The Hero’s Journey Revisited

I recently attended a writers’ workshop where The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell was discussed. Campbell identified a pattern of events while researching stories and myths involving a person embarking on a journey. The general pattern can be illustrated by drawing a circle with a person starting (at home) at the top. Moving clockwise along and down the circle as time passes, events happen which result in the person beginning a journey. During the journey more events happen, including a number of challenges the traveler most overcome and fears he/she must conquer. During these events the traveler moves through the bottom of the circle and starts up the left side. Finally the traveler returns home (back to the top of the circle) and is a changed person. Not only is the traveler transformed, but he/she returns with what Campbell calls the elixir – meaning some sort of knowledge, or awareness, or potion that helps transform the world into a better place.

The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good illustration of Campbell’s pattern. In the movie Dorothy unwittingly takes a journey to Oz, a strange place with unusual characters who either want to help her or harm her. Dorothy wants to return home but discovers she must first accomplish several tasks. In the end, she successfully returns home with the realization, “There is no place like home.”

Most people wouldn’t necessarily call Dorothy a hero nor is her epiphany that there is no place like home all that enlightening for adults. Nonetheless, the movie shows how the pattern can be generalized in more than a few ways. There are some individuals who even suggest the pattern captures the meaning of life: that is, each of us embarks on a journey through life that hopefully results in new knowledge that helps human-kind.

Fiction writers have said that all they need for a story is for a stranger to come into town. When you think about it, this scenario is just a different slant on the journey pattern. It is the stranger who is the one on the journey.

The pattern can be generalized to include journeys that don’t involve physical movement. Any major life event can signify the start of a journey: high school graduation, getting married, joining the military, getting a college degree, getting a new job, joining a convent, having a baby, and getting divorced. Some of these activities involve physical travel, but the journey they represent is bigger than simply getting out of Dodge.

Two key aspects of this pattern are that the traveler: 1) confronts fears, and 2) undergoes change. The change can be anything from a transformation to an epiphany. Further, a journey (and a life) can be comprised of a series of smaller micro-journeys with each one beginning when an event occurs. Presumably, at least some of these events are prompted by decisions the traveler made based on what was learned in a prior micro-journey. The event can also be in the form of another person’s influence.

While Campbell’s findings were based on studies of stories and myths, I think their application to real life is undeniable. This suggests that the stories and myths themselves contain insights into the human condition.

Anyone thirty or older can point to events and/or decisions they’ve made that have had a major impact on their lives. In my case, the first big life-altering event that occurred to me after high school graduation was receiving a draft notice from Uncle Sam. It prompted my enlistment in the Air Force, from which I received an honorable discharge four years later. My transformation from this micro-journey included not only much-needed maturity but also being able to afford a college education.

Do each of life’s micro-journeys take us from a place of stress and put us in a better place? For the most part I think they do. Of course, much depends on the makeup of the person/traveler. If it didn’t, why would anyone care about the story?


Good Art and the Truth



Old covered bridges are like walks on the beach: it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like them. So, what do covered bridges have to do with good art and the truth? I’m here to explain. As always, there is a story behind the explanation; happily, it is neither long nor complicated. The photo is of an oil painting I did in the summer of 1965. That day in July I was on-site at the Jacoby Mill Road covered bridge just a bit east of U.S. Route 68 off of Clifton Road in Xenia Township, Ohio. I had stumbled onto the bridge some weeks earlier when I was looking around Greene County for possible landscapes to paint. Having just graduated from high school, I was driving my old 1947 “high school kid” car. I parked as far off the road as possible which was difficult as the area was heavily wooded.

Now, switch to this past summer (2016) when I was attending a writers’ workshop. One of the speakers at the workshop repeated a quote I’d never heard before: “All good art gets us closer to the truth.” For some reason I couldn’t help but embrace this quote. Perhaps it was because it sounded so profound, so insightful. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm abated as I carefully listened to the speaker and realized that his narrative wasn’t helping me understand the quote. I still didn’t understand it when I left the workshop but it stayed with me (I’m like a dog with a bone on these kinds of things). I later sent an inquiry to the speaker via email but even after reading his reply I was still not satisfied.

It wasn’t until I got to thinking about this covered bridge painting that a possible interpretation of the quote occurred to me. In looking at the painting I have to admit that back then my artistic virtuosity clearly showed a lack of skill in both craft and technique. And yet, I think I could argue that the art is good for one reason: it is the only image of the bridge from this vantage point that exists today. This wouldn’t be so significant a statement except that the bridge was badly damaged by arson five years after I did this painting (1970). The county tore the remaining structure down shortly thereafter and cleared the site. Today, only parts of the abutments remain.

So, my painting gets us closer to the truth by giving us an image of what the southern entrance to the bridge looked like in 1965. The painting does not exhibit much detail or photographic accuracy, but it does honestly portray what my eyes saw then, as best I could capture the image in oils and canvas.

In fact, this explanation works even better when I thinks about the word closer in the quote. As noted, the painting does not provide detail or photographic accuracy, so it can only get us close to the truth. The same can be said of the limited number of black and white photos of the bridge that exists, taken from other vantage points. Since nature is in full color, black and white images only get us close to the truth.

Do I conclude from all of this that my painting is good art? The answer, in my view, depends upon the criteria one selects to quantify good. I select that good means the honest representation of something that no longer exists and for which any other representation differs. In this sense, my art is good.

If this definition of good art seems a little accommodating or perhaps self-serving, consider how things must have been in the Renaissance Period. In those days of da Vinci and Michelangelo, consider that the only means of representing the human form was by art (painting, sculpting, and drawing). There were no photographic plates, no instamatics or Polaroid’s, no digital bitmaps, and no videos. Indeed, these methods were the only means of generating an image of anything.

Thus, I believe I have succeeded in providing an overall interpretation of the quote. Naturally, this is only one interpretation and others might possibly surface. Until then, I’m sticking with this one for sure.

In closing, I mention an insight I learned from taking several night classes in oil painting in mid-1970: our eyes can play tricks on us. Often when I paint what I think I see I come to realize the colors on the canvas are wrong. I learned that my brain needed to be trained and any preconceived notions dispensed with. Art has been letting me know the truth ever since.

Suspension of Disbelief

Worlds to Colonize

Surely everyone familiar with the arts has come across the phrase suspension of disbelief. When we see a play or read a novel, it is clear that the play or the novel is a representation of reality. We are not flies on the wall, watching and reading about real people living their real lives (or being able to crawl into their minds, as we can with written stories). Even so, most people have little difficulty suppressing this fact in order to enjoy the play or book. The representation need only be sufficient to permit the audience/reader to suspend disbelief.

Many stories go further in their reliance on readers to suspend disbelief. For example, superheroes and talking animals can make for entertaining stories even if they don’t exist in the real world. For these genres, each individual must decide for themselves how far they are willing to suppress disbelief for the sake of entertainment, education, and/or examining imaginative ideas.

Far future science fiction stories like Star Wars have a unique place in this essay because their reality is defined at a time well into the future. This greatly facilitates suspension of disbelief since who knows what will happen by then. True, modern science suggests certain SF tropes will likely never exist. These include time travel, matter transporters (beam me up, Scotty), and faster-than-light space travel. On the other hand, modern science also hints at developing technologies that make plausible major advancements in human immortality, highly intelligent and mobile robots, and routine interplanetary space travel for non-astronauts.

To explore suspension of disbelief further consider one SF story I’ve read that takes place in a far future where mankind has colonized a number of planets in another part of the galaxy. In the hundreds of years since colonization, unfortunately, most of the colonies have failed and those remaining are in dire shape. The colonies were failing because: 1) the environments were very harsh, 2) the colonists’ equipment was getting old and failing (insufficient spares), and 3) supplies like seeds and medicines were low or exhausted. In other words, the colonies were not self-sustaining and there was (for some unexplained reason) no help available from earth.

I find the basic premise of colonizing planets believable. As for the harsh planet environments, our growing knowledge of exoplanets supports this view of planet diversity. Just because humans colonize a planet doesn’t mean it is very earth-like. In all likelihood, it is not.

However, I was unable to suspend disbelief of several presuppositions within the story. The first was the idea of humans colonizing planets without the goal of self-sustainment. No reason is given why taking this extreme risk is justified. It seems simply suicidal to me in view of the anticipated challenges in resupplying colonies. Second, nowhere in the story are intelligent robots even mentioned. Sorry, but in my opinion humanity will be relying heavily on intelligent robots to help us make our way into space. In fact, this has been much the case already. Consider all the space probes we have already sent into our solar system to gather data (New Horizons, Voyagers 1 & 2, Cassini, Pioneer series, Rosetta, Deep Space 1, Deep Impact, Vega 1 & 2, and many more). These probes foreshadow the smart, highly mobile robots that will help us successfully make our way deeper into space. They will be doing the dirty work or completely replacing humans on risky missions.

Of course, we all know that conflict is key in storytelling. The author thus needs to come up with challenges to be overcome. However, if it seems to me that a challenge is inserted to make the story work, rather than portray a realistic aspect of world building, I lose interest. I also recognize that SF writers are, by and large, not in the business of forecasting the future. So, if their future worlds don’t fit with my views of the future, that’s on me. Their job is to write entertaining stories.

My point in all of this is that knowing a person in the literary sense means understanding where they draw the line on suspension of disbelief. And if they don’t even read SF, well, I feel compassion for those who never ask, “What if?

Writers’ Workshop Critiques

In August of last year, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon 74) in Kansas City, Mo. It was my first SF convention and a bucket list check off. As a world convention, there were thousands of attendees, a huge conference center, and a lot going on – almost 24-hours a day for the entire week. I learned ahead of time about the writers’ workshop program that was part of the conference. I submitted a SF novella before the convention started and it was accepted. At the convention, I received face-to-face reviews by two successful SF writers, as well as two aspiring writers. Our small group met for over two hours to discuss our reviews of the three submitted stories.

Afterwards, I felt I received good critiques from each participant in the group. However, the real issue in getting the most out of writing critiques is knowing how to deal with them. For me this knowledge came mostly from experience. Specifically, I’d attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) in Dayton, Ohio the prior three summers. At the AWW I had worked on fiction writing, more specifically science fiction writing. Several years of receiving and assimilating criticism taught me to separate the helpful comments from the pedestrian ones. I consider each participant’s written and verbal feedback, and I work through all of the items in a slow, thoughtful pace. I know most style and all grammar problems can be fixed by a good editor, so I give them minimal attention. What I’m most interested in are any surprising or unexpected big-picture inputs. For example, the two key criticisms the professional writers at Worldcon gave me were: 1) my story lacked suspense, and 2) my story was partly predictable. The first was a surprise since I knew that my story contained a Big Mystery. Through discussions I came to understand that the problem was not the big mystery, but the need to inject little mysteries along the way to egg on the reader. This provides the chapter to chapter suspense that was missing from my draft.

As for the predictability of the story, that is something I’m still working on. I was concerned about it when revising the second draft so when I got the criticism I knew the point was valid. The trick seems to be to do better at concealing upcoming milestone events without shifting the story arc. I’m still exploring the best ways to do this.

Perhaps what was most interesting was that I sort of stumbled into conducting an experiment. It turns out I had the same SF novella reviewed in a fiction writing class at the annual AWW summer session a month before the Worldcon conference workshop. Thus, I had received critiques on the same draft from both workshops and could compare and contrast the feedback. What I learned was more than can be addressed in this post, but I can summarize three observations that I felt were telling. They are described in the following three paragraphs.

The first observation is that new or aspiring writers’ critiques often need some interpretation. As an example, one young writer commented that a particular section of my narrative – one having to do with a meeting among councilmen – slowed down my story. When I later looked at the draft and the feedback from the professionals I understood what was being said. The subject narrative was: 1) in the wrong place in the story, and 2) more importantly, it did not serve the purpose I had in mind when I initially wrote it. I ended up putting it in the scrap pile where it remains today.

My second observation was about a common critique I received in both workshops. Everyone seemed to agree that I needed to inject more detail into the story. We all understand why detail is important in fiction – it helps make the narrative more believable i.e. like it actually happened. I concluded that there were really several parts to this criticism. One is that, while I was doing a fairly good job at world-building, too much had been left out. This gap in information did not shroud the story in mystery (as I had hoped for) but rather it came across as not-well-thought-out. The criticism was spot on. Another part of this critique was clearly linked to the need to flesh out the major characters. I needed to get more emotion into them by having them reflect on past events and let the reader understand (via internal dialog and other techniques) why they were interpreting things the way they were.

The third observation was mildly surprising but worth some thought. Simply put, critiques provided by writers (both professionals as well as aspiring authors) who write in the same genre as the aspiring writer (i.e. me) generally provide more insight, especially in plotting and originality. As an example, I am one of those aspiring SF writers who prefers hard SF and has little interest in the neighboring genre of fantasy. As a consequence, I know my critiques of fantasy stories are not as good as they otherwise could be. I’m simply not well read on the tropes and trends of the genre. As another example, one time I received a review of my SF novella from an aspiring writer who had mentioned beforehand that she had no interest in SF stories. While she truly made a concerted effort in reading my story, her critiques showed a lack of even the most basic technical or scientific depth. This caused her to misconstrue what was meant in several important passages.

In closing, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard fiction writers talk much about the interpreter aspects of creative writing, but it occurs to me that perhaps this is what fiction writers have in common – a healthy interest in, or dare I say, a need to try to interpret the human condition.



The Sycamore Tree

Sycamore Tree lightWhen my parents retired and moved to the country, my Dad planted a sycamore tree in the side yard. Over years of visiting with them, I observed the tree grow and become a huge, sturdy tree. My mother told me sycamores were considered dirty trees becomes they frequently drop dead leaves and branches. I could see what she meant, even though I still thought the tree looked quite majestic.

Fifteen years ago I decided a sycamore tree would be a nice addition to my lower backyard. By putting it in the backyard it wouldn’t be a problem if it dropped copious leaves and branches. I soon found that many nurseries don’t stock sycamores, so I was surprised to find a 5-foot tree at an area nursery. I planted it in the backyard in a well-drained area and looked forward to watching it grow.

Several years later I was disappointed to see that the tree was not growing symmetrically; one side was pretty much bare of branches. I did some research and concluded that I couldn’t do anything about it so I cut it down to a stump. The next summer I noticed shoots of growth coming from the stump and just mowed around it. By fall there were several sizable shoots. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I selected the healthiest vertical one and cut down the others.

Next spring the shoot continued to grow and I kept all other growth around the stump cut back. Long story short, a few years later the tree was about 8-ft tall and was full on all sides. I was happy to see that there were no signs of the asymmetry of the original tree. I was a surprised at its rapid growth, but then considered that the root system from the original tree was still growing and would support such growth.

Then the next spring an unusual wind came into my area; it was the remnants of a storm from down south that had travelled north in the middle atmosphere. Unfortunately, it decided to descend in my part of Ohio and knocked down many trees, including several large cottonwoods that grew along the creek at the very back of my yard. As bad luck would have it, one of the big cottonwoods landed at the back end of my detached garage. In addition to causing several thousand dollars of damage to the garage, the cottonwood managed to split the little sycamore almost to the ground. Perhaps understandably, I was more upset about the damaged sycamore than the garage; after all, the garage was insured. However, nothing would get my sycamore back the way it was, at least not anytime soon.

This time I couldn’t help but wonder if the tree was simply not meant to be. Once again, though, I realized I had nothing to lose and cut it down to the stump. Again, shoots grew off and up from the stump that summer and I repeated the process in the fall of selecting the best shoot and cutting the rest.

Now, six years later, the tree is full and easily 15-ft tall. (The photo was taken this spring and shows the buds starting to leaf.) It is an awesome tree and will look even more so each year as it reaches to the sky. The trunk has assimilated much of the stump and in a few years the remaining stump will disappear. Then only a few people will know the extent of the tree’s troubled past.

I’ve met a few people who lives are similar to the story of this tree. Despite all odds, they keep on going. With just the right occasional and well-placed helping hand from the outside, they overcome it all and thrive.

Re-learning Button Pushing

During my working years I wrote many technical reports. Decades ago, when desktop computers became popular, I taught myself keyboarding. My handwriting was atrocious. I recall the first word processing program I used was WordPerfect. I came to like WordPerfect and grew fairly proficient with it. Naturally, the word processing experts at my company took my drafts and polished them into final report format. I didn’t try to do their job, although over the years so many new employees had keyboarding skills and used personal computers that the word processing department shrank, being replaced by one or two secretaries.

As Microsoft expanded their takeover of the personal computer applications business, they developed their own word processing application called Microsoft® Word. Over time, MSWord grew in popularity. Even so, I resisted switching to it as I wanted to avoid having to spend hours learning a new application when I was perfectly happy with the one I was using. However, when my company’s clients began asking for documents in MSWord format, the handwriting was on the wall. I made the painful switch to MSWord.

Except for keyboarding, the procedures for using MSWord were totally different from those of WordPerfect. Still, it was simply a matter of learning new procedures. Over the years as new versions of MSWord were released, changes continued to be made in its functions and procedures. This was not surprising since the product design was still maturing and new features were being added. However, Microsoft also became notorious for moving icons around and changing buttons and functions for no apparent reason. It was this change for change’s sake that caused me to realize that learning, and then re-learning, and then again re-learning procedures is just plain dog work. It doesn’t take a genius to be proficient in MSWord. Rather, it takes a reasonably intelligent person with time and patience to read and study the user manual, and then practice. And then do it all over again when the next version comes out.

A word processing application is a tool for me to do my writing. As long as it meets my needs, I don’t want to be bothered with new versions having bells and whistles that are of no interest to me. In retirement, I continue to use older versions of MSWord and I’m happy to say that most places I submit write-ups to use older versions, too.

On a related topic, I recently got to the point that it was time for me to switch from my old analog cell phone with its physical keyboard to a new digital smartphone. Here again, I had been putting off having to re-learn procedures; in this case, re-learning how to make phone calls when all the buttons, keypads, and keyboards were virtual.

So now I’ve had my smartphone for about nine months and I really like it. Of course, in the early days of using it I discovered that there really weren’t any useful user manuals online for it or most of the applications I downloaded. I was frustrated by this situation. It got worse when I came to realize that, in the few cases where user manuals did exist, they were outdated! I found the same to be true when I looked on YouTube for instructional videos. The applications on my android phone are constantly being updated and sometimes I have to re-learn how to do something I used to be able to do on a prior version of the same application.

Instead of user manuals, which I admit can be boring to read, it appears that applications now come with built-in prompts that help guide the user through the process they want to perform. I’ve found these prompts to be helpful on many occasions, but also totally useless if I’m trying to do something not addressed by any displayed prompts. In these latter cases, I’ve come up with a solution that is not very elegant but seems to work more often than not.

I start pushing virtual buttons until something happens that looks like it might take me in the direction I want to go.

Affluent Arrogant Cheapskates

I very seldom lose my cool with people. My observation is that becoming angry with someone and raising my voice seldom helps the situation. Still, there have been a few times when I’ve been really mad at someone and lost my cool. I’ve raised my voice and told them in no uncertain terms what I wanted. Sometimes it is effective, and sometimes it is not. In the latter case, I distance myself from the individual and minimize my interaction with them.

Over time, I’ve evolved a pretty clear understanding of what really sets me off. For example, if I’m being told a boldfaced lie about something very important to me, and I know it is a boldfaced lie, I get pissed. Livid, actually. Furthermore, if a close friend does something stupid and I suffer the consequences, I instantly get mad at them. I think I interpret such behavior as either a lack of respect or a lack of caring.

More recently, I encountered an individual who I eventually concluded was an affluent, arrogant cheapskate. He’s an older person who moved into the same neighborhood I was in, which is why we had any interaction at all. I was initially cordial to him, as I would be to anyone. However, over a period of several months I observed that he tended to use other folk’s possessions, such as dock boxes or dock pilings, if the owners was not using them. If it were me, I would have (as I have) bought my own dock box. He also bought new dock lines and then offered to see me his old ones – after he asked if I wanted them. Here’s a man with a much more expensive boat then mine trying to make a buck off me with some old rope. Really? Worse, he seemed to impose himself into my life during this time. I was working on an outdoor boat project and nearly every day he’d stop by and pester me. I soon cooled to him, especially when I realized he couldn’t stop sticking his nose in my business. He couldn’t seem to accept the idea that I did not want his advice. Then one day, I had a local expert visit me to help with my project and the old man saw us and couldn’t leave us alone. Indeed, he wanted the expert to look at something on his boat. Right there and then, I lost it. I told him in no uncertain terms to stay the hell away from me. I even surprised myself; I hadn’t fully appreciated how much this guy’s behavior got under my skin!

I’ve known a few affluent people, though I can’t say I typically hang with them. I’ve also known more than a few arrogant people, some of whom I get along with well because their arrogance is an attitude borne out of accomplishment rather than a sense of entitlement or uniqueness. And yes, I’ve certainly known a cheapskate or two (or three or four). I’ve never had a real problem with any of these people. An affluent, arrogant cheapskate, however, is a person bound and determined to give people advice they don’t want, based on (reported) experiences most people can’t afford to engage in, while trying to make (or save) a buck off them – all at the same time!

Such people are indeed a sight to behold – preferably from at least one neighborhood away.

Encounters with My Former Self

Something has started happening in my life that I never expected; indeed, I never even anticipated. As I grow old, I keep running into myself!

As a boy, I had a lot of curiosity. One way I expressed this was to look at things very, very closely. Naturally, at some point in time I got a microscope for Christmas. Then along came a chemistry set, and then later a telescope. I learned a lot about the physical world from these tools. In those days, these items were actually more tool than toy.

Also as a boy, I had a great imagination. I would get on the floor, either in the living room or in the basement, and set up my spaceship sets or blocks or whatever and play for hours. I had no difficulty transporting myself into my play. I think my ability to imagine facilitated this mental leap.

I also read a lot. I enjoyed comic books first but moved into paperback books when I was a little older. The town library was within walking distance so I got exposure to hardbacks as well. And the price was always right at the library, especially in the late summer when I was bored and the air conditioning felt great. I really liked science fiction and could easily get lost in books by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt, Jack Williamson, Fredrick Brown, and Isaac Asimov. The only real problem I had while getting lost in books was my imagination – I’d start reading a book and the next thing I knew I was awaking from a daydream! Uh … what was this story about again? I’d have to go back and re-read the last ten pages to find out.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been curious, somewhat imaginative, and have read fiction off and on. However, I largely turned my back on these qualities when I came of age. I went out to meet the world on its terms and learn whatever I could. I was, after all, an adult. Uncle Sam gave me the opportunity to travel to foreign lands. A solid education gave me a professional career and the resources to raise a family in a nice town with good schools. I’m eternally grateful for such good fortune and fond memories.

Now, however, I interact with the world pretty much on my own terms. I spend more time doing the things I like to do, not unlike when I was a kid: I read, learn, research, study, think, work with my hands, and imagine. Fortunately, I don’t have the problem with daydreaming that I used to have when reading fiction. I realize now that daydreaming as a young boy was all about me – I was the hero, the protagonist – in whatever adventure I was daydreaming about. I suspect this is true of the daydreams of most young boys, and perhaps girls as well.

I find that I almost never daydream anymore. I’m not sure if it is because I no longer have the need, or I no longer have the faculty, or both. What I do apparently need is some real adventure in my life. That’s why I own a cruising sailboat and spend my winters sailing in Florida. Each year I push myself a bit further, doing something I’d never done, nor would have ever done, before.


The Robot Economy -Finding a Niche


My March 13, 2017 post, entitled “The Robot Economy,” looked at how humans might prepare for the day when robots do all the work people used to do. It seems likely that people will still need some income if they are to enjoy the advances afforded by modern technology. Strategies I identified in that post included owning a working robot to hire out for income, or even owning stock in the companies that build robots and pay good dividends.

Other strategies have surfaced, which I collectively call Finding a Niche. These strategies revolve around people taking the initiative to either create their own jobs, or finding gigs within the evolving labor market. Entrepreneurs, inventor/investors, and freelancers are people who create jobs. People who pursue gigs include moonlighters (part-timers), entertainers, personal service providers, casual laborers, public speakers, and handy-people. One of the best contemporary examples of a worker with a gig is an Uber driver. Uber lets people work whenever they can/want to – simply by signing on as available to pick-up passengers.

For many young people with little or no accumulated wealth, these strategies are far more viable than buying an expensive robot. There’s no reason why entrepreneurs, freelances, part-timers, personal service providers and others can’t make a comfortable living for themselves. Some will even get rich, although many won’t simply because the percentages are against them. There will be more opportunities in the future, but there will also be more people pursuing them.

One idea I think is especially promising is for people who come across business opportunities while engaged in their hobbies. Recognize that in the future many people will have more time for hobbies. What constitutes a hobby is virtually limitless; it comes down to pretty much any legal pastime people wish to engage in. The business idea comes when a person needs something for his hobby and discovers no one makes it. Could he make it himself and sell it for a profit? Or there’s the hobbyist who fashions her own unique tool to make her projects go smoothly, then realizes, “Could other people use this tool, too?” Making such products to sell online could be a successful business because, while the demand is evident (i.e. the tool worked for her), the demand would not be big enough to attract major manufacturers. As another alternative, for years people have established their own businesses by buying select hobbyist’s supplies in bulk – far more than needed by any of their potential customers – and then repackaging them in to smaller quantities to sale to individuals. Sometimes called cottage industries, these businesses are now far more common than ever.

Unfortunately, this glance into the future hasn’t surfaced anything terribly new or insightful. There will be those who “follow the money” and there will be those who “pursue their passion.” If money is a person’s passion, then the solution is for them to go into business. For all the rest, the whole issue of future employment comes down to the three basic questions that it always comes down to: 1) what is my passion, 2) what do I want to do, and 3) what am I good at doing? Many people spend their whole lives trying to answer these questions. Sometimes when they find the answers, they face challenges reconciling them. Nothing suggests it will be any different in the future.

The Robot Economy

The prevailing worldview is that robots will eventually do most of the physical work in America. There is clear evidence to support this view. The fact is that the US has greater manufacturing output now than ever, while there are fewer workers in manufacturing now than before. Advances in manufacturing technology – specifically automation – are what made this possible.

Some people believe that the best way to prepare for this future robot economy is to save their money and buy a highly capable robot – when such robots become available. The idea is that they can hire out their robot to whoever needs work done for which the robot is suited. This way people can participate in the robot economy by making money off their robot. After all, people will need some sort of income since everyone will be out of a job in the robot economy.

Naturally, the smarter and more capable a robot is, the wider the variety of work it will be able to perform. No one would want to own a robot that is suited to just a few tasks since those tasks, just like human manufacturing jobs, may be taken over by highly specialized machines. Herein lies the conundrum regarding the capabilities of these robots. Highly specialized machines take on whatever appearance and configuration they need in order to perform a task with the best speed, accuracy, and efficiency possible. Yet, it would seem difficult to build a robot to do such a job while also being sufficiently capable to do many other specialized tasks. In other words, how is a general purpose robot able to compete with highly specialized machines?

One approach to reducing this challenge is the use of modularity and re-configurability in robot design. For example, the “brain” part of the robot could be in one module while the moving parts could be in several other different modules, depending on the nature of the motion needed for certain tasks. A module with wheels could be used for rolling, while one with “legs” could be used for walking, or one with “arms” and another with “hands” could be combined to pick up and assemble parts.

The down side of this modularity approach is that robot owners would then need to decide which modules they should buy or possibly rent. A solution to this might be to buy a large collection of modules, but this would likely be too costly for all but the wealthiest people.

My thinking is that maybe owning a robot is not really the best way to participate in the robot economy. Instead, what if one owned stock in the companies that built robots? That makes the decisions a lot easier. One would have to live off the dividends but they should be significant. Even if robots start making other robots, which will surely happen, these companies will remain at the helm.