The Sellout

A young man who works with me on the magazine is contemplating returning to college and finishing his degree. In the meantime, he is an avid and varied reader, picking up everything from A Tale of Two Cities to Noam Chomsky. Last night I said to him, “You know what you are?  You’re a buccaneer scholar.” “Buccaneer scholar” is a term James Bach coined in his book by the same title to describe people who learn independently outside of a traditional school setting.

My friend seemed to like this description. “Yeah, I’ve always learned that way,” he said. “That’s why I worry about selling out if I go back to school.”

I told him he should do whatever he wanted and never worry about selling out. I have never liked the term sellout. It’s a mean spirited assessment of someone else’s business. But it’s obvious enough why have the phrase. All artists—all people, really—are wrestling to some degree with the question of whether what they love most can keep bread on the table. The sellout, it would seem, has sacrificed all honor and love for mammon. His reward is a large house and an empty heart.

The inference, of course, is that the sellout should have been willing to accept whatever meager living his passion could afford him. Yet why would we care what someone else chooses to do with their time? Why waste a single breath complaining about what roles an actor takes or what books and author writes?

Because we don’t really care what anyone else is doing. We care about what we will do, and every time some artist we admire makes a choice that seems to have been made with an eye on the marketplace instead of the heart, we might let our own resolve crumble just a little bit. Never mind that we have no idea nor any business knowing why someone does or doesn’t do something—we invent their reasons to answer our own fears, either for or against.

One of the greatest lessons we can all learn is that love, if you let it, can beget wealth. The two are not mutually exclusive. Yet we have often divided them, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But they are not divided at all, they are one in the same, and when you can wed them, the world turns from a harsh landscape to be endured through whatever means necessary, to a garden exactly as beautiful as the amount of love with which it was sewn.

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