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November 01, 2008

Rudyard Kipling on Careers

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Michael Blowhard emailed me recently explaining that he went to a party with a bunch of youngsters in the arts, and found the whole experience exhausting. Even talking to a friend of his, a talented kid in his twenties, was difficult because the kid really is fixated on having a bigtime career in his chosen profession.

I thought about this for a while, and contemplated where I come out on the topic of ambition (artistic or otherwise.) After all, I’ve had some success in life, and I get up and work hard every day trying to be there financially and otherwise for my wife and kids.

But having stared all this in face as the gambler-in-chief responsible for some 30 paychecks for the past twenty years, the concept of having a big-time career as a goal seems like a distant relic of childhood. It is no doubt very old fogeyish to quote Rudyard Kipling, but here goes:

"If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools…

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!"

I’ve been re-evaluating my relationship to the Victorians (at least parts of Kipling, Tennyson, etc.) It’s odd how much some of their thought hits home as I wend my way through my fifties. My guess is that I couldn’t appreciate them when I was 20 because I simply didn’t have the life experience to know what the Victorians were really getting at. As a kid, I couldn’t see past the distancing rhetorical or moralistic flourishes to the underlying truth. That is, I just didn’t know the reality of the frustrations, the fear, the fragility of all ‘accomplishment’, the deadly earnest struggle of trying to make sense of life in a teleological vacuum that I encounter every day as a man in my fifties.

I certainly didn’t get the appeal of (maybe better expressed as the need for) common tried and true life strategies -- of which 'be a man, my son' is one -- because it hadn’t dawned on me that there just aren’t any other viable ones. Basically, in short, I suspect that literary fashion, at least at the university level, is deeply suspect because, ahem, the kids know nothing and their literature teachers know very little more of life as mature people are required to live it.

Speaking of life in maturity, I’d like to report that I’ve lost 75 pounds and I can do 65 pushups. A very modest accomplishment, I know, but then I’m stooping and building myself up with wornout tools.



posted by Friedrich at November 1, 2008


Thanks for this. I got yet another "Thanks for taking the time to interview with us, but we've decided to go with other candidates" letter today. This post was somewhat cheering.

Posted by: jacobus on November 1, 2008 3:04 PM

Awesome weight loss!! Inspiring for others. Thanks.
What was your method? your inspiration?

Posted by: jz-md on November 1, 2008 9:19 PM

Davila wrote somewhere that "growing wise means transforming an increasing number of old proverbs into authentic mental experience." Guess all ancient tricks haven't been unlearned, have they?

Posted by: Finsterlohr on November 2, 2008 4:34 AM

Aside from commenting on the absurdity of claiming that a loss of 75 pounds is a "very modest accomplishment", I must insist that doing 65 pushups is indeed a feat. The standard is roughly 50 good form pushups, at which point you can experiment with other types of pushups: moving vertically...slowly over time...toward handstand pushups...very hard exercise...and moving again slowly to variations on the horizontal, including one-arm (very hard transition) to the gold standard of hard-core pushups, the one arm one leg about your core work! And fingertip pushups, which I do, are great wrist, hand and forearm strengtheners.

You're probably still a pretty big guy, FvB, so doing 65 pushups is a major feat indeed. Modest? Pah! Brag about it! Very few 20 year olds in good health can do 65. Brag!

Posted by: PatrickH on November 2, 2008 9:28 AM

I can do about three good-form traditional pushups. And whenever I try to get stronger in a pushup sense I hurt myself. Sigh: what a weaky. Back to yoga.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 2, 2008 9:44 AM

It has taken me a long time to realize that you don't do what you think is good because it will all turn out for the best in the end. How many parents have 'wasted' their life sacrificing much trying to raise their children the best they can only to have some unfortunate accident cut their child's life short?

No, you do what you think is right because it's the right thing to do. Perhaps that effort is rewarded, perhaps not. It doesn't matter.

That's how you define an adult.

p.s. Congratulations on the weight loss by the way. That *is* an accomplishment to be proud of.

Posted by: Tom West on November 2, 2008 11:37 AM

Sort of Sisyphean?

Yeah, this was the wall the existentialists ran into. It is the moral universe that gives meaning to the struggle, a moral universe they rejected.

The interesting thing though is that when the morality of life is brought into the equation, work takes its proper place. There is far more to being moral than work.

Oddly enough, its easier to work and be productive with this idea in mind. Careerism is a substitute for something missing in that moral world for most. The ambitious are the ones who can't see that.

Nice post! Keep us abreast of your further insights into this topic.

Posted by: BIOH on November 2, 2008 4:16 PM

Lovely post. I'm 55 and afraid to find out how many push-ups I can't do.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on November 2, 2008 11:34 PM

That's very true about Kipling and many others. I didn't always get the point of them when I was younger, either, but at 46 I'm finding that they had some pretty good ones. I find that I'm also appreciating the classics much more than I used to - a recent read through Tacitus (the Annals and the Histories) was a real eye-opener for me. That was in translation, alas - but not many people have Latin skills that can keep up with Tacitus, I gather.

Another things I've noticed is that A. E. Housman and Philip Larkin sometimes hit a bit too close to home these days, too, so I have to take both these fine poets in small doses.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 3, 2008 10:07 AM

Great post, great thread.

Re Philip Larkin and hitting too close to home: "Aubade" must be the scariest poem ever about mortality.

Posted by: MQ on November 3, 2008 2:12 PM

Re Larkin being scary about kidding. From memory (forgive the blunders):

...this is what we fear. No sight, no sound,
No touch nor taste nor smell. Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with. The anaesthetic
From which none come round.

And another one (title not in brain) where death is a sailship approaching relentlessly, behind whose sail is...nothing.


Posted by: PatrickH on November 4, 2008 1:14 PM


In a poll of the British public, "If" came in as the number one poem ever.

So, there is hope...

Also, Kipling's "Gods of the Copybook Headings" might be the most insightful political poem ever.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 4, 2008 1:34 PM

Gods of the... is another damn frightening poem too. Man, the point I made the other day about poets being the only Real Men around...I was right! Talk about facing the Void and not flinching...

I wouldn't be able to make a rhyme with my own name if I was contemplating my non-existence.

Poets: the hardest of the hard. The Poet: An Army of One.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 4, 2008 3:18 PM

I've always liked Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" and "The Stranger"; between the two, they expose the folly of both empire-building, and constructing a society where unblendable peoples are forced together.

Posted by: anon on November 4, 2008 3:58 PM

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