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The Sturdy Lad Theory

December 3, 2008

Great passage from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.”   Full Text here:

“If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

How do you think Emerson’s glorification of the “sturdy lad” holds up today?

I know a good number of miserable people who personify Emerson’s “finest genius.”

One group attended college, and post graduation didn’t end up exactly where they want to be, and today they coo (or yelp) about their poor fortune and the injustices of fury that reigned down upon them.   “I deserved  McKinsey.  And, look at me now.  I’m an office gnome at X, Y, or Z no-name company.”

A second group is further along in their career/life.  They look at their current job title, salary figure, or day to day responsibilities and feel overworked and underappreciated.  I speculate they think: “Look at me.  I’m smart.  I’m motivated.  I’ve shown results.  Why am I still in the job I’m in.  And, why don’t I have the forward momentum I deserve?  Will I ever achieve my goals?   Woe is me!”

I’m also proud that many of my friends, family, mentors, and co-workers are the Emersonian “sturdy lad” who capitalize on opportunities, make lemonade out of lemons, seek out new challenges, invent opportunities and actively live, rather than passively manage.

It’s easy to feel like Emerson’s genius.  Many people want to be a victim.   At the end of the day, life’s too short to be a victim.   Don’t postpone life and don’t let rough spots in life happen to you.  You can do one of two things.  Address the problems head on and solve it.  Or, quit and do something else.  If you’re truly a sturdy lad, you’ll fall on your feet–just like a cat.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2009 6:52 am

    Very cool quote. I suppose I fit into one or both of your groups. ha What Emerson doesnt define here is success, and I think that arbitrary framework of what makes people feel accomplished is the real source of woe here. I think there is a whole generation of people that were given the “go to college, make lots of money, be happy” fairy tale answer to life and many are finding it lacking…

  2. elliottgarlock permalink*
    January 24, 2009 3:27 pm

    Hi Chad,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you. Folks tend to look into the future and imagine it to be significantly more wonderful that it actually is–especially when they are attempting to meet the expectations that their family, friends, mentors, society in general place on them (instead of the expectations that they have for themselves.)

    You comment on the definition of success. I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. It wasn’t a terrific read, but he does offer a compelling argument (that flys in the face of Emerson’s sturdy lad, but which I think is compelling.) Gladwell argues success is the combination of the luck of being born into opportunity, an exceptional talent, and a commitment to hard work and sacrifice to master your talent.

    If Gladwell were to put weights on those three pillars of success. It’d probably look like this.

    Born opportunity: 50%

    Natural talent 25%

    Hard work 25%

    What do you think of Gladwell’s framework?

    By the way, I checked out your site. How’s life going in Philly? What is your take on living the “life of an artist?” In Gladwell’s framework, what do you think is a better driver for an artist’s “success” (however you define it)?

  3. January 24, 2009 5:19 pm

    Hmm well the definition of success is still the big question here, especially when it relates to something like Art that defies standard measurement. I’m guessing that Gladwell is looking at “Bill Gates” type success. I haven’t read the book, but does he look at other “levels” of success? or simply the super success of the obviously exceptional? I did see Gladwell on Colbert not so long ago and I remember him making reference to a few, seemingly random, things that helped shape the “outliers” future success, such as Gates having access to one of the very few early computers. Luck indeed, but I think if you were to look at any persons life you could easily find seemingly random or possibly non-consequential happenings that end up having a massive impact on future success and life choices. Or in my opinion Gladwell is simply pointing out that there is alot more “luck” involved in our lives then perhaps we want to believe. Not the most exciting or compelling idea I’ve ever heard…..

    In my experience, as it relates to making some sort of living as an artist? most important bit is to stay in the game so to speak, plenty of not so good art sells, I’ve seen barely competent artists out sell vastly more experienced and accomplished ones. It’s not all random, but Art is a mostly confused product unlike any other and the buying trends defy anything more then a very general explanation. It seems many people simply don’t know or care to know, or think that much about art and end up being woefully uninformed buyers if they buy at all. This leads to a very randomized consumer base and sales of course is how everyone measures an artists success in our capitalist system.

  4. elliottgarlock permalink*
    January 24, 2009 7:01 pm

    Agree. Gladwell’s argument isn’t original. He’s a marketing phenomenon. He takes other people’s ideas and then restates common arguments and is hailed as brilliant original thinker.

    I don’t know him personally, so I don’t know if he a creative thinker. But from reading 2 of his books, I can say with confidence he is a brilliant synthesist, topical commenter on current issues, and engaging writer–so I think his popularity is well earned.

    I understand your point about the marketing and sales process of art. I’m not an art expert, but I do enjoy a nice visual piece. From checking out art galleries in Cincinnati, I got the sense that the most successful (in the I sell lots of paintings, get written about in the press, and can pay my rent sense) are not necessarily brilliant artists, but exceptional self-promoters.

    I found the pricing of art to be absolutely random and lacking any coherence.

    I did find one very cool studio in Cincinnati. It’s a program called Visionaries and Voices. The program helps support people with mental disabilities and encourages them to produce and sell their art. It’s a really cool non-profit.

    Do you have anything like this in the Philly area?
    Might be a cool side project for you.

    http://www.visionariesandvoices.com/

    Good luck!

  5. January 25, 2009 12:30 am

    Unfortunately I have to agree with your assessment of the art market in general. Gladwell is a perfect example of someone that is successful perhaps more at marketing and selling himself then actually producing original work. This can work for artists as well. I just recently decided to try selling my art online and have found it to be an even more random world where price and quality have little meaning except to the eye of the beholder. It’s an odd trend for the art market as more and more artists turn to the net to reach more people, and undercut the only institutions that hold any legitimate authority over quality and price control. Justifying price is the key issue when it comes to art sales and this service is best provided by high quality fine art galleries. I will say that when you step into the realm of “professional” artists and the gallery systems that support them, there is coherence in terms of quality and pricing. However, for every decent gallery with quality work, there seems to be 5 silly galleries run by idiots that go under in 2years time. But in the online world of art slapping 50 different tags on your art and throwing up an endless C.V. of random, probably not even real, galleries and “collections”, essentially anything and everything to impress potential buyers; this probably gets you more sales. Personally I don’t want to do that, does that mean that I don’t sell as much as someone that spends more time on promotion then their art? I still like to believe that the quality of your work will shine through it all, and I do think that it does happen that way at times.

    I’m in western NY btw, cut off from everything.

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