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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Making a Calling Succeed

We can learn from the band Rush.

My very first of these columns discussed why I chose the running title they carry. I related that my “work” does not feel like work. Rather, it is a “calling.”

Despite what a calling might imply, I do actually have a life.  And one of my great loves outside of my calling is music.  Unlike my two very talented kids, I am utterly unable to produce much in the way of recognizable music, but I am a voracious consumer of it in a number of genres.

My greatest love, however, is progressive rock and especially the Canadian trio Rush. Rush is often familiar to libertarians as a band that was influenced by Ayn Rand and whose lyrics often reflect libertarian and individualist themes.  But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

This past Sunday, I took 24 hours out of my calling to head up to Montreal (with my long-suffering but very tolerant Rush-widow wife) to see the brand new feature documentary on their career, “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,” in the theatre before it airs on U.S. cable later this month.  Not surprisingly, I thought it was great, but my own reactions aside, I wanted to emphasize one key theme of the film, as it illustrates that callings come in many flavors but all share some essential features if they are successful.

The key is the way in which Rush’s history is a story of three guys who, despite having enormous talent, almost saw their vision die and then endured a couple of decades of awful reviews from the “official” rock press, only to have the last laugh in the long run.  After almost 40 years, Rush continues to put out new music and play to sold-out crowds, with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones the only bands to have more consecutive gold records.

How they did this has lessons for anyone who thinks he or she has a calling, and for libertarians in particular.  All three members began to play their instruments in their early teens and were clearly committed to becoming very good musicians by playing and practicing endlessly through their teen years.  When the drummer joined the bassist and guitarist in 1974, they saw that they had a very similar vision of what they valued and what they wanted to accomplish musically.  They played hundreds of shows a year for several years, improving their musical chops, their songwriting, and their stage show, often by watching the bands they opened for.

Critical Bomb

After two successful albums, they got very experimental on their third release and it was a critical bomb.  They saw their tour bookings decline, and they ended up playing very small places. It was “The Down the Tubes Tour,” as they dubbed it. Their record company started pressuring them to write more singles and shorter songs.  That, however, was not their vision — which they explicitly decided to follow even if it meant going down in flames.  Their fourth album 2112 (with a side-long suite based on Rand’s novella, Anthem) was not what the record company wanted.  As their manager says in the film, “It was like they ordered salmon and got a steak.”

As it turned out, the album was a huge hit, thanks significantly to the power of word of mouth.  From then on the record companies have left them alone.  Much of the rest of the film documents the ways in which they grew over the years and learned to laugh at themselves in the face of the various critical lambastings they took.

The lesson from the film is that people with a “calling,” no matter the type, should recognize six keys to turning it into a success:

1. Commit to being the best you can be at whatever it is you do.

2. Be open to improving yourself by learning from other talented people.

3. Have a vision of what you want to achieve.

4. Stick to that vision even in the worst of times, and do not pander.

5. If the guardians of truth and taste don’t like it, take it directly to the people.

6. Learn not to take yourself too seriously.

What these mean for libertarians is that we need to be well-read in theory and history and on top of every current issue, but also open to learning from those who disagree with us.  We need to continue to articulate our vision and stick to it even when things get bad.  Like now.  There are atheists in foxholes, and there are libertarians in financial crises.  When we’re dismissed by Paul Krugman and the New York Times, we just have to keep cranking it out online.  And we do need to remember to be willing to laugh at ourselves a bit.

With the policies of the last two administrations possibly taking the U.S. economy on our own “Down the Tubes Tour,” it has never been more important for libertarians to recognize our calling and to understand how to make it succeed.  Rush’s story serves as an inspiration.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.