As a little kid, you very seldom think your own ambitions are stupid. When your first grade teacher asks you what you want to be when you grow up, you don’t think twice. Potential NASCAR drivers, pro-athletes, surgeons, inventors, architects, rock stars, and firefighters surrounded us. And we welcomed them with open arms.
For me the answer was always simple: I wanted to be a legendary musician who made an impact on the scene for generations to come. I wanted to stand on a stage in front of millions of people, blinded entirely by the lights, with all of their voices screaming my lyrics back at me. I wanted to write things that meant something to someone. And thanks to my extremely supportive parents, I always believed without a shadow of a doubt that I could do it.
Then came this tiny little road bump called life.
In my final year of high school, people were scrambling to decide their futures. But there was a new deciding factor in play – the almighty dollar. We were all called into the guidance counselor’s office to discuss our plans for the future, so I walked in, fairly at ease with what I was about to tell her.
“Well, Sarah, what are your plans after graduation?”
I smiled, confidently.
“I’m going to pursue music.”
An awkward silence.
“I just recorded a CD and I’m trying to set up some meetings with agencies in Toronto to talk about promoting myself on a higher level.”
More awkward silence.
“I want to be a singer.”
I feel like this was what qualified as a field day for this particular woman, who seemed to love to tell people how to live their lives. She proceeded to prod me about what I meant by that statement, utterly bewildered that anyone would ever dare confess something like that. When I repeated myself, she looked at me blankly and said a sentence that would come to be the soundtrack of my life:
“That’s not a real job. What are you actually going to do?”
My experience in the guidance counselor’s office that day was probably a blessing in disguise because it gave me a healthy dose of reality and helped thicken my skin. But at the time, it sparked a flame of doubt and self-consciousness in me that would continue to grow year after year until I all but burned out.
I was fortunate enough to have the experience of pursuing post-secondary education in English and Creative Writing. But even in the academic world, time and time again, that sentence would haunt me.
“That’s not a real job.”
It hit me the hardest the day I found out one of my friends was being published for her contribution in a medical study. I was extremely proud of her because I knew how much work she had put in and I knew that it was definitely going to beef up her med school app. And then, like every good human, I began to think about what I was doing with my life and my “not a real job” career. I felt like I was wasting my life, like nothing I did mattered, and that no one was ever going to respect what I wanted to do. I was a dissatisfied and devastated record that the needle could barely play.
And then I realized it; it came to me so fast and clear that I wondered how I hadn’t seen it all along. My friend was not superior because she wanted to be a doctor, and I was not more impressive because I wanted to be a singer. We were both simply people who had dreams and were doing our best to follow them. You see, her becoming a doctor was my equivalent to wining a Grammy, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. Both of them take hard work (albeit, different kinds of work), dedication, ambition, and time. One shouldn’t make you smarter, better, worse, or more respected than the other.
But unfortunately today, it does. The reason we’re trained to feel this way is because somewhere along the line, society has decided that art is no longer worth pay. And as long as people think that, the arts will be an industry full of untapped talent that will eventually crumble in on itself because not every creative person has the luxury of working to pursue their dreams for free.
Companies get away with this because they know that art is something people will ultimately create regardless of financial compensation since it’s their passion and they need to do it. Bands playing unpaid gigs, writers working in below-minimum-wage jobs – it’s all because they know you want it bad enough that you’d do it for free. That sends everyone (and most importantly, the youth) an unhealthy message because now you’re telling that person that the hard work they’re putting in isn’t actually worth a cent. In fact, they should be grateful to even have the opportunity because it’s “publicity” to them. Imagine if someone said that to an engineer after a hard day of work? Oh wait, that would never happen because most fields rightfully agree that their workers should be compensated for their time.
There’s a reason parents are scared to tell their kids to follow their dreams. It’s because we’ve started policing which hopes and dreams are the right ones. It’s because when someone confesses that they want to do something artistic with their life, our immediate response is, “How are you going to make any money?”, “What will your parents say?”, and “That’s not a real job.” It’s because we’ve conditioned each other to believe that our art isn’t worth anything.
The truth is, art matters. It gives us an experience that nothing else can. It’s not just that art can make us feel whole; it’s that a good piece of art can excite, provoke, confuse, soothe, and inspire. In fact, in this 24-hour news cycle we live in, art matters now more than ever. We shouldn’t punish each other for having desires, because really, do you want to be the one who’s responsible for stomping on the next Beyoncé’s parade?