This is going to be mortifyingly embarrassing but I may as well tell you about it. When I was a teenager, I loved the Newhart show. Not The Bob Newhart Show where he was shrink in Chicago married to Suzanne Pleshette but the later one in which Bob had a different wife and lived in Vermont. You may remember that show, a not-terribly funny precursor to Fawlty Towers, in which Bob ran an inn and there were the three local brothers named Larry, Daryl and Daryl.
I loved this show because of Bob’s second career, his real career. He was a successful author of “how-to” books. This struck me as the perfect ambition. To sit in a cozy study and churn out books that were effortless to write. Not to strive for Pulitzers or National Book Awards but just to crank out shelves full of books on animal husbandry, basket weaving, and transmission repair. Real books nonetheless, arrayed on shelves filled with one’s name over and over on the spines.
Some clichés are based in truth. The one I encounter a lot in China is the Asian student who drives her/himself super hard and who is forced by expectant parents to be overachieving and highly pragmatic.
These kids have been coming to me, one by one, to ask for my advice on their future plans. A classic was the senior who said she was picking colleges to study art based on whether they also had a great physics programs — in case she had to switch directions.
I understand their anxiety. They live in a country that is going through a massive transformation and there’s a lot resting on the new generation. They want to be as prepared as possible, to dot every ‘i’, take every course, ace every test…
Here’s my message to them and it might be useful to you too.
It’s good to be prepared, but what are you preparing for? I think the only thing you can intelligently anticipate is change. And no number of degrees or job offers at investment banks will prepare you for the unknowable. That takes creativity. An ability to adapt. A willingness to live with ambiguity. Resourcefulness. A knack for collaboration.
I encountered their core problem when they made art. They were so afraid of mistakes. Kids would go to rip up their work if they encountered any sort of screwup, a bent line, wonkiness. And I would say to them, “Hold on! Try to turn that into something. Work with it. Solve the problem. It’s okay.”
When the teachers asked their students what they got out of my stay at their school, they say things like:” Danny taught me to make masterpieces our of mistakes” and “I tried making drawings unique instead of exact.”
Learning to live with (and embrace) our essential fallibility. It’s what I learned at Clown School earlier this year. And I hope I managed to pass it on to all those kids who will be contributing to our imperfect future.