Artists VS The World (Or Does the World Need Me?)

Those who still watch the Simpsons complain that the recent seasons have lost the bite of the yesteryears. Still, one of my favorite not-so-old episodes involved Lisa getting inspired by a pair of artists (played by the Flight of the Conchords).  When Lisa runs away and reunites with her inspirations to become an artist, she gets disillusioned by the abject (or comically abject) poverty they live in.


Given that we all enjoy doing art and creative works, how to live doing what we want to do is no easy subject.  So before we laugh at these artist caricatures, I want to provoke with some frank questions. These gentlemen in the Simpsons admit they are not important so they are not paid much. But then are we  important? To ask this in another way:


1. Does the world need me?

2. Does the world need the work I do? How is what I do useful to the world?


As an Asian, I recognize that there is something Asian about these questions–where the societies value an individual based on his/her societal contributions. Yet I still think these questions are worth asking at least once for everyone.    These questions do not just address ethical issues for altruistic reasons. There are practical, possibly even selfish reasons to ask this question.

You have all heard, “do what you like, and money will follow.”  Is that true or just some feel-good fairytale? We have been all told many PC encouragements that haven’t turned out to be 100% true all the time.

Those of you who are old enough may remember an episode of “Married with Children” where Al tries to play a mentor figure to his son. He says, “Son, there are many lies I told you before. . “ and Bud cynically replies, ”Such as when you told me ‘Be yourself and people will like you?’”  If you are born as Brad Pitt or Tina Fey, sure, be yourself and people will like you. But if you are born with Asperger’s Syndrome you have works cut out for you before you become generally likable.

Coming back to our unforgiving world and the original question, let’s look at this diagram. I want to clarify that this diagram came from the book “100 Dollar Startup” by Chris Guillebeau. (Redrawn by yours truly in a Michelangeloean effort.) But the idea presented here really is nothing new and can be found in many other sources.


The zone number 1 represents what you like to do but not what the world needs. Say I like playing a video game called Super Duper Mortal Fighter 2 Deluxe Edition.  But nobody is going to pay me money to sit on my ass and play videogames all day. Granted, there are some people around the world who play videogames professionally by winning tournament money or getting sponsorship.  Given only a handful of people out of millions of videogamers have the necessary skills, it just would not be a good career move for me.

The zone number 2 represent what the world needs thus is willing to PAY YOU assuming you have skill and patience.

The overlap region is where the old adage “do what you like, and money will follow” actually works.  Some are lucky that their passion, their ability, and what the world wants align. Others must work hard to find this zone.

Thus trying to find “what the world needs” and “what I can do for the world” isn’t just a philosophical quest followed by a would-be martyr. They are serious, practical questions everyone can ask.


Finally, here comes the plot twist at the end. I will be my own contrarian by sharing this quote:


“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

–Howard Thurman, American Clergyman and Activist.


As Buddha says, I hope we can all find this Middle Way unencumbered by apparent contradictions. A food for thought, I hope.



One Response to “Artists VS The World (Or Does the World Need Me?)”

  1. Johnny says:

    A brilliant article, to which I would add: ask not merely what the world needs, but rather, what the world will pay for. These are not always identical. The world needs peace, yet rejects it. Conversely, nobody needs an iPhone, yet the world lines up to throw money at Apple. I myself prefer to keep business and pleasure separate. My profession is how I earn my living; I don’t expect to enjoy it. Conversely, my art is not for sale. That works for me. Your mileage may vary. When Mr. Thurman says “the world needs people who have come alive,” that may be true, but the world will not pay to have them.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>