In praise of the outcome-driven life

Image of Simon Kuper

In the race for person of 2013, the Detroit singer Sixto Rodriguez leads the field. Finally discovered aged 70, he’s now on a world tour. Tonight he plays Wellington, New Zealand. The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells his story: around 1970 the son of Mexican immigrants recorded some brilliant folk songs, but hardly anyone in the US bought them. So he spent the next four decades working in construction (which in Detroit often means demolition), living in a tiny house he’d bought for $100. Now his songs echo nightly through my living room, to the chagrin of the Kuper heirs and wife.

It’s a fairy tale for our times: Rodriguez has monetised. He isn’t a loser any more. He has achieved an outcome. In his own bemused words to a journalist recently, “I’m able to get room service.” We’re happy for him because perhaps more than any previous generation, we value the outcome-driven life.

There have always been two possible approaches to life. Either you seize the moment, or you pursue long-term outcomes: typically, wealth and health.

The “seize the moment” brigade always had the best lines. “Pluck the day,” said the Romans, “Smell the flowers,” said the hippies, and Luke in the New Testament praises inactivity: “Consider the lilies … they toil not, neither do they spin …” But the “seize the moment” notion was perhaps best expressed by the tennis player Gordon Forbes, in his little-known yet fabulous 1978 memoir A Handful of Summers. Forbes played in the 1950s and 1960s “for fun and the few pocketfuls of loose change that could, by sly and devious means, be extracted from the thrifty amateur officials”. What mattered were the experiences: drinking wine on Madeira, encountering a French girl with long legs that wobbled at the knee at some long-forgotten tournament, sunlit dinners with friends. Forbes’s title comes from a diary entry he wrote in 1968:

Go back down the years

And recall if you can

All the warm temperate times;

You may find with surprise

That they’re all squeezed in

To a headful of thoughts

And a handful of summers.

Forbes seized his moments. For most of history, that was a sensible policy. As the Bible says, “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.” You never knew when war or tuberculosis would come along. Before the 1980s, working all hours was fairly pointless anyway, because high earners didn’t earn that much. As The Kinks sang in 1966:

The tax man’s taken all my dough

And left me in my stately home

Lazing on a sunny afternoon

And I can’t sail my yacht

He’s taken everything I’ve got

All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon

But in the 1980s, the seize-the-day folks started losing ground. Increasingly, it made sense to pursue long-term outcomes. Abstemious non-smokers were living ever longer. Consequently, for the first time in history, people had to save for pensions. And if they could somehow penetrate the 1 per cent, the rewards were unprecedentedly large. The rich got to drink wine on Madeira (albeit usually during executive brainstorming sessions), they abandoned their boring suburbs for city centres, and they outlived the poor. A boy born in wealthy Lenzie outside Glasgow can now expect to live 28 years longer than a boy born a few miles away in the poor inner city. With some experts predicting that half of Britons born since 2007 should live to 103, the 1 per cent will be gunning for 150. For folks in Lenzie, “tomorrow we die” is plain wrong.

All these changes explain the new mass pursuit of long-term outcomes. Many people now dedicate their lives to breaking into the 1 per cent. They dedicate their children’s lives to it, too: the rise of hysterical over-parenting, of flashcards and “educational” DVDs for toddlers, is mostly explained by rising income inequality. Outcome-raised kids then also choose outcome-driven lives. As Paul Tough notes in his book How Children Succeed, most of the Princeton graduating class of 2010 entered investment banking or consulting.

Even making great art is no longer enough. Now you have to “monetise” it too. “Monetise”, in fact, is the word for our times. According to Google, its occurrence in books took off in the late 1970s, just as inequality began widening. Its use in news articles has accelerated since 2004, typically in conjunction with the words “blog” or “video”. If you can’t monetise something, current thinking goes, you may as well not have done it. Hence the excitement at the discovery of Rodriguez: the guy hadn’t monetised!

In fact, he’d never particularly tried to monetise. He used to perform with his back to audiences, and says he was perfectly happy working in construction. These days he tips drivers $50.

It’s tempting to praise him for scorning the outcome-driven life. But he’s probably wrong. On balance, outcome-seekers are happier. In surveys of happiness, the rich consistently score highest. They aren’t freezing in $100 houses. They like feeling smarter than the dreamers who didn’t monetise. Enjoy your room service, Rodriguez.

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