2014-03-11

We're Here For A Good Time

Being the hedonic utility optimizers that we are, we will not generally engage in entertainment activities that require great effort.

This comes in many forms, but to understand it intuitively, consider what proportion of the global population ever attempts, at any point in their lives, to summit Mount Everest. After stripping away all the excuses and half-cocked explanations, we are left to conclude that climbing Everest is extremely difficult. It's so difficult, in fact, that almost no one attempts it. Almost no one even trains for an attempt.

We can say the same for any difficult activity. Learning to play the great works of Chopin on the piano requires years of meticulous practice and study; almost no one manages to do this. Running a marathon is not merely a twenty-six mile undertaking, but an eighteen week commitment (at least). Starting and maintaining a club or a charity is quite often a thankless time-suck that no one ever appreciates. And so on...

At this point, you might be thinking that I'm about to say, "Society has become all about instant gratification. We need to reverse course..." That's the easy play, the obvious play, and anyway I'm not completely convinced that society actually has become all about instant gratification. Technology and prosperity have combined to put all kinds of things at our fingertips. One of the reasons live music isn't in high demand these days, for example, is because we have things like Spotify, where we can hear pretty much any song we can think of almost instantly, no matter where we are located, as long as there is cellular phone service. (So, maybe not the summit of Everest, but you get the picture...) So we haven't become monsters of instant gratification, we've just become creatures of convenience.

Although it is difficult to argue against the blessings of modern convenience, it is likewise difficult to ignore the fact that hard work is a good thing that produces a better result than "phoning it in," either figuratively, as in the case of someone who would rather watch a documentary about Everest on Netflix than climb to the top himself, or literally, as in the case of someone who would rather stream "Teenage Dream" to her cell phone rather than learn some barre chords and play it herself. Take it from someone who plays the guitar from time to time: it is a lot more fun to play "Teenage Dream" than it is to listen to it, and that holds true even if you aren't simply cranking through the first couple of verses to set the stage for an epic, hour-long guitar improvisation.

So it is a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, it is extremely fun to do this, but on the other hand you'll never get to do it unless you invest years of your life. And not every one of those years is going to be fun. In the beginning, you'll get blisters and your fingertips will peel off. Later on, you'll start to feel so comfortable playing in your blues box that it's going to take serious self discipline to break yourself out of it. Then you have to learn what Steve Howe does note for note, and even then you're not there yet, because then you'll have to write your own song, master it, and play it on stage in front of a captive audience. All of that is, let's face it, incredibly difficult.

When you get right down to it, we are talking about the disutility of labor, and the more labor required, the more disutility we experience. In order to keep yourself on track, you have to know at your very core that the future value of seeing the world from the top of a mountain so tall that it scrapes the edge of outer space far outweighs the present value of years - possibly even decades - of coming home from work early and cracking open a beer. As Neil Peart put it:
Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats, get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere to relax their restless hearts
Somewhere out of a memory of quiet streets on quiet nights
He disparages the idea of "selling your dreams for small desires," but we're talking about utility here. The proverbial "mad philosopher" will offer you a choice between chopping off your little finger or experiencing a mild headache every waking moment for the rest of your life. How sharp would the expected future pain have to be to convince you to ditch your pinky? The point is that there is no right answer.

Still, at the end of the day, everyone takes on a big project or two. Everyone decides at some point to scale "their Everest" or to run "their marathon" or to learn "their Paganini's caprice." As much as it is human nature to avoid hard work, history also shows us that pursuit of greatness for its own sake also runs deep in the human psyche.

The conclusion? Make things easy on yourself. If you want to run a marathon, take your gym clothes to work with you. If you want to play the fast bits in "For the Love of God" note-for-note, then buy a travel guitar, and use it. And if your dreams require input from others - as scaling Everest requires people stationed at your own personal base camp, or as touring the country in a rock band requires other human being playing in your rock band - then you can't simply sit back and rely on others to treat your dreams with as much reverence as you do. You have to make it easy for them to just show up, because human beings don't like to work, especially when they're only here to have a good time.