Babylon ah break ya down.
I turn 25 in a little over a month. As has been the case with all of my recent birthdays, the occasion makes for a time of pretty deep introspection and reflection on the things that have changed in my life since turning 24. Some of the differences are obvious - where I live, the shape I am in, the color of my hair. Others are perhaps more subtle. I’ve recently experienced pretty significant changes in the way I think and view almost everything. This shift in my thought process been hard to articulate because, up to this point, I was unsure of what exactly had changed. I felt it, but had nowhere to point until just a few weeks ago.
This is a normal distribution. It’s also known as a Gaussian distribution to nerds. Take it in. Trip out on its curvy, feminine nature. Without any sort of context, it looks stupid and boring and is probably turning you off to the idea of reading any further. I don’t blame you. Stick with me though, as I promise this has almost nothing to do with mathematics and everything to do with life and shit.
So, here’s the context: this is how the world works. It’s a picture of us. It’s a picture of every band that’s ever existed. It’s a picture of the natural world. I know, spacey as hell. But I swear I haven’t been eating peyote. The thing is, something called central limit theorem suggests that on a long enough timeline and with enough instances, this is how almost everything in nature and humanity will pan out.
Ok, this still doesn’t make any sense. Let’s drop some anchors and make this idea a lot more concrete. Think about bands. In fact, let’s narrow it down. Think about punk bands. How many do you think there are in the world right now? Let’s include those three kids in Indonesia only have three songs, two of which are NOFX covers. How many do you think there are? 30,000? 50,000? 100,000? Fuck it, let’s just say 50,000, because the actual number isn’t really the point here.
The point is that, of those 50,000 bands, most experience the same level of “success”. The majority of those bands will self-release a demo, put out an EP or two, and perhaps go on to record a full-length record that will sell 100 or so copies. They will exist for 1-3 years and play some shows during that time. THOSE kinds of bands are represented by the dark blue portion of the graph. That’s them, the bands that are right in the middle and make up the majority of all that exist in the world.
What about the parts of the distribution that are on either end? Who are they? Those “tails” represent the exceptionally unsuccessful (to the left) and exceptionally successful (to the right) ones. The extremely unsuccessful are those who fall below 1st percentile, meaning that less than 1% of all the world’s punk bands never learned how to play their instruments, never played a single show, and broke up in a matter of weeks. You have never heard of them. In contrast, less than 1% of the world’s punk bands (those in the 99th percentile) are exceptionally successful in some sense of the word. They have sold a considerable number of records and have made some money touring. The further you go towards either end of the distribution, the more extreme the level of success. Does that make sense? It maxes out with the world’s most successful punk band (Green Day? Blink 182?) and bottoms out with “bands” who only ever existed as a name, never known by anyone outside of the members themselves.
This pattern of success applies to everything that we do. For every profession/discipline/art form/etc., most will enjoy a “normal” or “average” level of success. Very few will experience no success at all, and very few will enjoy a great deal of success. As a high school student, for example, you fell somewhere on that distribution. Where were you? In terms of academic achievement, I made my home somewhere in the lower half, perhaps around the 25th percentile. I was a very poor student, but I know for a fact that there were some that did even more poorly than me.
So even though I’ve really only touched on how this applies to “success” (as a catch-all term), the concept is applicable to almost anything - including the quality of a product, like art. Whether you look at a specific form of art or consider it in its most broad sense, it will always be the case that a small percentage is exceptionally good, and that a small percentage is exceptionally bad. It will always be the case that most of it is somewhere in between, ranging from “ok” to “really good” art.
That’s how my thinking has changed. Now that I’ve been alive for almost a quarter century, these kinds of patterns are starting to become apparent to me. I’m sure this is at least partly because I have enough points of reference now to see how this plays out in very real ways. However, the normal distribution comes up in my work as a research assistant (in developmental psychology) as well. Seeing it come together as I enter data is still very surreal for me and reminds me of how “real” this tendency is.
Those upper percentiles, that right-hand tail - that’s the prize. That’s what I want. It’s what a lot of us want. I like to think that, in many cases, people generally have the capacity to control where they fall on that distribution. It’s a matter of discipline and having the ability to tell haters to fuck off. Where I used to think that wanting something was enough, I understand now that attaining a goal involves breaking some bones, putting in time, and excelling above “average” in every step of a process.
I have a lot of friends who are exceptional in all sorts of different aspects. Some are in exceptionally good bands, some are in exceptionally successful bands, some make exceptionally good art, some are exceptionally beautiful, some are exceptionally smart. They are all exceptionally kind and exceptionally good friends. I want to be like them. I want to be exceptional, the rare case.
Death to average and anything less than it.
wolfpartyjoe asked: i've "grown" a lot in recent years and i think a lot of that has to do with having stronger convictions. i used to eat cheesesteaks with mayonnaise at least every other day and now i've cut out all beef, chicken and pork, just as an example. i've made similar "strides" in the way i approach a lot of "isms" (race, gender, class) and would feel comfortable being tagged with the dreaded "pc-police" title. recently we've talked a lot about bands like EOAYSDF and the general idea of artists fucking
(cont) with their fans/perceptions/ideologies… bands/folks that general do not care about the convictions of their audience. do i look like a fence walker if i respect and enjoy and engage with that kind of behavior? and also, would/should those bands/people respect my convictions? i obviously should not give a fuck, but, you know…
You touch on a lot of things here, but the underlying themes of conviction and how people view them aren’t lost on me. I’ve noticed that the kinds of issues you raise here are actually gaining some traction in both mainstream culture and subculture alike right now.
There’s no question that holding onto strong convictions is part of the modern human experience. They make life interesting and more importantly, purposeful, providing us with a driving motivation to make art, do work, and generally participate in the world at large. In my experience, it’s usually the case that the people who end up “doing” the least by adulthood are those who aren’t deeply committed to any sort of cause, idea, or interest. Of course this isn’t a hard-fast rule, but it’s a pattern that I’ve observed since I was a kid. This has made me realize that conviction (to anything) acts as both the sail and the wind in a lot of cases. It can be assumed that, as a young person, Sir Richard Branson was deeply committed to the cause of making a lot of money, and this principle likely drove his efforts to create his global empire.
This is all worth mentioning because it should be understood that conviction is among the most important aspects of what it means to be alive. By refining your behavior and the values they reflect, you’re doing yourself a great spiritual service. That might sound corny, but the deeper into that rabbit hole you go, the more fulfilling it will probably be. Being branded as a sentinel for the PC police isn’t necessarily something to feel bad about. On one hand, it lets you know that you’re communicating something in your words and/or actions. Whether or not people around you agree is another issue that I’ll touch on in a moment, but it’s a feather in your cap to know that you’re at least not neutral in your worldview (like the people that would call you that might be).
So here’s the critical caveat to the whole idea of conviction. As important and spiritually fulfilling as it can be, it can be also be a source of constant distress, alienation, and malcontent if you as a person are unwilling to think critically and understand that your ideas are no more valid or invalid as someone else’s. While the person who was never convicted to begin with might end up with a life that centers around smoking weed and working as a short-order cook at a chain family restaurant, the deeply convicted person who never learned how to take another’s perspective or compromise might end up alone, bitter, and unfulfilled. Patrick Kindlon of End of a Year Self Defense Family likes to make mention of the fact that people can become so zealous in their beliefs that they end up severely limiting their life experience by pushing people and opportunities away that don’t play into that belief system. This is an important point with a clear translation - that strong conviction will only ever be to your benefit if you have an open mind and willingness to respect and appreciate what someone else thinks.
My mom made it a point to drive this idea into my head for as long as I can remember, and I only now understand how grateful I should be for that. Despite the fact that my very left-leaning politics run completely counter to her patriotic, conservative mores, she was gracious in never stifling the development of those convictions as a young person or as an adult. She’s expressed clearly that she is just happy to have children who are passionate about their worldview. In a recent interview, I heard Rachel Maddow express a similar belief - that even though she might be in total opposition to the stance a guest on her show might take, they’ll always be able to find common ground as people who are both passionate enough about something to be talking about it at all. No matter what, both she and her guest care, which not everyone does. It’s that kind of understanding that fosters true progress.
To address your specific example, End of a Year Self Defense Family illustrate this entire idea by actively working to contradict every expectation that a fan/listener/observer might place on them, whether or not they actually believe their own stance. As a punk band, it’s safe to say that they do this in an effort to highlight the subculture’s nature to force a certain way of thinking on its constituents, and the general culture of intolerance towards people who don’t buy into those ideas. Kindlon often paints subculture as being Orwellian in a lot of ways. When I suffered through a RVIVR set last year, I couldn’t have agreed more in that moment. I saw lots of people totally blinded by their own conviction, all validating each others’ ignorance. Despite that band’s crusade to make punk “safe” and “inclusive”, I stood there feeling as excluded as ever, like I was in high school again, surrounded by mental jocks just waiting for me to say something that would give them an excuse to tell me what a sexist, macho pig I am.
So to answer your question concisely, yes, people (whether in a band or not) should respect your convictions by not stifling your right to express them. That doesn’t mean that they should only say and do things you agree with, it just means them letting you do your thing, and you letting them do their thing, Brush off anyone that will have you believe that you’re not entitled to think a certain way, for they are posers.
I hope I answered your questions, I’m afraid I might have missed the point in my rambling. Either way, I hope you can take something from this.
I just woke up. It’s beautiful outside and warm enough that I didn’t instantly resent the mid-Atlantic region when I stepped outside to let my dog out. I have the house to myself and a half-pipe in my back yard. Despite all of the wonderful freebies the universe is throwing me, I have a hard time mustering the enthusiasm to take advantage of them. It’s the result of a recent wave of dis-empowerment that’s come over me in the past few days. The idea that I’m not in as much control of attaining personal success (as defined by my own admittedly lofty concept of it) as I once believed is once again creeping into my head. It’s like a virus, or a periodically recurring cold that comes as the result of buying into all of the forces in the world that tell me that I’d do well to just keep my head down and get an MBA. This time the cold has come on a little stronger and is proving a little harder to get over.
When I do find myself motivationally incapacitated such as now, I immediately fall back on a single person’s story for a cure. It’s as potent as any prescription drug, for me at least, and serves to remind me of where I stand in my circumstances. It reminds me that, sometimes, I am being a baby and need to shut the fuck up.
WANGARI MAATHAI was a woman who, in the most literal sense of the expression, changed the world. She was a Kenyan-born woman who single-handedly manipulated the environment in which she lived. Maathai pioneered the Green Belt Movement - a grassroots effort that put in place several incentives for women in Kenya to plant trees throughout the landscape, which had been devastated by clear-cutting and destructive environmental practices. The effort is successful in every since of the world. The numbers verify the claim: 40,000,000,000+ trees planted and 30,000+ jobless women who were trained in ecological trades. Despite Maathai’s recent passing, the Green Belt Movement continues into the future and these numbers will continue to rise as time goes on.
It pays to think about this in a broad, macro sense. In a very real way, a single woman was successful in altering the ecological and social landscape of her country. The only other instance of this that I can think of takes place in Lord of the Rings. That’s how I look at this - the kind of straight up magic shit that only happens in video games and fantasy movies. The before-and-after images and video of the regions improved by the Green Belt Movement are nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s impossible to overstate the scale involved here, and to think that it was all done by one poor woman in central Kenya.
“Anything is possible” is an idiom that’s thrown around a lot, and I’m never sure if those saying it truly believe that’s the case. Wangari Maathai’s story is a valuable reminder that this is as true as anything else. It’s a reminder that anyone can do anything despite any odds and opposition (or “haters”, of which Maathai had many). If history was at all kind, posters of Air Jordan dunking on some hapless poser would be replaced with Kenyan women sowing seeds in a barren wasteland. But that’s not the point. The point is that despite what the poser that lives inside of all of us will have us believe, we’re steering our own lives and can go anywhere and do anything so long as we’re willing to put in the legwork to make it happen. Here’s to hoping that we can all be a little bit like a Kenyan woman.