Watch and Learn

A week ago I attended the first annual Boston Book Festival.  It sounded fun and there was a superb lineup of speakers/authors.  While I didn't get to attend every session my heart desired, I did sit in on three great ones that were not only informative but which left me, surprisingly, with a single realization that I've been pondering all week: few of the people I heard attained the goals they set out to achieve.

John Hodgman: John Hodgman wanted to be an author and, in fact, did end up an author, but only after publishing a single (but brilliant!) short story in the Paris Review, becoming a literary agent instead, appearing on The Daily Show, making a-bajillion ads for a computer company that shall remain nameless but is my favorite nonetheless, acting in movies and amassing a small army of slightly off-kilter but passionate followers.

Scout Tufankjian: American photojournalist Scout Tufankjian didn't know she would become so intimately affiliated with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.  She just wanted to take pictures.  Her agency sent her to New Hampshire to cover some unknown junior senator as he launched a run for the presidency.  It was the reaction of the attendees (and perhaps the quality of her photography) that resulted in her following the campaign for two years from inception through inauguration, and producing 12,000 images that became her best-selling book Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign.

Chris van Allsburg: Chris van Allsburg relayed the story of a young, average high school student with a vivid imagination who set out to become a lawyer, but talked his way into art school (without having had any formal art training) after the college admissions officer discouraged him from pursuing a legal track.  He's now a Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator of children's books. Perhaps he would have made a good lawyer anyway?

Tom Perotta: Tom Perotta is currently a successful author who had difficulty getting published, even though he had a professional relationship with former student and then-literary agent John Hodgman.  He took up teaching creative writing at Yale as a side gig, then switched to expository writing at higher-ed competitor Harvard. Maybe he needs a good actress to star in his adaptation of his own work, The Abstinence Teacher?

These folks have become successful but perhaps not in the fields they had first imagined  What does this say about goals and desire and success?  Does it have to do with their go-with-the-flow type of attitude?  A relenting focus on the end result?  Are goals, desire and success at all related?

My mom gave me a book a few years ago called Rules of the Red Rubber Ball by Kevin Carroll.  Memorably, it actually comes packaged with a red rubber ball which I have sitting on my desk.  The purpose of the book is to remind the reader to keep one's eye on the ball and not lose sight of the goal.  For Ken Burns, it worked out.  He wanted to become a successful documentary filmmaker and did so.  In the cases of Hodgman, Tufankjian, van Allsburg and Perotta, they had their eyes on balls, but the routes that took them too their balls involved detours or turns to another ball entirely.

What could this mean?  Was use of my early science successes to pursue music a wrong choice?  Because I earned two degrees in music but now act more than sing, have I failed to achieve my goal?  Is acting the detour?  Are we the governors of our paths?  I hope next year's Boston Book Festival is as thought-provoking.

(n.b. Is it ironic that I have been humming "Nice Work if You Can Get It" as I write this?)

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