The Uses of Anger
Anger is not a sustainable business plan.
If you want to start something…sure…use anger about the powers that be to get you off your ass and figure out a better way. But don’t count on that furious passion to drive you to the unattainable 21st Century Promised Land—mass wealth matched with inner peace.
What usually happens is you’ll have plenty of fire to “show them” at the outset. But whatever you wish to prove—be it a better, more human and focused publishing company or a more customer friendly plumbing supply business—isn’t going to end well. And yes, even if you sell your app for 19 billion dollars to Google. I’ve met some extraordinarily wealthy people in my day, and not a one was content. In fact, most of them only want to talk about when they were broke and how much fun they had before the big windfall.
Using anger to “show” is ego based. It’s all about YOU. Your wish to become “someone,” a figure to be reckoned with in your chosen field.
What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what the American Dream is all about? Bootstrapping yourself to the top?
Here’s the thing. You’ll probably be successful. You’ll put that book on The New York Times bestseller list. You’ll make that deal that gives you the exclusive distribution of the next big thing in elbow joints.
And at that moment, when you think your day has come when all of those people you wanted to prove something to will gaze their eyes your way and give you an affirmative and respective nod for a job well done…
No. One. Will. Care.
That’s not a bad thing either. In fact, it’s a great thing, a gift.
No one is tracking your career or keeping a running tally of how many hits or misses you’ve had in your day but you. Everyone is too busy tracking his own trajectory to waste time thinking about how amazing or brilliant or stupid or arrogant or ridiculous you are. Just think about whose career you’re tracking other than your own. No one’s, right?
And then there you will be, with some hollow victory that no one recognizes or appreciates least of all yourself. You’ll get no congratulatory emails. You’ll get no hearty handshakes from hail-fellows well met.
So you’ll press harder to put more books on bestseller lists or to get the best concession for PVC pipe. You’ll cut corners to get your product to market faster. You’ll make deals for the short term. You’ll reach the Forbes 400 list.
And one day, you’ll wake up and realize that you’ve become just like the thing you railed against when you started. There is no reason for your company to be other than that it is. And you are a clown with nothing to show for yourself but a big bank account, a string of failed relationships and perhaps a couple of miserable offspring.
So what can you do with all that anger? (And if you say that you are an artist and you aren’t angry about anything, I suggest you’re either lying to the world or to yourself).
Great artists transform their anger into stories. The anger helps them discover what’s important to them—what they value–and then they tell a story about that value. They recognize that they have to take their ego out of the equation in order for the story to effect change. That is, they have to find out why the story needs to be told-the theme. If they focus on the fruits of that story–recognition, money etc.–the muse will pass them by and whisper in someone else’s ear.
Here’s an example of an artist bedeviled by inner demons who converted his inner rage and torment into art.
Richard Pryor told a story one night at New York’s Improv comedy club that epitomized his ability to convert his anger into a force to effect change. It’s told by his friend, comedian David Brenner, and is featured in the book Furious Cool by David Henry and Joe Henry. The bit centers on a stoned nine-year-old on the roof of a tenement building threatening to kill himself…
So a crowd gathers. There’s a white priest and a black minister and the white cops and gang members and the people screaming for him to jump…I think he even put the mayor in there somewhere. And of course Richie played all those parts, plus the nine-year-old kid. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen or heard in my life. He was such a great actor. When he became these people, he was those people. When he became the white cop who goes up and tries to talk him out of it, he was this white cop.
You know how Richie could do those great white voices: “Well, uh, what are you doing, son? Do you really want to jump?”
And when he became that nine-year-old boy, he was a nine-year-old boy on the precipice of a roof in Harlem ready to jump. And the kid was hysterically funny. The lines he came up with for this kid…
The routine went on for fifteen minutes…twenty minutes, whatever it was. And then Richie stops talking. He stares down like he’s up on top of this roof at the edge of the stage. And he jumps.
It ends with the nine-year-old boy, stoned, leaping off the roof and killing himself.
He [Pryor] lands hard with both feet on the floor and then walks off down the aisle, through the audience, in dead silence.
Richie took an audience where there were people wiping their faces with tears from laughing so hard, to people actually crying, all in a millisecond. It’s still the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen a comedian do.
It’s no secret today (back then not so much) that Richard Pryor grew up exactly like his nine-year-old creation. Do you think he thought that it was fair that brilliant young children are neglected everyday and left to be preyed upon by dark forces? Did that fact make him angry?
Now, do you think anyone in that audience saw unattended children in the street the same way after seeing that performance?
Richard Pryor is not on the earth anymore, but the people who saw that show (most of them privileged white people I’d suspect) changed. I guarantee it. And then they went home and taught their children what they learned at that Improv.
And that is how to use anger.