Today in drawing class, talk turned to SpongeBob SquarePants. I was surprised when my students (age 9 - 15) unanimously agreed that SpongeBob was a loser.
What? Wait a minute. Really? I think the show is clever and witty. And SpongeBob himself is nothing if not lovable.
"I aspire to be like SpongeBob," I told my class. "He is honest, and sweet. He finds joy in every detail of life. He is fiercely loyal to his friends. And," I finished triumphantly, "He LOVES his job."
"But that's just it," they chorused. "He's a fry cook! A grown man (ok, grown sponge) who's been flipping burgers his whole life. He has no ambition. He's going nowhere!"
I'm certainly glad these young homeschoolers have great ambition. I am glad they are shooting high, pushing themselves further. But are they saying that success is only measured by our careers? That the joy SpongeBob feels is somehow less meaningful because he is nothing more than a fry cook?
I wonder. What is the correct measure of success.
In college, a teacher of mine asked seriously and thoughtfully, "What is success?" He was thinking of his own. Here was a well-known artist, with work in museums and collections around the world, and he wondered aloud how to measure his own success. He had recently completed a series of drawings using permanent marker on Styrofoam. (Have you ever done this? The Styrofoam "melts.") His dealer told him to hide those drawings, to never show them to anyone. "They will ruin your career," was her honest advice.
But a collector stopped by his studio later that day. Upon seeing the drawings leaning against the studio wall, he was instantly moved by them. For him, they struck a chord deep down (and if I remember the story correctly, he bought them all). Turns out, this man had cancer. These strange drawings, melting and warping the Styrofoam, resonated with him in a way that no one could have predicted.
Was this artist more successful for having artwork in famous museums, or is there more success in having made a drawing that was meaningful to only one man dying from cancer.