What's the Big Idea?
As Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman told us recently, the thing about risk is that it's risky. The economy may benefit from the handful of startups that survive their first five years, but at the level of the individual, there are a lot of casualties. This is true in the arts, too, which is another kind of entrepreneurship. According to Kahneman (warning: bummer approaching), aspiring at age 20 to be an actor is a significant predictor of unhappiness at age 40. I wonder whether aspiring to nothing at age 20 is a significant predictor of mild, glassy-eyed contentment in later life . . .
So what's a young hopeful to do? Well, there are basically two options: find a more or less "safe," all-consuming career path that you can live with (there seem to be fewer and fewer of these all the time), or accept the uncertainty, pick a direction, and charge full steam ahead. And maybe work a restaurant job or two along the way.
In the case of Henry Rollins, a serial artistic entrepreneur and iconic self-made man, the decisive moment was especially stark.
What's the Significance?
Rollins didn't have an easy childhood. He struggled through high school with hyperactivity and extreme anger issues, dropped out of college after a year because it was too expensive, and supported himself in young adulthood by delivering livers for transplants. By 1980, at age 19, Rollins had risen to manager of Haagen Dazs, a hard-earned job he took seriously.
He was pals with the band Black Flag. At a show in New York, the band let Rollins jump in for one song. Ironically, he sang "Clocked In:"
i have this problem every morning
i gotta' face the clock;
punch in, punch out, it makes me so pissed off
one of these days i'm gonna smash it off the wall!
Unbeknownst to Rollins, Black Flag was looking for a new lead singer. A couple of days later, they phoned and asked him to audition formally for the job.
Henry Rollins: I looked at the ice cream scoop in my hand...my chocolate-bespattered apron...and my future in the world of minimum wage work...or I could go up to New York and audition for this crazy band who was my favorite. What's the worst that's gonna happen to me? I miss a day of work...ooh, there goes 21 bucks.
In the audition, he sang every song the band had ever written, improvising most of the lyrics. Then came the scary part: he got the job.
Henry Rollins: They said 'Ok, you're in." I said "What do you mean?" They said "you're the singer in Black Flag." I said "So what do I do?" They said: "*snort* you quit your job, you pack your gear, you meet us on the road. Here's the tour itinerary. Here's the lyrics."
That was 30 years ago. The years Rollins spent in Black Flag launched his career as a musician, writer, and performer. He seized the opportunity, ran with it, and numerous albums, books, films and tv shows later, he's still running. Rollins says of the Black Flag audition that he "won the lottery." Ok, the timing was lucky. But it was Rollins' energy as part of the DC punk scene (while working those day jobs) that earned him Black Flag's friendship, which got him the guest-spot, which got him the audition. And a less humble, hardworking guy might very well have burned out after a year on tour and ended up at rehab, then back at Haagen Dazs.
Instead, Rollins took calculated risk and decisive action at the right moment, then committed fully to making the most of the life he'd chosen for himself. And instead of resting on his laurels, he's continued to learn, grow, and reinvent himself. That's what makes him heroic. What Kahneman's studies don't tell us is which of those once-aspiring actors worked tirelessly to create, then seize opportunity, nor how many of those failed entrepreneurs picked themselves up and went on to succeed in other bold ventures.
What we do know is that more or less anybody who has ever done anything newsworthy can cite, as Rollins can, some turning point at which they made a risky decision that paid off, and a lifelong sense of mission not easily derailed by minor failures.
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Image credit: Punkstory.com