Basking in the sun on a lazy autumn afternoon can do strange things. For example, it may wake up dormant aspirations—like birds, they flutter their wings, and soar up in the blue skies. It was on such an afternoon that my friend (and work colleague), Mustafa, decided to visit me for tea. I knew Mustafa from our boarding school days, where the seeds of our friendship were first planted ten years ago. It is said wine gets better with time, that holds for friendship too.
Punctual as always, Mustafa arrived at 3:00 pm as promised. We exhausted all the usual topics (current affairs, politics, health, relationships etc.). A few hours and three cups of tea later, there wasn’t much left to talk about. We just sat there in comfortable silence, sipping the almost cold tea. Suddenly, Mustafa brought up the subject of dreams which led to an interesting conversation.
Mustafa: “Remember our ‘chase-the-fireflies’ game from summer evenings at the boarding school? I feel we never stopped playing that game.”
Me: “I could see it coming, the poignant mood.”
Mustafa: “It’s true though, think about it. We have already spent half our lives, and intend to spend the remaining, trying to achieve something that seems charming and luminous like those fireflies. We catch it and tuck it under our pillows, only to find out the next morning that it was nothing but an ordinary insect. Each morning, we make a resolution that this time we will find the real firefly, but it’s the ordinary insect that sleeps under our pillows night after night. This futile pursuit stretches over our entire lives, and eventually we die with the image of the luminous firefly engraved in our lifeless eyes. Tell me honestly, why do we do our dull jobs at this dreary bank?”
Me: “Of course because they compensate us handsomely, if anyone makes us a better offer I’m sure we’d give it a serious consideration.”
Mustafa: “That is not the point, what I really wanted to ask is that what does this job do for us that other jobs don’t?”
Me: “Well, as far as I know we are both good at numbers.”
Mustafa: “If someone is good at painting walls, this does not mean they want to pursue it professionally.”
Me: “It’s a balance between what you’re good at and how much you get paid for offering your services.”
Mustafa: “Being good at something does not imply that you like it too. So the question then is what’s the tipping point where people trade their ‘love-to-dos’ for ‘good-ats’?”
Me: “But that’s the irony of creativity, isn’t it? Look at all the painters, poets, writers, musicians. Only few of them with some combination of exceptional talent and good luck see financial abundance, most of them don’t do very well despite great talent.”
Mustafa: “I think it boils down to what I call Liquefiable Creativity: The potential of a creative output to be commercialized. This of course depends on what society considers as valuable. For example, in our times being creative in ‘productizable’ technology translates very well financially—they call it being an entrepreneur. In comparison, being highly creative in writing poetry in an extinct language can only get you so far financially.”
Me: “Well, money is important. It’s not fun writing poems in a cave with one’s children crying for food.”
Mustafa: “That’s greatly exaggerated, try to improve it a bit.”
Me: “How about being a poet and living in a smaller house in the less expensive suburbs, living a modest and happier life doing what you love?”
Mustafa: “Interesting, but I want to keep all the nice things that the dull job at the dreary bank lets me have, so I guess I’ll just carry on. The bank made a good investment for sure, they quoted an excellent price for my services and my dreams.”
It was getting late and cold. It had been half an hour since Mustafa left, but I continued to sit in my garden reflecting on our earlier conversation. It was near dusk. The sky was crowded by birds returning to their nests after a hard day at work, against a backdrop of orange and red sunset. Just when I was about to go inside the house, I noticed a lonely firefly in the hedge. With one swift movement, I caught the firefly in my hand and marveled at its glow. After a few fleeting moments, I let go of the firefly. My mind had caught a glimpse of true light, and there was no way I could be fooled by an ordinary insect pretending to be a firefly—at least not that evening.