On November 2, 2004, I sat down and wrote a letter to Dave Barry. I had just read that he intended to quit writing his column for at least one year. I thought it was a bad idea. I still do.
Dave Barry is an influential man who seems to have no enemies. Not many influential men are in such a position. He shapes the thinking of millions of readers-fans. He does not shape their ideas directly. He does it indirectly, by blowing gaping holes in the things people do, especially government bureaucrats. (“Gaping Holes” would be a great name for a rock group . . . and for all I know, already is.)
His weekly column met a real need. Every society needs humor. For the last two decades, he has been the supreme American humorist, as distinguished from a comedian. There have been very few influential humorists in our history. Mark Twain and Will Rogers are the major ones. We get a good one about once per half century.
All three of them got laughs by making fun of Congress. Examples:
Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can. ~ Mark Twain
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. ~ Mark Twain
The taxpayers are sending congressmen on expensive trips abroad. It might be worth it except they keep coming back! ~ Will Rogers
This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer. ~ Will Rogers
With Congress, every time they make a joke it’s a law, and every time they make a law it’s a joke. ~ Will Rogers
The only way to get elected to Congress is to raise a bunch of campaign money, and pretty much the only way to do that is to already be a member of Congress. ~ Dave Barry
Congress, after years of stalling, finally got around to clearing the way for informal discussions that might lead to possible formal talks that could potentially produce some kind of tentative agreements. ~ Dave Barry
Congress shall also create a tax code weighing more than the combined poundage of the largest member of the House and the largest member of the Senate, plus a standard musk ox.
The question is: What can we, as citizens, do to reform our tax system? As you know, under our three-branch system of government, the tax laws are created by: Satan. But he works through the Congress, so that’s where we must focus our efforts.
Here’s my proposal, which is based on the TV show “Survivor”: We put the entire Congress on an island. All the food on this island is locked inside a vault, which can be opened only by an ordinary American taxpayer named Bob. Every day, the congresspersons are given a section of the Tax Code, which they must rewrite so that Bob can understand it. If he can, he lets them eat that day; if he can’t, he doesn’t.
Or, he can give them food either way. It doesn’t matter. The main thing is, we never let them off the island. ~ Dave Barry
This is great stuff. Fifty solemn editorials by pundits run in 300 newspapers each will not have the impact of a line like this:
The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets. ~ Will Rogers
Dave Barry is a household name because he is a true master of words. He has a huge audience. He is a libertarian. He doesn’t trust the state, as his interview in Reason indicates.
That he should walk away from his audience is a mistake, assuming that his family was not falling apart because he was spending 80 hours a week writing one column, which I think is unlikely.
I told him so.
Dave BarryMiami HeraldOne Herald PlazaMiami, FL 33132
I recommend that you do not quit for a year. Don’t break the link between you and your readers. They trust you.
You have achieved what no one else has achieved since the death of Will Rogers: national status as a humorist whose comments help establish millions of Americans’ sense of place. People need a sense of place, and humor reminds us of where we are. We must stand on common sense in order to laugh at absurdity. Common sense needs reinforcing these days. In a gentle way, you make the silliness of life acceptable: the world as an amusement park ride. Will Rogers dealt with more serious things than you do, and for five years, 1930—35, helped Americans cope with a national disaster. But we still need gentle humor.
You have nothing left to prove: not awards, not money, not fame. That’s why you should not quit, not even to test the waters. You can surely afford to quit. That’s why you shouldn’t. You should stay on the job because you are not merely a humorist making a living. You are a humorist who gives comfort and chuckles to tens of millions of people. You make life a little better for an entire nation. Nobody else can do this as well as you do. You are a unique phenomenon.
By staying on the job, you will be saying, “I’m in this for the sake of my calling — the most important thing I can do in which I would be most difficult to replace. I’m not in this for the money. I have been blessed to find a way to make a good living by doing what I do well, and what no one else can do equally well.” You have what almost no famous person other than Mother Teresa had. You are the best at what you do, and millions of people are better off for it, and they know it.
Stick to your knitting. It will send a message. “This life is about service, not money, fame, power, etc.” This message needs to be sent by the few people who can believably send it.
Americans need to know about exploding toilets. There are way too many exploding cars.
Sincerely yours,Gary North
I suppose that knocking off for a year to “re-charge your batteries” is legitimate. But it’s risky. The batteries may go dead from lack of use. I fear that his column will go the way of “Calvin and Hobbes.”
There are so few people who ever reach the pinnacle of success that I regard it as a shame when one of them quits, mid-career.
It is rare for anyone to find a niche market of 10 million people or so. As a writer, I would like a niche market like that!
For Dave Barry, maybe his family was at risk. If writing a weekly column is such a burden in terms of time and intense concentration that writing it undermines his family, then it is wise to quit. But, as a semi-journalist, I find this hard to believe. Most of us can crank out something respectable in a few hours. It may not be great, but it will be acceptable.
The greatest sports writer of our era, Jim Murray (d. 1998), was a prolific and gifted writer. I began reading his articles in “Sports Illustrated” in the early 1960s. I marveled at his ability with words. After he finished a column, he would always say, “Fooled ’em again!” He wasn’t referring to his readers, I think. He was referring to the paper’s editors. He had once again gotten out his piece on time, within an hour or two after the game was over.
There is a form of responsibility that the successful person owes to the consumers who blessed him with success. If you can be replaced without too much disruption, then it’s fine to retire. But when you are the only one and have a truly loyal following, then there is something more than money involved. Dave Barry isn’t in it for the money.
As a writer, I wonder: “What is he in it for?” Does he know? Bob Hope was asked why he didn’t retire and go fishing. He replied: “Fish don’t applaud.” I saw an interviewer ask this of Ray Charles. His response was even better: “And do what?”
So much for Dave Barry’s career. What about yours?
THAT ONE THING
I recommend that you carefully consider that one thing in your life where you make a significant difference to others. Maybe you don’t get paid for this. Maybe you do. My point is, you should do it for a reward other than money.
When a producer creates a relationship with consumers that is strictly based on money, there is almost always a competitor who can supply a very similar item. But when a producer creates a relationship with consumers that is based on some aspect of his own personality, there is something more than money involved. There is an irreplaceable factor.
You move from an occupation to a calling whenever you become irreplaceable. I define the calling as “the most important work you can do for which you would be most difficult to replace.”
One of the themes in my writing is this: “Try to find that area of your life in which you are most irreplaceable. Concentrate on this.”
When you discover what your special gift is, pay the price to develop it. If people become dependent on this gift in a unique way, keep at it, even if you’re not making any money.
Money eventually comes when you have a skill that you are putting to good use. I don’t know why, but it does. Put your effort into developing the skill.
I heard a recording of a speech by Charles Adams recently. Adams is the author of several excellent books on taxation in history. Dirty Rotten Taxes is my favorite. He was speaking to a group of budding young economics students. He told how he wrote his books. What an improbable tale! He got a job in a law firm. His first assignment was to handle a tax case. He produced a report in three days. A partner in the firm was amazed. The firm had not understood that he had any background in taxes — and as he says, he hadn’t.
He wrote a manuscript for a publisher, who then killed the project. He self-published it. It made no money. He wrote another version. Another publishing house turned it down. Then someone walked into the editor’s office, spotted the manuscript, read it, and told him he ought to publish it. He did, and the book sold 60,000 copies. Not many books ever do.
Step by step, Adams became the leading authority on the history of taxation and its political effects. He had kept at it, year after year, despite the lack of interest by publishers. As he told the students, “Keep at it.” That is good advice.
If you must support your family and your one thing by taking a job you don’t really like, then do it, but not for the money — for the money plus your one thing.
If you can sell your unique service for a steady income, do it.
If you provide an easily replaceable service or product, be content with just delivering the product demanded. Don’t knock yourself out. Use your spare time to fund your unique service. But where you provide a unique service that meets people’s needs, don’t be content with anything less than your best shot.
If your occupation is also your calling, you are in a wonderful situation. You can work to improve your performance, and your monetary income will rise as a result.
Most people are not in this situation. I suspect that most people never discover the one crucial area of productivity that makes a difference outside their immediate families. Society is poorer for this oversight.
There are those few people who have multiple talents and who never quite decide which one is the crucial one. Leonardo da Vinci is the West’s pre-eminent example.
A more recent example is Steve Allen, author of 50 books and 7,400 songs. A few of his songs are vaguely memorable, but his books aren’t. The one thing he ever did that made a cultural difference — his invention of the talk show format — he abandoned shortly after he made it into a national institution in the mid-1950s. He had too many talents for his own good . . . and ours.
I encourage you to start looking seriously for that one skill or one insight that will make a difference. No matter how bad the economy gets, a skill that is offered for its own sake will produce fruit.
If it does, don’t quit if you get rich. You aren’t in it for the money. So, take the money.
September 21, 2005
Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com