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Happiness vs. entrepreneurship: it is not corny when it is a children’s book

Der Schilderputzer

One of the most inspiring books I have read so far this year is a 32-page volume titled “The Sign Cleaner” (Der Schilderputzer), written by German author Monika Feth and illustrated by Antoni Boratynski.

I came across it today, when my 8-year-old son brought it home from school as a reading assignment.

Here is a pretty accurate summary I found at the International Children’s Digital Library:

Feth, Monika (text)
Boratynski, Antoni (illus.)
Der Schilderputzer (The sign cleaner)
Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1995. [32] p.
ISBN 3-491-37310-7
Work – Happiness – Education – Fame

Working in streets named Bach, Beethoven, Brecht or Kästner has unanticipated consequences for a street cleaner. He suddenly realizes that he knows nothing about the people whose names he is cleaning daily. At first he goes to concerts to hear their music, then to the public library to read their books. Soon he is singing and reciting while he works. An audience gathers around him and he is given a show on television. To make a long story short: the street sign cleaner turns down a post at the university and continues to his own work, holding lectures for his own and his listeners’ pleasure.

And here, the anonymous reviewer felt he also had to gift us with a couple of critical remarks (my italics):

Antony Boratyniski gives his protagonists realistic expressions but rather dream-like appearance, their faces are stereotypic but also lively. Two dimensional colors and distorted proportion, often out of perspective, correspond in a formal way to the substance of this
sympathetic, but unfortunately hardly imaginable story about a happy person.

“Hardly imaginable”?

When the reviewer says this is a “hardly imaginable story about a happy person”, I can’t help but feel sad to live in a world where people find it hard to believe that

  • someone would be happy to dedicate an enormous amount of his leisure time to reading great writers and listening to great music,
  • someone would do this for no material reward at all and be happy in the process,
  • someone would turn down the opportunity for a reasonably prestigious and profitable career as a university professor and instead be happy to share his knowledge freely, “holding lectures for his own and his listeners’ pleasure”.

This is a children’s book. Children read books like this to learn how the world around them works. When author Monika Feth wrote the book, I think (well, at least I hope) that she was trying to teach children that people can in fact be happy while dedicating a lot of their time to such noble and pleasurable interests without having to

  • start a business in order to make such interests profitable;
  • allow such interests to be tethered to the framework of a career — it is not as if the character would starve, for he already had a job; and the book also serves to teach us that there is nothing dishonorable with being a street sign cleaner;
  • write academic papers in the worst of the publish-or-perish tradition in order to convince college administrators that time and money are not being “wasted”.

And this is where it becomes clear why this book pleased me so much.

I have had it with all the pressure to dedicate my time and energy to looking for ways of inching ahead in the petty and senseless dispute to seem productive, to engage in ever sillier contests of personal/academic self-advertising in order to find favor with administrators.

I have had it with people overrating the virtues of entrepreneurship, something that is becoming annoyingly common in universities not only in the certain underveloped Latin-American country where I live and teach, but all over the world.

Wikipedia says: “Entrepreneurs assemble resources including innovations, finance and business acumen in an effort to transform innovations into economic goods.”

But there are important goods that are not economic in nature. Entrepreneurship fanatics seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word “intangible”.

More than one person became happier — and the world became a better place — when the sign cleaner sought to pursue his intellectual goals with no material reward in mind, and then decided to share freely the knowledge and the inspiration he had acquired in the process.

So I beg you: never buy your child a book about entrepreneurship. Buy this book instead.


Production vs. moving the intellectual content forward

I hate to see computer-science departments that feel their role is to prepare people to work in an industry, and the industry is going that way, and therefore we have to teach our students that way. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do. What you should be doing with your students is teaching them to think generally — think outside the box and plot the other courses we should be pursuing.


It’s a little bit the difference between computer science in the service of production and computer science in the service of moving the intellectual content forward.

DCoders at Workan Ingalls
in Peter Seibel, Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming,
p. 379, APress, 2009.

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