23 April 2023 -- Gold Stars

When I was in kindergarten, I got my first gold star. Miss O'Meara put it next to my name on the bulletin board where every student's name was listed, where everyone could see it. As I recall, we got a gold star (or a silver or blue or a red or a green one) for each book we read, and the public display of my achievement was pretty delicious. It felt really, really good, so good, in fact, that it soon became a competition between me and the other students to see who had the most stars on the board. But more importantly, I realize now, it also became an addiction, a deeply personal need to receive more and more of those stars, to keep getting that buzz. The stars became the point, and the books and my reading of them -- the actual goal and meaning and purpose of it all -- didn't matter much after that. 

I have been working with high-performing students, with graduate and honors students, for a long time now, and it pains me to watch them eventually come to that part in their education where their previous skills and abilities and efforts are suddenly and inexplicably insufficient and they get their first A- or B+. It's a life-altering event for many of them, an existential crisis, but it can be a teachable moment, too, if we are lucky. 

"You are not your GPA," I tell them, “And your self-worth cannot be tied to a number. We have lied to you since you were five, and I am sorry about that, but if your self-worth is attached to a number, then we -- the university, corporate America, the Man -- absolutely own your ass. If we can get you to equate your self-worth with a number, like your GPA, then we can just transfer that reliance to some other elusive and dangerous number that we control, like your salary, or your holiday bonus, or your billable hours for the firm, or your retirement portfolio, and we will own you forever."  

For the students who can blink back the tears at this point, I tell them that "Nothing makes me happier than when a student loses their precious 4.0, because that is the path to liberation, to freedom, to selfhood. The pursuit of excellence is noble, but the pursuit of perfection is neurotic. That number cannot be the point of your education. If it is, then the actual goal and meaning and purpose of it all doesn't matter much after that. But perhaps more importantly, there is not enough external validation in the world -- there are not enough gold stars in the world -- to convince you that you are good person doing good work if you don't already believe that yourself."

Truth be told, though, I am still looking for and clinging to gold stars myself. We have them in my 12 Step program, for instance, in something we call the "chip system."  Our chips are silver-dollar-sized medallions that simply list the length of our sobriety on them, along with "To thine own self be true" on the front and the Serenity Prayer on the back. We collect them on our "birthdays," on the anniversaries of our sobriety, with plastic chips for each month of sobriety at the beginning and then "heavy metal" ones for every year afterward. I have collected a lot of these chips over the years: the drawer in my nightstand is full of them, and I have my current one with me at all times. We laugh about our obvious and magical attachments to these talismans, reminding our fellow drunks that they can take a drink if they can bite their chip in half, for instance, or if it dissolves in the booze. And while it is always a celebration when someone picks up a chip rather picking up a drink, a public reminder that this way of life can work, we nonetheless continually try to downplay the significance of these tokens, reminding ourselves that these "chips are not awards or rewards, but simply markers of our time in sobriety."  If collecting the next chip becomes the point, then the actual goal and meaning and purpose of it all doesn't matter much after that.

All of which is to say that I am still looking for gold stars when it comes to my music, and that this is an uncomfortable and unsustainable place to be. I was talking with an old friend yesterday, someone I have known a long time, someone who is a pretty capable musician himself, someone I spent a lot of time with both playing music and enjoying other people's music when we were younger, and he just off-handedly noted that he had tried to listen to my music on this blog, but it just "really didn't do it" for him since he's "always been more of a rock and roll guy."  And I am not sure why this comment stung so badly, why it both surprised and hurt me, why it has remained stuck in my craw ever since I heard him say it, other than the obvious desire to have an old friend like my work, well, to have EVERYONE like my work. But that's simply not possible, of course. 

If the point of my musical efforts becomes the number of plays a song gets, or the number of downloads, or the number of likes or loves or positive reviews, then the actual goal and meaning and purpose of it all doesn't matter any more. There are not enough gold stars on the planet to let me know I am a good person doing good work if I don't already believe it.

I need to come at this another way. Years ago, at an academic conference, I heard Victor Vitanza, a charismatic and famous scholar in rhetoric and writing studies, begin his address as follows: "Dear Reader, Dear Reader, your demands for logic and coherence are an impossible burden. Dear Reader, Dear Reader, your desire for a single speaker and single truth are chains and a cage I must simply refuse . . ." And what became clear to me in that moment was that rather than trying to alter his work to fit what the audience wanted or thought they needed, he was going to let the piece identify and select its own audience. In other words, if you didn't like the piece, there was nothing wrong with the offering. It was fine. It simply wasn't for YOU. 

If we don't like someone's song, if we don't like ANY of their songs, that doesn't mean there is something wrong with the offering. It just means that it is not for us. Thankfully, we live in a world full of music. We can try something else, try someone else, and keep looking until we find those songs that are made for us. We can stick with those we like, and we can let the rest go, kindly, gently, quietly, because they have important work to do elsewhere, with other listeners.

Leave a comment