHT? Let ‘em move as they enjoy!

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