Why d’ya wanna talk to old people?

January 31, 2008

It’s astonishing how often we’ve heard that question over the course of the last few years. In an age where everyone is moving a million miles a minute towards some still undefined future and everything from social networking to advances in lampshade design is labelled a “revolution” that will jettison old rules and paradigms forever, what possible value could be gained from sitting down to talk to someone about what they did yesterday, last week, or even forty years ago? Everyone but the thirteen year-old web designer or the fetal popstar is surely a dinosaur, right? Their opinions will reflect embarrassed and discarded truths that no longer stand up in the new world economy.

True. Well, to an extent. Yes, many of the people in our book entered their fields in times vastly different from today. In some cases, things were much easier then. You showed up at someone’s office, acted keen, told a few flashy lies, and got the job.

June Callwood, the legendary and dearly departed matriarch of Canadian journalism and activism, played up her female naivety to land her first job at the Globe and Mail. She got a writer from the competing Toronto Star to write her first article. Surely that wouldn’t work today.

Alex Colville managed to survive his early years as a working painter because there was a war on and the military needed War Painters. Colville had free reign to travel where he liked and paint what he liked. No fresh-faced artist straight out of OCAD or Emily Carr is likely to receive the same luck (if you can call a war luck).

Fine. Point made.

The world is a cutthroat, fast moving place, full of distractions and, in some cases, too many options to choose from. But that doesn’t mean that the experiences of those who got started in slower, less crowded times don’t hold out lessons to those of us trying to get our sea legs today.

To get through your twenties requires what Canadian underwater doctor and explorer Joe MacInnis calls “visioneering“: a way of creating “a 3-D mental map of where you are and where you want to go.” You need to be alive in every moment, conscious of the choices facing you, aware of how your evolving values inform those choices, and willing to take risks required to get where you want.

In the end, it’s a matter of overcoming the anchors of resignation and complacency, both of which are related to fear. In many cases, especially among our older interviewees, having cohones was more a matter of necessity than it is for us. Emerging from the Great Depression, or a struggling immigrant family, or huge physical and emotional set-backs, you have to take risks and lay everything on the line, because you desperately need to get ahead.

To those who see themselves as financially comfortable, it’s often more difficult to summon up the required resolve to go after what you want. Furthermore, with the world moving at the speed it does, with industries growing up and blossoming overnight, it’s increasingly difficult to devote yourself to one passion, one goal. It’s our hope, though, that the stories in our book will help inspire some of you to overcome the fear, complacency or confusion that are holding you back. We know they inspired us.

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