One of the things that is nice about a transatlantic flight, is that I can catch up on the movies that I have missed over the last year. I am particularly fond of documentaries. Since this flight was pretty much turbulence free, I could sit back and enjoy my 9 hours of unlimited viewing.
I was particularly struck by the contrast between my two favorites of the trip: Sound City and Don’t Stop Believing-Everyman’s Journey. Sound City is a story about a piece of technology located in a place called Sound City and how it changed the music business and then was left behind by that business. Dave Grohl weaves a marvelous story filled with all the classics and their creators. He shares the stories of a place, its people, and its tie to a soundboard that produced amazing music. And he also delves into the debate on which is better: tape or digital. I love that in the end no judgement is made, just an awakened appreciation for a technology that most people would never be able to distinguish when listening to.
But in a way it is also a collection of American Dreams, rags to riches stories, of people from far off small towns who come to this place where all their dreams come true. Dave Grohl and his bandmates had little money to spend after they drove from Aberdeen, Washington to LA to record the uber-famous Nevermind by Nirvana. Little did they know that later, their lives would be changed. Some would be able to deal with fame, and alas, one wouldn’t. And Fleetwood Mac, a hodgepodge of personalities from everywhere, connect by a chance meeting at a General Store, and later make music industry history. Through it all you gain the belief that if you have enough talent and enough will, you will have the chance to truly make it. In this case, where they were born, what income bracket their parents were in, didn’t seem to determine their level of success or talent. The American Dream is not about where you are from, it is about what you do later with what you have.
Don’t Stop Believing, showed a completely different side of the pathway to fulfilling a Dream. Arnel Pineda was a cover band singer in Manila. His mother had died when he was young, his father couldn’t support his family, and they all ended up on the streets. Pineda stayed alive by singing on street corners and later singing with various club bands. He had tried to record original songs, but people didn’t really want to hear them. At some point one of his band mates decided to upload videos of Arnel singing the rock classics. He hoped that someday, someone would notice their band.
And wouldn’t you know it, somebody did. Neal Schon, Journey’s lead guitarist, was desperate to find a new lead singer for his band. He spent thousands of hours surfing the web in the hopes of finding someone they might be able to use for their upcoming tour. He was discouraged and about to give up his quest, when one night he thought he would search YouTube one more time. He saw Pineda’s videos singing various songs from the Journey catalogue. And so begins Pineda’s new life.
Pineda, a boy who was destined to live close to the edge, barely surviving on what he was making as a singer in a cover band, was asked to do what all thought impossible, from singing in small clubs, to singing to filled stadiums. With nothing to lose, he tried out, and became an equal member of the band. He went from living in the slums of Manila, to traveling the world. He was, by chance, plucked from oblivion and given the spotlight, most will never experience.
Could this too be considered an American Dream story? In a way. But is becoming a famous musician just an American story. Are rags to riches stories uniquely American? What makes this “journey” interesting is that Pineda should have never made it. His destiny should have been determined by his life on the streets. Yes, he is talented. Watch a few videos of him on YouTube and see for yourself. The Internet bridged the gap of worlds and allowed his talent to be found.
Pineda’s story though is a rare one. Think of all the amazing and talented athletes you know. How many of them played in college or are now professionals? Think of all your friends who write music and play beautifully, or all of your friends who have amazing voices. Think of all the amazing talent you have found on YouTube. How many of them are currently still in a band? Recording? How many have hit the Billboard charts?
For days now I have been pondering these two stories. Are our destiny’s tied to where we were born and who we were born to? Or is our destiny a luck thing?
As I think of my students, I can’t help but think that most of them will be successful in life. They come from affluent homes, they have traveled the world, and most know 2-3 languages by the time they reach the 6th grade. It is not that they are gifted or even have high IQ’s, it is just that they were lucky enough to be born into a family that was upper middle class and was able to travel the world. They are lucky enough to have parents with multiple degrees or successful business careers. They are lucky to be growing up in an environment where their parents expect their child’s success in the future. Some may act, sing, or write music. Some may become world-class athletes. Some may become automobile designers. The world is really open to them, their options are endless. These kids have a leg up in the world simply because of to whom they were born or the country they were born in.
Then there is the luck thing. Those without connections, without money, have to rely on luck. Sure they work hard to develop their skills and talents, but they have to hope and pray that they will, one day, be in the right place at the right time. They must hope that someone will take a chance on them, invest their time and energies in them, and ultimately set them on a pathway to success.
So what do you think? Is our destiny determined by our birth? Is it determined by place? Or is our destiny just plain dumb luck? Would love to hear about other rags to riches stories from other cultures.