The other day my friend posted this quote from Agatha Christie on Tumblr:
I am sure there can be nothing more soul-destroying in life than to persist in trying to do a thing that you want desperately to do well, and to know you are at the best second-rate … I had never really believed that my dream could come true–but it is a good thing to have had a dream and to have enjoyed it, so long as you do not clutch too hard.
My friend compared it to her own childhood dreams of being a champion figure skater: should she have kept pushing? No, she knew, she’d gone just as far in as she needed to, and was never going to be a champion—whereas writing was a talent she could study and cultivate and actually make something of herself at. I wondered whether my dreams of writing were actually soul-suckers that I should stop trying to hang on to, because I get down on myself frequently about it.
Then I watched Soundbreaking. It’s an eight-part documentary series about music recording that came out on PBS last year, and I just needed to see because I need to see everything about rock history, particularly this series that had been executive-produced by the late George Martin.
Look, I am a serious music geek. If you see me on social media, on an online forum, on any such place that requires a screen name of some sort, I’m “Rockinlibrarian.” When I first needed an online alias, way back at the turn of the century, it summed me up. I am a librarian, with all that entails: book lover, organizer, storyteller, recommender, defender of Freedom of Information… and, yes, a frumpy nerd who loves cardigans. But I happen to be a librarian, ironically if you’re into stereotypes, who is obsessed with rock music. Seems if you put the two together you get an interesting and fairly complete picture of me.
But I’m a professional librarian. I’m only a music geek. And as I watched the professional musicians discussing their craft on Soundbreaking, it hit me: THIS is my second-rate dream. No matter how intensely I air-drum, I will never be a ROCK STAR.
I love to point out the intricacies in songs that make them awesome, or esoterically whine about songs that would have been so much better if they’d only changed this one thing. But these people? They raved about details I never would have noticed, tweaked sounds I would have been perfectly satisfied with. They were so far beyond me in their geekiness toward the art of music recording. And I guess that’s why they’re the professionals, and I went into library science instead.
I’ve often wondered what it is that makes some passions more passionate than others. No matter how much you love a thing, there’s bound to be somebody else who loves it just that little bit more, unless that thing truly becomes your life’s work. And even then, chances are someone in your field has dove in even deeper than you.
Think about Tolkien geeks. I’m a Tolkien lover: I named my kid after a hobbit, after all, that should give me some serious Tolkien-geek cred. And yet I have more than one close friend who has read his books every year (I’ve read Lord of the Rings twice my whole life, The Hobbit maybe four times?), including his other more academic works (I’ve never even started The Silmarillion). I think they beat me in geekdom. Yet none of them have taken professional interest in his works. Certainly not to the extent Peter Jackson did, devoting decades of his life to bring that world to the screen—though if we’re being entirely accurate, I think Philippa Boyens was the official driving Tolkien Geek of that operation. Yet even they hired experts, far geekier than they, who had studied Tolkien’s invented languages until they were fluent—in these entirely made-up languages!—I’m not sure that level of geekiness about something can be topped.
Those who can work in the fields of their passion are bound to know more and be more invested in it. You’re always learning the more time you devote to it, and if a third of your day is devoted to it, you’ll learn quite a lot. But, of course, we can’t all turn our biggest Geekdoms into a career. It’s not always possible, whether the obstacle is money (the most common dreamkiller) or talent or other random factors entirely. I’m extraordinarily lucky to be working in a field I obsess about, and I know it. My husband? Not so much. His job is for paying the bills. We aren’t remotely in the financial position it would take to start up his own gunsmith shop, which is where he could really turn his obsessions into paychecks. So, off to the office he goes.
Still, he’s a serious gun nut. He’s the kind of guy who can’t watch a movie without telling you exactly how likely the characters would be to actually have the guns they’re shown with (The 1999 Mummy nails it for historical accuracy, the Indiana Jones movies, nope). If on the off-chance I would need any information on the topic, I know where to turn. And so do his friends who actually are interested. They know a good deal more about guns than the average person, but if they’re going to make any decisions about buying or selling or repairing, they always run it by my husband first. If he did have the means to make a career of it, he would surely thrive.
But what about those who love love love, but not enough to devote our lives to the things we love? I had a lot of music major friends in college. I always felt a little left out when they’d start to swap stories about their classes. I loved music, too! I sang in the choir and played in the band and could sight-read incredibly well for a, well, a non-music-major. It kind of stung that I could never be on their level when it came to music geekdom. They just went those few steps farther, deeper into an intensity of obsession I just wasn’t prepared to go to myself. Maybe because I was just drawn toward stories more. Or maybe because I knew I didn’t have the natural talent for the training to take me anywhere. I’m a music hobbyist, not a pro. But ask me about children’s literature…
Anyway, after I mentioned this to some of those music major friends, long after we’d graduated (and half of them, ironically, didn’t even have a job in music), some of them quickly pointed out that I’d had an awesome classic rock show on our university’s radio station. “You know more about classic rock than I ever will,” one of them pointed out. “That’s your niche. And you’re definitely musical enough.”
It’s hard to remember on the internet sometimes, because whenever you seek out your passions there, you’re bound to find plenty of people who are just that little bit deeper. You forget that whatever your level of geekishness, it is, indeed, enough. Sure, some people are better at it than you, but that doesn’t make your love mean less. You do you, however much that is, where you are, and no matter what amount of passion you can put into the world, it will make it a richer place.