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Get a Life


Are you a consumer, or are you a producer? No, no, I'm not talking about whether or not you have a job at a manufacturing company, building things. I'm talking about life in general. Are you a consumer of 'life', or a producer of 'life'? Confused? Let me try and explain what I mean.

A number of years ago, after finishing with school, I found that I didn't quite know what to do with myself. I had done various part-time jobs here and there, and had also travelled overseas for a year, seeing a bit of the world, studying music, and just generally finding my own feet. On my return to Canada, I spent a couple of months working at a summer camp, and then had to come to some kind of decision about what to do. Now actually, I had plenty of choices. I was very interested in flute playing, and a possible career as a flutist. I had recently built a few classical guitars, and was considering taking this up seriously. Before going overseas I had built and sold a few pieces of furniture, and was pondering the idea of setting up a little 'factory' to produce more. While in England I had met some people doing very interesting work re-designing flutes, and had worked with them for a while. For a number of years, I had been teaching flute and guitar, and could certainly have continued this activity. I had also been fairly active in the field of composing and arranging music. I had any number of options. So ... which one did I choose?

Well, I did none of these things. Instead, I just went out and got a job. A normal 9 to 5 job, with a paycheck twice a month. I passed over the chance to take on one of those interesting and challenging activities, and simply became a 'salaryman', just plugging myself in to a particular slot in society. Why did I do this? My only excuse now is that I was young and foolish, and didn't know any better. But it really didn't seem like such a bad idea at the time. A big part of the decision was money. I was sharing an apartment with a young lady, had to pay the rent, and of course needed food, clothing, etc. etc. But over and above this mundane aspect of the situation, was the fact that it seemed like the normal thing to do. After all, everybody has a job, don't they?

I just hadn't had the 'individuality' in me to question that concept, and I stepped easily into a life of playing a part scripted for me by others. I went to work each day, did the job as best I could, and then went home in the evening. I no longer directed my own affairs. I was a 'consumer' of a life that had been 'produced' by other people.

I'm being pretty hard on myself with this description, but actually I wasn't completely blind to this way of thinking, even back then. After all, I had a very good example right in front of my eyes every day at work - the owner of the company. This man (his name was Bill) didn't 'get' a job. This man 'made' jobs. He started with nothing, had a vision of something that could and should exist, and then went to work and created it. Bill was a 'producer' of his own life, not choosing from among a selection of ready-made patterns, but building one of his own. He may have had a hard go of it sometimes, but the difficulties were in a sense, inconsequential. What was important to him was to make his way through life in a challenging, rewarding way. It was almost irrelevant to him that as a consequence of his activities, a crowd of other people (including me) could support themselves, and that society as a whole had access to the benefits he brought to his particular sphere (in his case, high quality musical instruments for school children).

For about three years I watched all this ... and as I went through my daily work routine, I sometimes thought about these ideas. And I guess maybe I thought too much about them, because one day I went into Bill's office, and told him that I would be leaving. What was I planning on doing? Well, I didn't really know, but I had by then learned one very important thing. I knew that I wasn't going to be the type of person who could sit there 'playing the part'. I wanted to write my own script, and to carve out my own path through the world. I don't mean that I had any silly ideas about becoming 'rich and famous', but just that I wanted to do things on a self-directed basis, and not as a consumer of a life created by somebody else. I wanted to be one of the 'producers'. I was 24 years old.

Bill wished me the best, but I would certainly have been very disheartened at the time, if I could have seen into the future, to learn that nearly fifteen years would pass before I got to the stage where my 'independent' activities would earn me a living. I tried my hand at any number of different things, some successful, some less so, and I even ended up going back to work for Bill on more than one occasion. But as confused as my route may have been, and no matter how broke I sometimes became, the adventure was always satisfying. And now that I am finally well and truly established in my life as a woodblock carver and printer, I do not begrudge any of those years that I spent wandering about trying to find my way. They were not 'lost' years. They were years of growth and development.

I now have the pleasure of not only having enjoyable, rewarding work to do every day, but of knowing that my job was not given to me ... that I created it from nothing. Five years ago there was no advertisement in a Tokyo newspaper: "Wanted. Woodblock carver and printer to work in a 200-year old style, recreating a series of Edo-era prints ..." But now that position exists. It's me! (Incidentally, I have discovered that if you wish to become one of the top people in your field, there is a relatively simple way to do it. Just pick an extinct line of work!)

My two daughters are now about halfway through the basic 'growing up' stage of life, being nine and eleven years old, and of course I wonder how they will handle this situation. I don't try and push them in any particular direction. They are still very young, and when people ask them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?", they give standard answers ... nurse, school teacher, etc. etc. But just as Bill set a good example for me, so I hope I can set one for them, by showing them that the world of human activity does not have a printed 'menu', from which they must 'choose' one option, but actually is made up of a vast blank sheet, on which they are free to draw anything they choose.

I hope they will have enough imagination to think of something interesting to draw. Have you?