When hard work doesn’t equal productive work

In March 2020, David Rubenstein gave an interview in which he lamented the vanishing of a system in which “hard work” guarantees success. While the source of nostalgia is understandable, there is an epistemological problem with the conjoined assumptions underlying the concept of hard work and also what a “system” promises, i.e. if one works hard, then one become successful. The issue appears to be one of qualifying and quantifying “hard work.”

My previous article “An aspirational paradox” mentions Abigail Fisher and her failed lawsuit against University of Texas – Austin over her non-acceptance to the institution. The case was a painful example of the disillusionment which must follow when believers in the exceptionality of the commonplace are finally made aware of its mediocrity. The Fisher saga represents the modern tragedy of familial ambition: a child’s parents place her on a systemic path, promised by wise public-school teachers and caring guidance counselors to lead to success, only to discover that the end is the furnace of Moloch. Caveat emptor.

The strange, disembodied entity called “the system” doesn’t fail; what fails is individual and collective concepts of what the system is and what it requires. Mankind has a capacity for filling a void of ignorance with figments of its imagination. In general, such practice is harmless. But when a person believes his own creation and builds his future upon it, that is when the ‘systemic failure’ narrative begins.

Drawing again from my own encounters, for many years I knew a music teacher who believed that one must never listen to repertoire. Yes, you read that correctly: a teacher of an aural art form believes that listening to music is detrimental. The person had many long, pseudo-pedagogical explanations for this peculiar belief. His idea was atypical. Professors at the world’s top conservatories and musicians from major ensembles all emphasize listening as a crucial part of study. Listening as a formal component of music study dates to the invention and mass distribution of the phonograph in the early 20th century. Even further back, students attended live concerts.

This teacher had a pedagogical system built around his beliefs, which included that students should neither learn basic keyboard skills nor how to play with accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, students who adhered to his system didn’t progress very well. Problems ranged from poor intonation and lack of ensemble skills to arriving for college auditions with no grasp of appropriate repertoire. Feedback from competitions was kind but completely honest. The more students failed, the more obstinately he insisted that political maneuverings or class biases were to blame. “The system,” by which he meant auditions, was “broken,” designed to not give people a “fair chance.”

Sadly, this man affected a large number of students, many of whom worked hard – practicing long hours, racking up credits, participating in multiple ensembles – only to discover that their “system” was a fraud. All of their hard work was for naught.

There was one particularly heartbreaking case of a young woman who applied to a fairly prominent private university. By her own account, her audition was catastrophic. In the lead up to the audition, she did her best to ensure success; she had two lessons a week, increased her daily practice time by an hour, and played along to background recordings. The amount of work she did, measured in terms of effort and time spent, was brutal. But she didn’t pass the audition and was understandably devastated.

A system she had followed religiously since fourth grade had failed her; moreover, her hard work was guaranteed to fail. There was no way for her to succeed based upon her training. In some ways, this girl’s story parallels Abigail Fisher’s history. For years both put in hours of effort only to discover that they had misjudged and misplaced their energies. Bluntly, these young women worked hard but not strategically.

The failure of these girls was unrelated to the broader “system,” whether that system was auditions or college applications. To argue that “the system” is broken on the basis that hard work is not rewarded is irrational, albeit understandable on an emotional basis. Before rushing off to denounce “the system” for not rewarding hard work, one should critically examine the foundational premise and ask: Was this hard work or was it productive work?

The veil of nostalgia

In article for Worth, titled “A new wealth gap is growing – attention inequality,” authors Joon Yun and Eric Yun of the Yun Family Foundation, an institute dedicated to “transforming the way people think,” argued that “attention inequality” is having a destructive force on society and expressed nostalgia for the days of “monoculture.” They defined this idyllic time as one where all attention was focused on one or two people or groups, e.g. the Beatles, and on no one else. The idea expressed by the Yuns is that the new internet world where everyone may take his best shot at fame is unfair, and a veil that should not have been lifted has been removed. In the meantime, everyone, described as “the heart-broken masses,” wanders through the selection at will, as customers as well as fame-seekers. The Yuns’ complaint is very similar to a running theme in the works of Michel Houellebecq: the free market of choice has created winners and losers and in doing so has destroyed the dreams and self-respect of the last group.

Perhaps the question is whether existing in a world of dreams, one in which a person could feel good about himself using the “might have been” fantasy, is an acceptable burden to thrust upon society. After all, in his short story “The secret life of Walter Mitty [which the Ben Stiller film butchered],” satirist James Thurber’s point was that living in dreams replaces action, allowing people to imagine themselves as people filled with unrecognized abilities. Even Thurber’s picture of the type for whom such an existence is necessary was probably accurate: a passive middle-aged man who had missed opportunities in his youth (implied WWII vet, so both chances to be a military hero and cash in benefits to start a business, further education, etc.) and resents his wife as the cause and the personification of the mediocrity of his existence.

But are we better off with the veil of mediocre monoculture lifted? Is the fact that revelation may not be pleasant for those who discover that they are unappealing to the modern market really a justifiable cause for concern? Is the old world of “monoculture” really something to look back upon with nostalgia?

My former composition and counterpoint teacher was also a concert pianist, who trained at The Juilliard School. While still a student my teacher was signed by a major record label. One of the tidbits I learned from him was that back in “those days (mid-20th century)” practically the only way a young (classical) artist had of obtaining notice was to be at an elite conservatory since that is where the scouts went almost exclusively.

The MO for finding the “latest new thing” made perfect sense for the time period. There was (and still is) a tremendous amount of investment on the part of the label that went into publicity for and grooming of a young artist. Further, in my teacher’s case, the label handled studio and recording expenses, created and booked concert tours, and handled venue costs. The artist did not have to repay the funding; however, total expenses would be deducted from any royalties should he/she become successful. The investment risk meant that going to places where the already-succeeding were clustered was the safest bet for the big labels. There was very little room in the equation for a person who was not already positioned to join the upper professional echelons, or someone who had no insider access.

Was a situation where the major labels acted as gatekeepers and only considered people who fit a certain profile really better than the current one where the internet and digital tools allow artists to perform directly to the audience? The nostalgia for a time of “monoculture” speaks to a yearning for a closed, stratified world. The world where my teacher grew up and worked was a world in which someone with big dreams could imagine himself as simply undiscovered, an unrecognized talent whose gifts would never benefit society. There is some security, a perverse comfort, in such a dynamic. A person never has to confront the idea that maybe he has no talent, maybe his music is not good enough, maybe what he does is something no one finds interesting, perhaps there is no market for him to fill.

The breakup of the “monoculture” has forced average Joe dreamer to confront these possibilities. Instead of only playing and dreaming in his garage, he can now release his own albums on iTunes and Prime Music, upload videos to YouTube and Daily Motion; he can have his own website and create his own publicity. He can wait to see if his work is accepted and if there is an audience for it. The Yun family has argued that the process of exposure and competition is cruel, that it breaks up human contact, that it consigns the vast majority who desire to be part of the “culture” to being part of the “heartbroken masses.” But the real question is: How is average Joe dreamer any better off under the old system? Isn’t a situation in which he at least has a chance to be seen, to make it big, better than one in which he is simply locked out?