Monday, September 02, 2013

"A REAL Job is a Job You Hate" - Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson's 1990 Graduation Speech Lives On In Cartoonist Tribute

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than has taken part of a graduation speech by Calvin and Hobbes' creator Bill Watterson and turned it into a cartoon story on the pressures our society exerts for people to succeed in a very narrowly defined path.  Go check it out here.

I've excerpted a couple sections to tempt you to read the whole thing.

Staying at home and taking care of the kids (for a man) is not part of the American way, but it can be worth it to find your own path. (A new study says that when wives earn more than their husbands, the men's self-esteem goes down.  This goes back to society's expectations making it hard for a man to stay home.)

Aung Than's post also tells the story of Watterson's life. 

Of course, I needed to find Watterson's speech online to make sure this was all true.  It was at Kenyon College, May 20, 1990 - ten years after Watterson had graduated from Kenyon.  You can see the whole speech here.  It's a very Calvin and Hobbes kind of speech. 

His basic theme is that people should try to find a way to live their lives that's consistent with their values and their driving interests.  Teaching grad students a subject I felt passionate about gave me lots of space to pursue my natural interests within a traditional work setting.  Because I was doing things that interested me and challenged me, I worked much harder than any boss could have gotten me to work, which is consistent with what Watterson said in 1990. 
It's surprising how hard we'll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I've learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it's how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.
And what made my job constantly interesting (and writing this blog fun rather than work) was having the space to explore and experiment, and, in Watterson's words, to play.

"If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I've found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I've had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.
By Watterson's definition I didn't have a real job.  
A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the 4-1/2 million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisoners at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at the perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doing any work for it.

Finding an organization that allows you that freedom is getting tougher and tougher these days.  Applying the business model to teaching and research is all wrong.  The market demands for productivity and - in the university setting - "treating students like customers" is making Universities into heartless corporate entities, that are focused on quantifiable output measures which tend not to include humanity, decency, kindness, joy, personal growth, or discovery.   Students should be treated with respect, but the teacher/student relationship is not the same as the corporate/customer relationship.  

Some hi-tech firms understand that the innovation they need can't be mandated.  It has to be nurtured.  Employees have to be allowed to pursue their passion. And they work best when their passions and their jobs overlap significantly. But even in great situations there are always supervisors who confuse their legitimate authority with the illegitimate power to work out their personal issues on their employees.  I don't think the perfect job lasts too long.  Things and people change. 

The factors needed for play -Creativity and constantly looking at the world from different perspectives - is subversive to many. 
We're not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.
Watterson didn't sugar coat his message to the Class of 1990.
You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of "just getting by" absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. [sic] You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people's expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.
 Again:  the full graduate speech is here.  (I think I'm linking to the real speech, but always be skeptical.)
The cartoon tribute by Aung Than is here.

[Writing titles for these posts can be tricky.  I want them accurate and I recognize that catchy titles get more readers.  I work hard to make sure my title is consistent with what's in the post.  In this case one could argue it's a little misleading.  The phrase "A REAL job is a job you hate" comes from Watterson's graduation speech and wasn't in the tribute.  It's probably not a big deal, but I wanted to acknowledge it for those who might have been bothered by it.  Sorry.  (After I wrote this I changed the title.  It was "A REAL job is a job you hate - Tribute to Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson.  It's still not perfect and I'll leave this note for those who care about this stuff.]


  1. Hopefully I will never work again then. I worked for T-Systems Hungary last summer which I hated. :P

    1. I too hope you never have to suffer a 'real job' and only work on things you want to be doing. Good to hear from you.

  2. Steve, the sentiment is great, but there's something creepy about a guy using Watterson's style to create a memetic 'toon about Watterson, and seeing it passed around the web by people who assume it was Bill Watterson who created it.


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