“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
The Times They Are A-Changin’
I remember when I was an electronics engineering student. I had a lecturer who taught us a subject called Electronics I, the first in a series of four similarly-named subjects. Unlike most of my engineering lecturers, he had a penchant for telling stories.
He once told us about his former students. They complained to him about how little of their classroom material were actually applied in their work. “There are only a few parts in Electronics IV that we actually use today,” they told him.
“You can say that,” my lecturer told them. “But if you don’t learn Electronics III, would you be able to understand Electronics IV? And can you understand Electronics III if you haven’t learned Electronics II? And what’s more, if you don’t learn Electronics I, would you be able to understand anything about electronics?”
Meanwhile, as he told the story, I was busy getting my pen and notebook out of my pocket, thinking, “I gotta write this down! I gotta write this down!”.
I’m still able to look back at that story as if it was told just yesterday. It serves as a reminder that you can never learn or do anything worthwhile without humility, and that you must never confuse arrogance for confidence.
The core of an artist’s job is to create change. To challenge the status quo and bring new things to the table. From that, we can make the world a little better.
But a lot of us make the mistake of challenging a system or worldview that we don’t know enough about. Or we become hellbent in a vacation without an elaborate plan or much forethought. Such is the classic Into the Wild story of Chris McCandless, who desperately desired to evade society and human intimacy, dropped his birthname and adopted the alias Alexander Supertramp, donated all of his life savings to charity, set out to live in the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness with little to no survival skills — only to have the words “happiness only real when shared” written as his final entry in his notebook.
Art welcomes rebels, but only those who have done their homework.
Think of the great ronin (masterless samurai) Miyamoto Musashi who famously never lost a battle. At first thought, this might purely seem like an indication of his superior swordsmanship. But the truth of the matter is that he picked his battles very wisely. He thought hard about his own capabilities and that of his opponents. He never fought a battle unless he was confident that he could win.
For this reason, the psychologist Jordan Peterson set the first rule in his book Beyond Order as, “Do not carelessly denigrate social hierarchies.”
He wrote, “Those who are power hungry — tyrannical and cruel, even psychopathic — desire control over others so that every selfish whim of hedonism can be immediately gratified; so that envy can destroy its target; so that resentment can find its expression. But good people are ambitious (and diligent, honest, and focused along with it) instead because they are possessed by the desire to solve genuine, serious problems. That variant of ambition needs to be encouraged in every possible manner.”
Go on and make a change, but only once you are truly ready. Go on and rebel, but not without a cause.