When Refusing to Grow Up Is Holding You Back

Photo: Oleg Kozlov
Photo: Oleg Kozlov

Being childish is a bad thing. The term brings to mind the kind of pure selfishness that comes with a lack of life experience, the inability to register the considerations of others and the solipsist belief that your concerns are paramount in the world.

But being a “kid at heart” is generally seen as a good thing, and so is embracing your “inner child.” Both expressions indicate a retained sense of wonder and innocence, as a kind of shortcut to one’s capacity to experience joy.

Trying to conclude if identification with childhood is good or bad is a false dichotomy. Yet the topic begs further discussion, especially in today’s culture of high-speed capitalistic indulgence that caters to Joe and Jill Consumer’s inner children with pinpoint precision.

“You have to have this kind of reasonable amount of unreasonability to even become a filmmaker, because reasonability dictates that like, hey man, you’re not from Los Angeles, you don’t work near a movie studio, you’re not born into this business, you can’t be a filmmaker – that’s for other people.”
– Kevin Smith, who financed Clerks on maxed-out credit cards, his parents’ life savings and an insurance settlement from a car damaged in a flood

Commercials and media love extoling the notion that you can “have it all” – a concerning personal belief if there ever was one. The implication is that sacrifice is something archaic, a remnant before the blessed Era of Convenience where today’s top minds are no longer exploring the universe or building civilization, but hard at work on removing the last remaining obstacles to instantly satiating our whims – or in the technical term, improving our “user experience.”

In the first world, sacrificing one’s personal desires for the demands of reality is perceived as unnatural, something to be put up with for as long as necessary until one can get back to the real business of life: following one’s “dream,” the sum total justification for existence on this planet.

But here’s a tricky thing – what if realizing one’s dream requires its own kind of sacrifice? What’s wrong with knowing what you want to do, working hard to pursue it, and eventually succeeding by virtue of your own merit (and a heaping helping of luck, good fortune, or whatever else you wish to call it)?

“Indie Fund was essential in helping us through a rough patch. We had each gone through all of our savings and were down to our last nickel and dime when they offered their assistance. I was about to sell my car to pay the next month’s rent.”
Framed developer Joshua Boggs on the fortunate intervention of Indie Fund’s patronage

Is self-sacrifice for self-realization truly sacrifice? Is it noble? Is it psychotic? If someone takes a gamble on pursuing the art of their dreams and it doesn’t work out, are they worthy of state-sponsored assistance to avoid being tossed out on the street? Are they being selfish and self-centered?

If art deemed as “good” isn’t commercially viable, does it still deserve to exist?

In comic and musician Bo Burnham’s self-incriminating song “art is dead.”, he asks these exact questions, painting artists as evergreen children who never have to face the truths of reality outside the bubble of their success.

Bo Burnham’s “art is dead.”

That kind of success stunts personal growth, Burnham suggests, and is neither something to be celebrated or aspired to. In this scenario, the inner child has taken over all functions, leaving only the raw whims of the id as the sole guiding conscience.

Celebrity culture has always thrived on survivorship bias, and in the age of overnight YouTube sensations and talentless reality stars, its logic-defying tendencies burn ever brighter. Over and over in media, we only hear about the success stories, and hardly ever about the legions of failed actors who retreated from Hollywood in haste, the failed musicians who fled Austin or New York once success proved elusive, the failed directors, inventors, start-up founders, game designers, authors, painters, roller-coaster architects, chefs, etc.

It is only in personal conversations with people who “used to do [blank]” but have since changed their ways, or in hearing about such individuals, that these stories come out – stories of child-like wonder and dreams, the brutal truths of reality, the maturing process that follows, and of a life tempered by their true judgment by the world.

“We were all turning 30, and we were touring to stay alive,” Morrison says. “It wasn’t apparent that there was any way out from that. So where was the inspiration going to come from?”
–The Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison on the band’s breakup before their reunion 12 years later

In antifolk musician Jeffrey Lewis’s song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,” he describes a chance encounter with Will Oldham, aka musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, as he wrestles with the question of whether suffering in poverty to pursue his art is really worth it or just a colossal waste of time. “And hapless in our hipness crowded five to an apartment,” he says, “Relegate our dreams to hobbies and deny our disappointment?”

In the unspeakably strange kingdom of artistic merit, this kind of crisis is an evolutionary tool. “Yes,” some are bound to conclude, “this kind of life is worth it because I am unique/talented/deserving enough to break through. I believe in me and I’m going to make it work.”

Of those people, an incredibly small amount go on to moderate to significant success, followed by a slightly smaller percentage who encounter just enough positive feedback to continue their passion on the side. The rest will fail.

“No,” the others conclude after much soul searching, “this kind of life is not worth it because I am tired of living like this/undeserving of success/not talented enough to succeed.” Zero percent of these people will go on to success in their chosen field. On the other hand, this opens up opportunities to pursue other interests, mature emotionally, and embrace the tangible realities of being alive in the world.

Edward Bernays
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power.” –Edward Bernays, the father of Public Relations

So who created this monster? Why are our inner children so hyper, obese, uncontrollable and self-obsessed? It’s everybody’s fault – and not just everybody alive today. This shift has been in the works for almost a century, starting with the advent of public relations and the development of modern marketing. Marketing that plays to your inner insecurities, desires, frustrations, obsessions and urges.

It is created by the constant repetition that you deserve to treat yourself, that you’ve earned it, that you’re important… as long as you have money to spend.

It is created by the reality programming that exists solely to provide the “Those people are weirdos, thank god I’m not them” sentiment that millions find so comforting.

It is created by the unchallenging media that satiates without stimulating, the “happily ever after” endings that sugarcoat the sugar you’re already eating.

In fact, people love happy endings so much that we love seeing them in real life. We love happy endings so much we encourage each other to try, try, try, despite whatever the odds say otherwise.

So we push people to play the Mega Millions lotto, we tell our friend to move to LA to try acting, we tell ourselves to write a 1,416-word blog post in an attempt to get attention. And should you succeed, we want to hear all about how you made it – but if you fail, oh really? Yeah, it’s too bad, well you only live once, right? OK, well I really have to go, see you later…

Yet failure, in all its disappointments, is the catalyst for change. It is a step back from the barbaric rule of your inner child toward a more civilized internal society, toward something grounded in the needs and constraints of reality. The sound of failure is of a car shifting gears.

But success? The danger of success is not the delayed maturation process, or the warped version of the world it creates for the one lucky enough to break through. In the kind of success dreams are made of, people become the stories, life imitates art, celebrities become characters, and nobody can tell what’s going on anymore.

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