I don’t know how Paul Jarvis feels about this, but I believe that he and Llewyn Davis would get along famously.
In the past week, I’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ latest film, developed a serious addiction to the soundtrack of the aforementioned work, and started and finished Jarvis’ latest book Everything I Know. The title of this post is an allusion to the opening line of the film, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The oddly addictive soundtrack is full of folk standards that feel new, even for those who have enjoyed folk music for many years. In a way, that should encourage us all when we’re doing creative work like Llewyn or Paul do. Take what we’re used to, and make it look different, new, fun, and soulful. Creativity isn’t always reinventing the wheel; sometimes it’s just finding new ways to combine existing ideas. Not unlike this post, I suppose?
For those who haven’t yet seen the film, it centers around a struggling folk artist named (natch) Llewyn Davis trying to establish a name for himself after the dissolution of a musical partnership. He is fiercely passionate about his music, fighting against criticisms that he give up or cater to a lower denominator. The values he ascribes to his music are the most important thing.
Jarvis takes this same attitude with his work- as a web designer, writer, amateur vegan chef, surfer, and any number of other pursuits he’s ardently adopted. I’m telling everyone to read the book, but here’s a taste of his thought pattern:
Letting values guide my work is freeing. It means that if given the opportunity, I can always choose freedom over money. Obviously this can’t always be the case, since we don’t live in a perfect world, with tiny little helper elves doing all the dirty work (and baking us cookies). This is why work is called “work” and not “super happy fun time.” Bills need paying, clients can be stressful and sometimes the small tasks seem meaningless if we lose track of the bigger picture. But as long as our values primarily take the lead, it’s okay. (from Paul’s Everything I Know)
Llewyn and Paul are both strongly dedicated to the integrity of the work they produce. They recognize that its hard, and they work through it anyway. It’s worth noting that they recognize its difficulty. Like Paul’s passage before about work being work and not super happy fun time, Llewyn often lashes out at the realities of the music scene, even proclaiming hate for it at one point. But ultimately, they both advocate for pushing through that discomfort and frustration in service to something they, at their cores, love to do.
In the work that I do with students, I want to be better at helping them work through this discomfort. Jarvis’ book is one of several in the genre of writing about creativity that I enjoy for its reluctance to paint inspired work in a light of constant happiness and platitudes of self-fulfillment. I sometimes marvel at what I perceive to be a lack of resilience in students I work with, and I know I have several colleagues who are seeing similar things in their students. Being real with students, acknowledging their struggle and providing them with the tools to work through them, is a value that’s of importance to me, and these are two great examples that I’ll use to inform my work in that arena.
What values do you ascribe to your work? How do you hold them closely when they’re challenged by your surroundings, those you serve, or circumstances that make success hard? Both Llewyn and Paul have answered those questions with their stories (and for the record, Oscar Isaac is a discovery here), but only you can answer yours. I’m still working on answering those questions for myself, and I hope you are too.