I went back to look at Will Wilkinson’s realist criticism of Steve Jobs’s “follow your bliss” career advice, especially this excerpt:
As an undergrad I was an art major. Frankly, few of my fellow art majors were talented enough to make a living at it, even after four (or more!) years of training. Sure they loved art, but in the immortal words of Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” “Find what you love and never settle for less” is an excellent recipe for frustration and poverty. “Reconcile yourself to the limits of your talent and temperament and find the most satisfactory compromise between what you love to do and what you need to do feed your children” is rather less stirring, but it’s much better advice.
I wrote this the other day in the thread about the frustrated punk rocker who followed her bliss all the way to New York City and being broke at age 33. Who, oh who, could have foreseen that coming? “Follow your bliss” is a great career strategy if you happen to be an insane genius like Steve Jobs. Most of us aren’t even close. Wilkinson’s advice is sound.
Re-reading it, though, reminded me of Heather Havrilesky’s thoughtful meditation on why the greatest television drama ever, “Friday Night Lights,” failed, and the shiny-happy-flibbertigibbety “Glee” is such a success. It all has to do with American dreams and American realities. Here:
The most obvious explanation for this disparity in ratings, of course, is that the show’s flashy, demanding style — a dizzying grab bag of face glitter, snide rejoinders, hip thrusts and earnest soliloquies — naturally upstages the unpretentious modesty of “Friday Night Lights,” with its muddy football fields in the rain, stuttering apologies made to girlfriends always a little too late (such realism!) and gentle bickering between married couples on a threadbare couch.
But the real difference between the two shows lies in how each one mines the conflicting forces of the individual versus society, narcissism versus selflessness, winners versus losers. This premise is utterly in step with the times, of course, and doesn’t concern only teenagers. Many have argued that narcissism is the defining affliction of our age, whether evidenced by current pop lyrics or by research on the uses of social media. But while “Friday Night Lights” and “Glee” each explores the solipsism of those formative years with feverish enthusiasm, the particulars of each show’s message could not be more different.
Despite Coach Taylor’s inspiring talk of victory for those who fight together, “Friday Night Lights” is essentially a show about losing. In fact, aside from “The Wire,” no show on television has painted quite so vivid a picture of the agony of defeat. In its pilot episode, the star quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), suffers a career-ending injury that lands him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Over the course of the first three seasons, the smack-talking hotshot running back Brian (Smash) Williams (Gaius Charles) goes from dreaming of a full college scholarship and glory in the N.F.L. to accepting a walk-on position at Texas A&M, where his pro-football ambitions seem likely to fade. Even our hero, Coach Taylor, finds himself marginalized at the run-down, underfinanced East Dillon High after mixed success at Dillon High. For the denizens of Dillon, trading in big dreams for lives of quiet compromise amounts to just another local rite of passage, as common as breaking out or getting braces.
“Glee,” by contrast, pays lip service to teamwork, but the unintended moral of its story is the opposite — that you’re really not much of a star until you’re the Star. For all of the deaf children singing poignant arrangements of “Imagine,” for all of the lovable antics of the wheelchair-bound Artie (Kevin McHale), the show choir’s leader, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), is placed front and center, over and over again.
Never mind the fact that, unless you’re Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand, does anyone genuinely want to hear you perform week after week?
And, about the lesson FNL teaches:
If there has ever been a clearer stand against solipsism and center-of-the-universe thinking on television, I can’t think of it.
The real message of “Friday Night Lights” is a message about the joy of little things: the awkward thrills of a first kiss; the strange blessing of an unexpected rainstorm on a lonely walk home from a rough football practice; the startling surge of nostalgia incited by the illumination of football-stadium lights just as the autumn sun is setting; the rush of gratitude, in an otherwise mundane moment, that comes from realizing that this (admittedly flawed) human being that you’re squabbling with intends to have your back for the rest of your life. If “Glee” is about expressing yourself, believing in yourself and loving yourself all the way to a moment of pure adrenaline-fueled glory, then “Friday Night Lights” is about breathing in and appreciating the small, somewhat-imperfect moments that make up an average life.
An average life. The kind of life most of us will have. The kind of life that can be a thing of beauty and worthy of praise. My sister Ruthie was a small-town girl who led a completely average life as a schoolteacher and mom. Yet if you judge by the number of people at her funeral, and the things they said about her, Ruthie’s life was anything but average. A town cop told me they only funeral event she’d worked that was as big as this one was the funeral for the retired USMC Commandant Gen. Robert Barrow, a local man who became a World War II hero, and went on to head one of the branches of the military, and in that capacity serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was undeniably a great man, who led an extraordinary life, one that made everybody in our town proud that he came from there. Of course I’m prejudiced, but I think in her way, so did my sister, who never left home, and who outwardly led the same kind of life as most everybody else. How she distinguished herself was in the noble modesty of her character, and her undiscriminating love for others.
The French writer Leon Bloy famously said, “There is only one tragedy in the end: not to have been a saint.” Saints can be great men (or women) of the world, or they can be quiet servants. Only God knows. I am in no way qualified to judge either Gen. Barrow or Ruthie Leming as saints, and don’t presume to. My point is simply that whatever vocation one pursues, whether on the world stage or in the anonymity of our own back yards, the path to sanctity is always before us — and that, in the end, is the only dream worth pursuing. I didn’t always know that. I’m grateful to have learned it.
I mean, look, good for Steve Jobs. I mean that. But I’d rather be Coach Taylor. Very damn few of us have the talent to become Steve Jobs, and even fewer of us will have the opportunity as well. But we can all be Coach Taylor.