It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing anything (or at least, anything that isn’t a rant about plumbers). What I want to address today, though, is the disparity between what we view as significant or valuable, and what actually is.
I’ve encountered the same idea so many times, from people in so many different fields: “If I’ve done things right, no-one will notice. If I mess up, everyone will be glaring at me.” I’d even venture to suggest that the vast majority of jobs are like this.
Think of a rock star, strutting their stuff in a big stage show—lasers, pyrotechnics, the works. If everything goes well, the audience reaction will be “Gosh [band name] were well radical!”*. If the lighting display is out-of-sync, and the spotlight fails to follow the lead singer around the stage, everyone will be complaining about the technicians.
But just pause for a moment. Whether a concert goes well, or bombs, how many people are involved in making it work? Advertisers, ticket sellers/collectors, sound/lighting/sfx technicians, “roadies”, prima-donna wranglers, and probably heaps more, but all the acclaim goes to the handful of oddly-dressed bods on the stage.
This leads to two rather odd mental blocks relating to the actual cost and the perceived value of the performance.
Firstly, people complain about the ticket prices, insinuating that they would be cheaper if the guitarist was willing to only buy one new Lamborghini this year, apparently oblivious (unless they consciously stop and think about it) to all the behind-the-scenes folk who also deserve to get paid**. It’s not that people are unaware, but our brains will take the easy way out given half a chance (I recommend the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” for anyone curious about this phenomenon).
Secondly, regardless of how ticket prices get parcelled out, the few jobs that do receive attention also tend to receive significant remuneration. Think of the (exorbitant) pay-packets of famous athletes. They can (though not all do, to be fair, only those that reach a high enough level in a popular enough sport) earn hundreds of times what, say, a teacher does. But would anyone seriously argue that kicking a ball around on television is more valuable to society than teaching the next generation so that they can be content and productive themselves? Yet capitalism says otherwise, in one of its lies that western society has internalised: money represents value, ergo if you earn more money, you are more valuable.
What’s going on? Well, in typical fashion, we are measuring what is easy to measure and disregarding what isn’t. I’ve seen in pointed out that the reason a sportsman (and sadly, it is almost always a man***) can earn so much is because their performance works regardless of the audience—how many there are, whether they’re paying close attention or just watching for the atmosphere, etc. If televised, millions could be watching. For a teacher to do their job, they need to engage with each member of the class, which is just impractical once the class gets over a certain size****.
So, in a way, maybe this is a rant about plumbers. And everyone else doing those valuable-but-hidden jobs. Because I for one am very glad that you do what you do, and that I can take a shower without having to think about how the water gets there; this is a prompt to myself, as well as anyone else, that such things shouldn’t be forgotten.
* Maybe not in those terms. I may be showing my lack-of-hip.
** Please note that I am unaware of how much of the ticket price goes to the various parties. It may well disproportionately favour the performer(s), it may vary depending on the prestige of the act. But that’s a separate issue.
*** Again, separate issue. Important, yes, but this post is long enough already.
**** I make no claims as to what the feasible upper limit of a class size is—it probably depends on who both the teacher and the students are—but it’s certainly not in the hundreds, let alone the millions.