Basking in the sun on a lazy winter afternoon can do strange things. For one, it can wake up timid dreams. Like birds, they flutter their wings, and soar up in the blue skies. It was on a winter afternoon of the kind I just described that my friend, Mustafa, decided to visit me for a cup of tea. Mustafa was my roommate during boarding school days, and therefore, a very dear friend. They say wine gets better with time. I suppose that holds for friendship too.
Mustafa arrived at 4 pm, as promised. We exhausted topics such as current affairs, politics, health, kids, not-to-mention, a dozen ‘shami kebabs’, chicken patties and a cake. An hour later, we had our second round of tea. There was nothing more to say. We just sat there in comfortable silence, sipping away from our tea cups. Suddenly, Mustafa brought up the subject of dreams.
Mustafa: Remember, how we used to chase after fireflies when we were kids. I feel that we are still doing the same.
Me: Wow, you seem to be in a really poignant mood.
Mustafa: Right, I am in my philosopher shoes now. But try to think about it. We have spent half our lives and intend to spend the remaining trying to achieve something that seems to be bright 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 ugly insect. Each morning, we resolve to find the real glow, yet it’s the ugly insect that sleeps under our pillows every single night. This barren pursuit stretches over our entire lives till we die with the image of the luminous firefly engraved in our lifeless eyes. Tell me very honestly, why are you a banker?
Me: Because the financial incentives are excellent. I can afford to have a good house, a car and good education for my kids.
Mustafa: I know about all these things. What I want to ask is: What is it that being a banker does for YOU that any other job cannot.
Me: Well, I am good with numbers.
Mustafa: And I am very good at dishwashing. Does this mean I should be a dishwasher at a restaurant?
Me: It’s a balance between what you are good at and how much you get paid for offering your expertise.
Mustafa: Being good at something does not imply that you like it too. My wife thinks I am good at dishwashing and I agree. Yet, this isn’t something I dream of doing day in day out. I am also good at painting. If given a particularly lucrative opportunity, I will happily give up my career in engineering to become a full time painter. But the truth is that I am an engineer, and not a painter. So how much does it take to swindle someone from pursuing their dreams and make them do what they are good at ?
Me: But that’s the irony of creativity, isn’t it? Talk about painters, poets, writers, musicians; if lucky stars are shining upon them, they might be catapulted to heights of fame, but that’s a rare case. Majority of them reverberate in empty air, like an unsung melody.
Mustafa: I don’t think it has anything to do with creativity. Being creative in Science pays really well. The Microsofts and Googles of the world are hunting for people with innovative ideas. It’s about liquidity. Scientific creativity has high liquidity, artistic creativity—not so much. The loss ratio is much, much higher in the latter case.
Me: As per the books I have read, liquidity is ‘the ability of an asset to be converted into cash quickly and without any price discount’. How do you tie this into your argument?
Mustafa: It’s very straightforward. Creativity is gauged by its profitability—its potential to be commercialized. An employee at a software house gets more or at least competitive salary as a PhD in Philosophy.
Me: You cannot deny the importance of money. You don’t want to paint living in a ghetto with children crying for food.
Mustafa: That’s an excessively grim picture. Try to improve it a bit.
Me: Well, how about being a painter and residing in a not-so-posh area, driving a Suzuki instead of your Accord and your children studying in a Government/Public school.
Mustafa: Interesting, but my answer is no. I want to keep all the ‘good’ things I have as we speak, therefore I intend to keep my current job. My employers have made a good investment. They have quoted an excellent price for my services – and my dreams!
It was getting late and cold. Mustafa took a last sip of his now cold tea and drove away. After closing the gate after him, I stood in the lawn for a few moments. Dusk was setting in and the horizon was painted in several hues; pink, orange, yellow, red and purple. The sky was blotted with flocks of birds returning to their nests after a day of toil and sweat. Out of the blue, my eyes caught sight of a lonely firefly in the hedge. In a single swift movement, I got hold of the insect. The little thing squirmed in my fingers as I inspected its shiny tail. After a few fleeting moments, I let go of it. My mind had caught glimpse of true light, and there was no way I could be fooled by a deceptive insect—at least that particular night.