Monday, November 12, 2012

The Lesson of Mr. Holland’s Opus

Earlier this week, Ryan Murphy posted a thought-provoking piece on Acculturated that posed the question, “If we have a career dream, should we go after it at all costs?” He answered it by noting that the single-minded pursuit of one’s passion is fine for those who can afford the risk, but in the real world, few have the luxury of committing themselves wholly to achieving their dreams and maybe even stardom. Most of us must make sacrifices for real-world responsibilities like bills and families.

But that doesn’t mean we must abandon our dreams, Murphy says:

Instead of looking at dreams as a yes or no, maybe it’s best to look at dreams on a continuum, allowing enough time outside of work to quench that thirst and keep that passion alive. This can ensure that down the road, after working for twenty five years in that cubicle in order to give your child a better life, you can tell him or her (while juggling four balls at once) that you did pursue your dream, just part time.

Pursue your dream part-time? To many, this may seem like what was called, in the idealistic 1960s, a cop-out. But I was reminded of the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, starring Richard Dreyfuss as an aspiring young composer with dreams of stardom, who grudgingly takes a position teaching high school music. In his mind, this is merely a temporary day job.

But life happens, as it always does. Years, decades pass, and Holland’s focus increasingly goes to raising a family and committing to developing a sense of musical appreciation in his students. This leaves him less and less time and energy to devote to the dream composition which will bring him fame and success, and free him from his mundane life and the drudgery of teaching untalented – and often apathetic – students. At one point a beautiful star pupil even tempts him to leave his unsatisfying life and run off together to seek success in New York – but by now he realizes that that ship has sailed for him.

More time passes. Holland is 60. His magnum opus is finished, but that lifelong dream has drifted out of reach. He feels he has failed his family, and doubts he’s even made a difference in the lives of the students for whom he sacrificed that dream. Then he loses his job to budget cuts.

But on his final day as a teacher, Holland is led to the school auditorium for a surprise. Hearing that their beloved teacher is leaving, hundreds of his former students have secretly returned to celebrate him as an inspiration. They’ve practiced his orchestral piece, “The American Symphony,” which they obtained from his wife, and they ask their retiring teacher to conduct them for its premiere performance, while his proud family looks on. Holland is touched and grateful to realize that his real magnum opus was the many lives he had unwittingly impacted by sharing his passion for music – while chasing a mirage in his head.

Certainly we should “follow our bliss,” as mythologist Joseph Campbell famously said. But all-or-nothing abandon isn’t the only way, or necessarily even the best way, to pursue a dream. It’s no cop-out to find real-world ways to integrate your passion into a balanced life that’s ultimately more meaningful not only to you, but to all those whose lives you touch.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/9/12)