Inspiration from Hamilton and Kant: work with passion, but know that the road to success is not always paved with maniac energy and politics.
Back in February, I read an article in The New Yorker about a soon-to-open Broadway show called Hamilton. Centered on writer, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rebecca Mead’s incisive piece made me desperate to get to NYC and see this production. Especially since I had just bought my own father Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, the same history tome that inspired Miranda to write the show.
Getting to New York has yet to happen; as tickets go for $300 a pop, and are selling out years in advance, location alone is hardly the main problem.
One day I’ll see you, Hamilton. One day.
In the meantime, I bought the album.
Easily, this is the best album of the year. Easily. I ordered the CD set from Amazon (I love me some old-school technology), but until it arrives in hard copy, I’ve got access on my computer through Amazon Music.
This is the first time in years that I’ve sat next to my computer just listening. Like most Millennials, I’m ADD on a screen. Typing an email, reading an article, jamming to iTunes or Spotify, checking text messages: these things occur simultaneously, It’s like the unscheduled chaos in a hot pot of popcorn – ping, ping, ping, ping.
But every time I tried to get through the first paragraph of an article, the music said NO. Stop. Listen. I’m worth it.
One of the questions posed about Hamilton, right from the first number, is how? How could this destitute orphan from Barbados become a Founding Father, how could he help shape the most important political revolution and movement in modern history?
The answer is in the music, as Spencer Kornhaber recently pointed out.
Hamilton was a “self-starter.” He worked a “lot harder.” He writes like he’s “running out of time.” He is “Non-Stop.”
Hamilton is a straight-up workaholic.
If you read biographies – and I occasionally dip my toe in that pool – you quickly learn that most people who accomplish great things – things that will, say, get you a professional biographer – are workaholics.
Most of them live these outsized lives that leave you puzzling out how the fact of twenty-four hours in any given day applies to them.
Such “inspiration” is at times disheartening.
I did not always feel this way. There were years – whole decades, really – when I found the dedication of iconic humans to be motivational. Look, if Jack Kerouac could write On the Road in less than a month, why can’t I? If Vaclav Havel could write plays, defy oppression, become president of the Czech Republic and go pub-crawling in Prague, why can’t I?
Surely we can all be this awesome. It’s just a matter of will.
Then I had kids.
If I could answer the question asked in the Hamilton number “Non-Stop,” the question of, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” My answer would be: because one of my children might wake up at any moment, and then I don’t know how long it will take to get them back to sleep.
Or: Because I have a babysitter for exactly an hour and a half. So technically speaking, I am in fact – right now – running out of time.
The truly bizarre has happened to me, in that having kids made me the most determined I’ve ever been to achieve my dreams. Perhaps this is because I desperately want them to see it can be done, so they can go after theirs with confidence.
But whatever the reason, for the first time in recent memory, my own life does feel “Non-Stop.”
That’s the thing about parenting – you are never off the clock. Especially with very young ones, any other work is wedged in around them. Nap time, bedtime, the rare stretch of minutes both kiddos are preoccupied with a toy or a movie.
If I were not writing, then those moments could be filled with rest. Or a book. Or I don’t know, a Christmas movie (It’s a Wonderful Life – you’re up).
Instead, those exotic free minutes are the moments I have to snatch and hold onto. Work, work, work, work. Fast. Faster.
It is exhilarating and exhausting.
But in the face of the exorbitant, Promethean output of those of Hamilton’s ilk, I would probably feel totally fine with giving up. Except for a random class in college on the life and times of German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
I won’t bore you with the details, because we don’t have time (;-)), plus I don’t remember most of them.
Here are the important points: Immanuel Kant wrote a book called The Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781. This masterful outline of his theory of a priori knowledge made Kant a revolutionary figure in modern philosophy. After Kant, everyone had to either align with his point of view, or refute it. But it became impossible, as a philosopher, to ignore him.
That’s about as huge as it gets. To fundamentally alter your field of study. To make yourself an indispensable reference point.
But the other crucial fact of Kant’s life, for me then and now, was that his was a simple, quiet life.
He was born, grew up, studied, worked, and died in the same town. Read: few stamps in the passport.
He concerned himself solely with philosophy. Read: no Mount Vernon gardens, no side electricity projects.
He did not marry. Read: no long line of descendants, no eight-pronged family tree.
He was not an overly social man; Kant was such a creature of routine that urban lore has it the townspeople set their clocks to his morning walk. Read: Kant was unapologetically predictable.
I love this about him. Sure, it wouldn’t make for fascinating reading, and I doubt anyone will attempt a musical about Kant. There’s not much scandal or intrigue there; there’s not enough conflict. You’d be lucky to find any.
But being boring didn’t stop Kant from being passionate. It did not deter him from having a colossus presence in Philosophy.
We tend to think having an impact comes only from being “Non-Stop,” from having an eccentric personality, from being glamorous and connected, or having a maniacal, unhealthy devotion to work.
But none of those traits are on offer to me right now. My work as a mom is non-stop, but the only people who will feel that are my children. Everything else has to come second, which means that many things don’t come at all.