Sure enough, the minute I sat down with my breakfast sandwich and iced coffee, I was treated to a conversation between a 40-something Asian male and a 50-something white guy that struck a chord that has been strumming in me for some time. The subject: kids' futures.
I picked up the conversation as they were discussing athleticism and body frames. The Asian guy mentioned something about the Asian guy's sons and their futures in sports and various universities. The white guy asked about his one son who was "prone to injury". The Asian guy said that his son was still playing soccer but he was getting injured. He was struggling with two "spiritual worlds" as well, one in which they're trying to teach him about Chinese culture, and the other where he's exposed to Christian culture. I gathered that they both were involved in the Church, and religious schooling, but I'm not even going to go there since that's an entirely different discussion. Suffice it say, these two men were discussing the viability of their various sons' futures regarding sports, career and interests.
The Asian man then mentioned that his son who is prone to injury really wants to coach, but that's really just a "dream", and that he's convinced him to think about a "vocation" instead of an "avocation". That's how he described his son's desire to coach: it's just an "avocation".
This is where I had to really hold myself back from getting involved in the conversation. I am well known by dozens of strangers over the years for jumping into their conversations, usually with an "excuse me, but I couldn't help hearing..." and then a bit of a polite but aggressive statement on the fact that what they believe is probably wrong or misguided or based on facts they are unaware of. I can't help it. I'm opinionated as hell, and I find it hard to just let people say stuff that isn't true.
Now, you may be asking, "Jeff, get to the point, what does this have to do with arts?" I'm getting there... I promise.
Since the beginning of time I'm sure there has been the age-old discussion and debate about doing what makes a living, and doing what you love. And that discussion and debate usually begins with a conversation between a father and his children. Fathers want their children to be self-sufficient, and they are strongly in favor of risk-aversion when it comes to career advice. As much as it seems every father seemingly wants every child to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, architect or engineer, most people do not become these things... and yet they still make a living.
Some even make a living doing things like art, or sports, or music, or talking on the radio, or helping other people in various ways. Amazing, isn't it? These are all things people are told won't make them money and will have a hard time finding a job, so they should at least study a completely different subject as a fall-back.
Coming back to the conversation between the two men... as I bit my tongue instead of biting my sandwich I knew full well where this conversation was headed. The Asian guy continued to say that he had convinced his son to get into a physical therapy program at a major private university, as a "fallback plan". He would do coaching on the side, but concentrate on physical therapy.
We all know what happens when you have a "fallback" or why it even exists. It exists because someone has told exactly what we've already talked about: that somehow you won't make it. So, in reality, the "fallback" becomes your actual career. You don't have time for sports, for art, for music, etc. You can't spend the time necessary to become disciplined, skilled and adept enough in this area that you develop a style that differentiates you from others and brings in business from those looking for those services.
The starving artist myth is just one of many myths related to careers and dreams. We are all told that doing what we want to do will never pay the bills. Why is that? It's because society, in general, does not view those fields as something that requires just as much dedication and discipline as the traditional careers like engineering and medicine and so on. But if you ask anybody who is good at a non-traditional job, such as art or music or sports, they will tell you that that is complete hogwash and that they've been dedicating their lives to the discipline since they were kids. They will tell you that they spent all of their time focused on that one thing they loved to do. They might even tell you that they went to school for it, ignored the naysayers and pressed on. And most of the time, their parents supported them. Their parents "got it". Their parents understood that talent in arts and sports isn't really a "gift". It is developed and perfected, as a skill, over a long period of time, just like anything else.
What I'm getting at is that things like art and music and sports and other non-traditional fields can be careers if they are treated as such by parents, guides, teachers and so on. The "fallback" concept is a fear-based concept, rooted in ignorance and myths about "starving artists" and such. Starving artists exist because they are part-time artists who gave in (like many of us) to the fear and risk-aversion, and went to school to study a field that put us into nine-to-five jobs. Successful artists are artists who worked just as hard as any student studying engineering or accounting. If you spend enough time doing anything, you can make a living doing it because you'll be better than anybody who only does it as a hobby, or part-time. You will gain discipline and skill and a style that will have value to others, and this translates into money. You won't develop those requirements doing it "part time" while you work in "Cubicle Land".
So, here's what I would have said to this guy if I had mustered my energy to do it: Let your kid do what is necessary to be a coach. Support him. Get him to coach Little League. Help him hook up with other coaches and maybe get an assistant job so he can learn the ropes. Get him busy doing coaching-related activities every day while he's in college his first two years. Help him make this his vocation if this is his dream. Don't tell him he needs to find a more lucrative and "safe" job, because he will not pass muster in a competitive field like coaching doing it part time. Falling back to something "safe" (which is a huge misunderstanding to begin with... how many Americans had "safe" jobs in 2000 and are still unemployed or have been laid off two or three times now?) means he will someday regret not doing what he wanted to at this crucial point in his life.
The arts are no different. Put your kid in an arts program if they love and want to be in the arts. They will never make a living in the arts if it's pushed aside and turned into a "hobby". Standing out in the arts takes just as much work as athletics, engineering and other fields. Ask any ballerina, cellist, graphic designer or artist who makes a living doing what they do. Almost every single one of them will tell you that they were able to get where they are because they had the support of their parents who understood this crucial concept, and who understood that doing it every day, all day, was the road to one's dream job, just like any other discipline and career.