Wandering Free and Easy

This is sort of a follow up to my post on ignoring gurus and sherpas, which one person described as “odd” while reading it got another person “hot under the collar” and made yet another person “cranky.” Since the last two people seem to more or less agree with me, then I must be doing something wrong. One problem is that there were two discussions going on in the post, one about coding for librarians and one about not following gurus and sherpas. They got mixed together, and as often happens when I say that I don’t do whatever tech thing someone thinks I should do and yet I get on just fine, people get cranky because they think I’m claiming that no librarian should do that tech thing or perhaps even that I think that thing isn’t valuable for any librarians to do. I truly don’t understand that interpretation, but there it is. Maybe it’s my tone.

So let’s avoid the tech talk. Here’s really why I don’t follow sherpas or sit at the feet of gurus: I, in the  words of Fleetwood Mac, go my own way. I march to the beat of my own drummer. I follow my own muse. I cultivate my own garden. I live and let live. Okay, I’m out of cliches. As it’s put in what’s becoming one of my favorite books, the Daoist classic book of Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu), I wander free and easy, wander where I will, or go rambling without a destination (depending on the translation).

That means I don’t follow conventional wisdom or the wisdom of crowds. I don’t do things because they’re cool or trendy or popular, nor do I do things because they’re traditional or conventional or just the way they’ve always been done. I don’t do things because someone who isn’t me and doesn’t live my life tells me they need to be done even when I’m pretty sure they don’t need to be. I also don’t fall into the hipster trap of reacting against the popular or the trendy and trying to be ironic while still actually being concerned with what other people are doing or thinking. I honestly don’t care. I’m not a follower or a fan boy or a fashionista. My mother used to say in exasperation, do what you want to do because that’s what you’re going to do anyway. I did and I do.

This isn’t a professional position so much as a personal disposition reflected in most areas of my life, and I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. Even in high school the bulk of my learning was done outside school, and I followed my passions without a concern for what the world or the culture thinks is important. I don’t judge myself by other people’s standards, and I try (and this is much harder) not to judge other people by my standards. If I’d lived my life by what other people thought I should have done to be “successful,” I wouldn’t have majored in English in college, and then double-majored in philosophy. How impractical! I wouldn’t have gone to grad school in English. Even more impractical! Library school was practical, but it’s not exactly what the culture considers the beginning of worldly success. As long as I have access to a research library and the opportunity to learn about whatever I want to learn, I don’t really care what the world thinks is successful. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and a research library beside me in the wilderness, then wilderness were paradise enough.

In my personal life, it’s led to me espousing unconventional views and having unconventional habits. For example, I don’t eat meat because I have ethical objections against factory farming and the treatment of animals (and yet I don’t think animals have rights as such, which makes me unconventional even in unconventional circles). I don’t proselytize about it or try to make other people feel bad for eating meat, and yet over the years I’ve encountered many people who seem to be personally offended by my not eating meat. Those people weren’t wandering free and easy. I haven’t watched a television show with commercial breaks since 1987. I don’t like anything interrupting my narrative and I refuse to pay for cable and Tivo, so until the rise of Netflix I just didn’t watch any TV. And yet, as with not eating meat, I’ve met people who seemed to be offended that I didn’t do the popular thing they did. They took my lack of interest in conventional activities almost as an affront, as if I’m judging them harshly for doing whatever it is that I don’t do, when really I couldn’t care less how they spend their time. Those people weren’t wandering free and easy. People like that seem to validate their own beliefs and actions by the standards of other people. I don’t bother and am much happier for it. We won’t even get started about my religious or political beliefs.

In my professional life, this attitude has manifested itself in various ways. I avoided tenure-track librarian jobs because I didn’t want people telling me that I had to write library literature or get fired. When I write, I write because I want to, and I write what I please. I’ve thwarted tyrants and fomented rebellions to make sure people don’t impose conventional or trendy nonsense on me. I’ve fought hard for things I believe in and fought just as hard against things I don’t believe in. When left alone, I leave alone. When pushed, I push back.

This isn’t to say I’m a sociopath or a rebel. If I believe rules and conventions are good, I follow them. One of the things I like about working in academia is that I believe in the mission of higher education and of the libraries that support teaching and research. I never have the thoughts I’m starting to notice in some friends as we approach middle age, that maybe what I’m doing isn’t worthwhile. I think it’s worthwhile work, and if I didn’t think so I’d do something else. I do what I do because I believe it’s worth doing, not because social convention tells me it’s what I should do. Living in the world without compromising (another bit from Zhuangzi) isn’t a matter of fighting everything the world has to offer. It’s about finding the place in the world where you feel most comfortable, adapting the world as you can, and letting the rest go.

I’ve gone my own way and followed my own interests with little regard for what others think I should do for my entire life. And you know what? It’s worked out pretty well for me, even by the conventional worldly standards that I don’t care that much about. I’m healthy and happy. I have a loving family. I have a great job that I like a lot and that I’m pretty good at. I have good friends and good colleagues. I continue to learn, grow, and develop in ways that I enjoy and that benefit other people. I look around, see what I think is worth doing, give it a try, and then continue or not as I see fit. And I think that whatever conventional success I have achieved has a lot to do with how I’ve lived my life. I was never a grade grubber or a self promoter or a status seeker.  I don’t deliberately seek the approval of others, but I’ve found that if I do what I think is right and appropriate as the situation arises and try to do it well, the approval often comes. Wandering free and easy has led me to many good places, and I’m unlikely to give it up now.

That’s why I ignore anyone or any group that tries to define me or what it is that I do, or to tell me against my better judgment that I really should be doing what they think is important instead of what I think is important. I’m happy to learn from anyone willing to teach, but I  ignore anyone trying to preach. And I decide who’s worth learning from and what’s worth learning. The preachers don’t work my job or live my life. There’s no way they can know what I need to know better than I do myself.

If I were a guru or sherpa, which I assuredly am not, I’d tell you that you should live your life this way, too. It’s psychologically freeing. A lot of the stuff that people fear or fret about or get upset over don’t bother me at all. As Groucho Marx says, they roll off me like a duck. If other people do things differently than I do, that’s fine with me. However, it’s not up to me to tell other people how to live their lives or do their jobs. Live as you please, work as you like, preach all you want. Just try not to be to upset when I don’t follow you, think like you think, or do as you do. I’ll do the same.


7 thoughts on “Wandering Free and Easy

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  2. I’m very pleased to see you refer to the Chuang Tzu. If there’s one philosophical text that has helped me refine my own professional ethic, that would be it.

    • And I hadn’t really thought about Chung Tzu in relation to a professional ethic. Maybe I could gather together some Daoist and Zen works and write a book called Libraries and Enlightenment.

  3. Although I read a few translations of the Tao te Jing a long time ago, I never got to Chung Tzu. I ended up there on the path of a larger intellectual project of mine, and am now working my way through the Watson and Graham translations along with some commentary. I feel like I did when I first read Nietzsche, like I’ve found a boon companion.

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