We tell some funny stories in America about success. We talk about how Bill Gates dropped out of college and became a billionaire. We talk about how JK Rowling was a homeless single mom and became a billionaire. We love success stories. We love rags-to-riches stories.
And yet, we haven’t arranged our society to promote that at all, have we? We’re all about school and tests and traditional careers paths. But if that’s what we’re supposed to be, then why don’t we ever hear the inspiring anecdote of Gary Brown, the B-student who went to State and studied accounting because his dad thought it was a good idea, and then got a decent job at a local firm, paid his bills for 36 years while deferring his dreams and slowly gaining weight, developing Type II diabetes, and dying of a heart attack in his mid-50s?
Because that’s a really lousy story, and yet it’s the story that our society is designed to stamp into so many of our lives.
Here’s a better story.
“You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost)” by Felicia Day
Actress, writer, and gamer Felicia Day is just 16 days younger than me, so since we grew up at the exact same time, she’s always been one of those people I squint at and think, “I wonder how different her life really was from mine?” Well, now I know.
Day was home-schooled, which should probably be in quotation marks because it sounds like most of her days didn’t include any actual schooling. She played violin and played video games, and then went to college without a GED, where she worked herself to death to get a 4.0 in math (and music). She was good at math and liked math, and soon forgot a lot of it because she never used it again.
Instead, she went to Hollywood to become an actress, only to find it was really hard to become an actress. But she worked very hard in acting classes and on auditions, and made some personal compromises (not like that!) and started get acting work. But the compromises (and the work) didn’t make her happy. It was repetitive and shallow and disappointing.
Then she got addicted to World of Warcraft, largely because the game world provided her with control and positive feedback. Her incredible work ethic was constantly rewarded with measurable success (leveling up, achievements, etc.). But the addiction consumed her life, cut out her friends, and undermined activities like “getting real work”.
Eventually she found a sort of support group and over the course of many months, she pushed herself to stop gaming and create something original, a script for a TV series. Unwilling to compromise her vision for the show, she decided to make it herself. Again, her herculean work ethic allowed her to build sets, get props, make costumes, hire staff and actors, do re-writes, direct, act, market and promote, hand-stamp DVDs, and do a million other tasks to bring her web series, The Guild, to life.
A bunch of other stuff happened too. Dr Horrible, conventions, Supernatural, personal attacks, Eureka, celebrity friendships, Geek and Sundry, and more. I’ll let you read it.
The Part Where I Rant About Modern Education
The point is, Day’s story is a complicated one. A messy one. One that would be as hard to replicate as Bill Gates’ story or JK Rowling’s story. But I think the most important thing about it is that no matter how strange or obscure your passions may be, you can do great things if you’re willing to do the work.
And yes, Day’s passions were obscure at the time. She was playing video games before they had graphics. She was on fan-forums when the Internet still charged by the hour for dial-up service (I remember that too!). She launched an online show when YouTube was brand new and “mainstream” people had never even heard of it. (Hipster, I know!)
I love these sorts of stories. (Although I certainly wish she hadn’t suffered such horrible low points with her anxiety and illness.) I love the stories about teenagers building fusion reactors in their garages and cures for cancer in their high school classes. Sure, these kids are obviously very bright, but I think the more crucial bit is that they are so industrious and passionate.
So is everyone else just lazy? Of course not. But I think that many people with huge potential have their passions ground into dust by our education system and “traditional” career paths. Being forced to take boring required courses, spending countless hours on meaningless tests, and trying to fit into established job roles. It’s soul crushing.
Is everyone a magic snowflake? No. Can everyone be a rock star or movie god? No. But I think we would benefit more from an education system that hurls everyone up at the stars in hope of success. If they fail, well heck, they’ll just end up in an office anyway. But we have to do better than an entire system designed to bore, annoy, and assimilate people away from their potential and into cubicles.
Kids are magic. Heck, adults are magic too. Left to their own devices, an awful lot of people will find things they really love and go nuts with them. Building, writing, music, sports, science, medicine, exploration! There are passionate, hard-working nerds in every nook and cranny of human endeavor, all with the potential to create or discover new things, to dramatically change our world in fantastic ways.
We need to be helping them do that. We need to be giving them the tools to learn on their own, find their passions, and pursue those passions with wild abandon. And then we need to get out of their way.
Where would Felicia Day be now if she had gone to a normal school and gotten a normal job? Probably in an office somewhere, shuffling papers and PowerPoints, and quietly wishing she had more time for her hobbies and passions. Like so many of us.
I’m glad we have her story instead. And her. And her stuff, which is pretty cool.