In the Real World…

The phrase “In the real world…” comes up in many different contexts and conversations, and is deployed by all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. Over several years of watching and filing away instances, a script for a funny SNL style sketch, stringing together several of these conversations, occurred to me. Well, at least I think it is funny. I wanted to do it as a comic-strip, but never got around to it.

Here’s the script for the sketch. I call it The Circle of Life. Okay, my dialogue is not exactly Shakespeare quality, but bear with me here. Bad fiction in the service of a non-fiction point.

The Circle of Life

Scene 1: At a student-faculty mixer, a graduating engineering student, slightly drunk, is taking the opportunity to give a literature professor a piece of his mind.

Student: I’m glad I only had to do one literature course to satisfy my humanities requirement. That stuff is useless crap. I am glad the Dean is cutting your department’s funding. In the real world,  it’s only the engineering and math courses that matter and get you good jobs. Nobody can afford to pay for any shit that doesn’t help you make money.

Professor: Umm…

Scene 2: The student starts his first job, in machine design, and encounters a street-smart older man, a self-taught talented tinkerer who hasn’t been to college. The eager young student, faced with a problem, proposes a textbook design he learned in school, and gets laughed out of the room: he has forgotten all sorts of practical engineering issues.

Street-Smart Guy: In the real world, all your textbook solutions don’t matter a damn. You only learn how to design mechanisms through hands-on experience and getting your hands greasy.

Student: Umm…

Scene 3: Layoff time, the smooth-talking MBA Empty Suit type has just laid off both the student and street-smart guy. All three meet in the elevator, and Empty Suit can’t resist a jibe.

Empty Suit: You know, I used to hear you guys arguing about book smarts versus street smarts all the time. You are both deluded, like most techies. In the real world, it is not what you know, but who you know that matters.

Street-Smart Guy and Student: Umm…

Scene 4: A big re-org, with some major fallout. The senior executive, on whose coat-tails our Empty Suit was riding, has been shoved aside. Empty Suit has been maneuvered into position neatly, as fall guy, by a killer-instinct sociopath.

Sociopath: If you’d stopped to think before spending all your time kissing up to that asshole and networking with other idiots, you’d have realized something. In the real world, all your connections aren’t worth a damn if you lack the killer instinct. You retards just walk around with your eyes shut waiting to be put out of your misery. I have no sympathy for you.

Empty Suit: Umm…

Scene 5: Drunk after a night of partying (to celebrate his big bonus), the sociopath is walking home through a bad neighborhood. He runs into a mugger in a dark alley. The mugger grabs our sociopath’s wallet, pistol-whips and kicks him to the ground. The shock triggers a heart attack.

Mugger: You rich assholes in your fancy suits, you think you rule the goddamn world. Not so powerful now, are you? In the real world, the guy with the gun is the guy with the power.

Sociopath: Umm…

Scene 6: Five years and a prison sentence later, our mugger is lying on the street, broken. He is missing a leg, amputated after a bad gunshot wound in a gang war. He is now a cocaine addict and a complete wreck. A social worker finds him and takes him to a rehab shelter. Looking at his case file, she can’t help moralizing:

Social Worker: You guys think you are so damn tough just because you go around robbing, fighting and killing. Look where it’s got you. And you’re not even 30. To get ahead in the real world, you gotta stay clean, stay out of trouble, get yourself through school and get yourself a job. I am a single Mom and I am putting myself through school at night. It’s hard, but in 3 years, I’ll have a college degree, a good job and a future. You need to think about things like that. It’s still not too late for you. If I can do it, you can too.

Mugger: Umm…

Scene 7: After struggling for years and failing to juggle work, debts and night school, and completely depressed by the tragedy and misery around her, the social worker is thinking of dropping out. She runs into our literature professor at a faculty mixer.

Professor: You know, I see a lot of career-minded students working really hard, but never thinking beyond grades and how much money they can make at their first jobs. Those are the ones that burn out. In the real world, it’s the ones who look for a higher sense of meaning and purpose in their lives who succeed. That’s what literature is for, to liberate your mind and sustain you through difficult times in the real world.

Social Worker: Umm…

The End

There is no such place as “the real world.” We all think our world is more “real” than others’ worlds. In the real real world, all worlds are equally unreal.

Okay, on second thoughts, that sounded more funny in my head than written down. But I bet a more talented fiction writer than me could turn this into a really funny script.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I seriously like this. You’re hitting on a point that the Stoics have been making for centuries: it’s not where you are or what you’re doing–it’s how you frame the story.

    Literature is one way to help you do that.

    By the way, I found it quite funny.

  2. Carl: Actually, I didn’t mean to suggest that the literature prof wins in the end. If all trajectories proceed as planned, his department’s funding will be cut and maybe he’ll be out on the street (let’s say he lacks tenure :)). Maybe Act II will involve all characters meeting on a bridge and about to commit suicide.

    That it’s all about how you ‘frame the story’ is one point I was trying to explore. Glad that got across. A book I previously recommended, Dan McAdam’s “The Redemptive Self,” catalogs a whole bunch of similar stories that Americans in particular tell themselves and others about their lives. All paradoxically, lay a claim to being “real” and yet assume a positive, redemptive ending.

    The other point was that we tend to define reality around what we know best/most clearly. It is what we don’t know/have ignored that blindsides us and cuts us down to size.


  3. Adrian Dunston says

    Your point is interesting and well presented. I wonder how each persona you present would re-frame the failure to preserve their version of reality.

    To get to funny, you’d need to take it beyond the limits of usefulness into absurdity. You’d want not a circular chain, but something where link after link went farther and farther from what reasonable people consider the real world.

    The surgeon telling the social worker that in the real world you need incredible hand-eye coordination.

    The pro-gamer telling the surgeon that in the real world you need uber-micro.

    The pro-skateboarder telling the pro-gamer that in the real world you need sponsors with a little more money than BAWLS.

    The Olympic snowboarder telling the pro-skateboarder that in the real world you need a sport that’s recognized outside of mall parking lots.

    Lorne Michaels telling the Olympic snowboarder that the only way to get ahead in life is to be Lorne Michaels.

    LORNE: “In the real world, the only thing that matters is that you are me. And since you’re not, the real world will be forever beyond your grasp. Also, this skit’s not funny enough. In the real world, I would never let it air.”

    • Okay, NOW this is getting funny. I’d like to see the script both expanded into absurdity and connected back into a circle somehow :)

  4. The structure and message reminded me of this.

    • That’s very clever, and actually makes a broader point than mine (“us vs. them” is a superset of “us realists vs. them deluded ones”)

  5. We all suffer. We all die. That is human reality in the “real” world. In the space between birth and death, each person scrabbles for the key to lasting beatitude.

    Tech, unless it is paradigm shifting, is obsolete on delivery. Commerce is as effervescent as last quarter’s P&L sheet.
    Crime is merely the banality of evil.

    You might not think this was funny. I was certainly amused by it. But the Professor is having the last laugh. Literature alone is trancendant. As Homer or Dante or [insert favorite author here] will tell you, a good story has legs.

  6. Bravo.

    When I was involved with various nonprofits I got the “real world” line from business people. My experience with businesses, including successful high tech business, made me realize, as you did, that there is no “real world.” Bigger businesses simply have more capital with which to make mistakes, rendering them less vulnerable to the consequences. They also have more political power (read: money) to rig their market in their own favor so they can make more mistakes with impunity.

    The thing that comes to mind is a saying from the practice of aikido: “Learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget.” What it means is that learning a particular technique only helps you with a situation that requires that particular technique. Learning and forgetting instills the spirit, the instinct, the values of aikido. This allows the practitioner to act in the moment according to the situation rather that dredging up some prescribed move.

    Likewise, for your characters, relying on some particular skill set or plan of action failed each of them. Core values coupled with adaptability would have served them better.

    If you can find it, there is a wonderful and very funny piece by Annie Dillard, I think, called “What is important.” She simply writes down the social priorities of a hundred or more different cultures and subcultures around the world, one after the other. The contrasts are absurd.

    • Thanks for the Dillard ref. Couldn’t find it online, but have made a note. Differences in cultural priorities make me question those ‘world happiness survey’ projects. I think they are fundamentally meaningless because people interpret the same questions very differently within local narratives.

      • I think that the Dillard article was either in The Sun, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker. Maybe Harper’s.

        Those happiness surveys are asking people whether their expectations are being met. But what are their expectations? As you say, it has a lot to do with culture and personal experience. Sometimes conscious effort.

        Somebody did a study that found recent paraplegics to be just as happy as recent lottery winners. Perhaps the lottery winners raise their expectations to unrealistic levels and the paraplegics lower their expectations to realistic levels.

        You might get a wheeze out of a post of mine on the subject of “Obliquity.” It’s about not trying to get what you want.

        • I think the paraplegic thing as well as the other stuff is in ‘Stumbling on Happiness.’

          Checked out your obliquity post. I like the general principle :)

  7. John Mayer got popular with a song. It was called “no such thing”.

  8. Almost all of the useful foundational knowledge of humanity could not have been discovered if we posed a “real world” constraint too early. A point that funnily came to mind when reading this real conversation in an elementary school math class.

    Management guru and coach Marshall Goldsmith uses “real world” a lot to emphasize the practicality of his advice. In his case it doesn’t jar so far.

    But it does seem to be used mostly to sneer.

    The real world is messy, amorphous, ever-unfolding so we must retreat to a platonic sphere, to artificialize, to make sense of things. We have to set control parameters to study and formulate concepts and principles, that, in turn, can be useful in navigating and manipulating the real world.

    Ideally there should be no difference between an ideal world and the real world. In the real world there is (with apologies to Yogi Berra or whoever).

  9. Jieren Chen says

    This was a great entry. It reminds me of what one of my professors told me: that there are no true apex predators in human society. Our society is comprised of such wildly divergent ecosystems and powered by such disparate motivations that no single person could pwn the life out of everyone else at everything. The Fortune 500 CEO is of course much wealthier than the pick up artist. Then again, the pick up artist is banging the CEO’s supermodel wife.

  10. The “real world” isn’t that much fun, most especially after reading the Wikipedia entry on Albert Speer mentioned in the comments.
    What I infer from it is that most people are just pawns (clueless? losers?) driven by the emotional vagaries of psychopaths, the relationship of Speer to Hitler is most illuminating.
    And yet, the whole “real world” shebang runs on both the skills and fantasies of such wackos, frightening…

  11. Adrian Dunston says

    When I was younger, the phrase “the real world” was used with more of a sense of pessimism than the superiority exemplified in this post.

    “In the real world, you’ll have to work harder than you’ve ever had to work in school.”

    “In the real world, you’ll never get paid what you deserve, only the minimum you can be paid without you quitting.”

    “You can try to be your own boss, but in the real world, that only works for a select few, and for them only for a couple of years.”

    I decided in high school that “the real world” was code for: “I hate my job.” This realization provided a great deal of perspective, especially as I was trying to sort the good advice from the bad.

  12. The way I look at it is that each of them is in the “real world” up to the point that the phenomena they use to support their story (and life) are real, but because they aren’t covering all the bases, specialism etc etc, some new part of the real world will appear and undermine them.

    In a more physics-y way, they have stabilised their life in 3 dimensions, and look at someone else who has only stabilised theirs in 2, but of course that person is stabilising a dimension that they are not aware of because it is staying still for them, and the moment they take a force along it, it will throw off all their other calibrations.

  13. hey good stuff!! … hehe , I’m in engineering college right now worrying about the same shit so loved ur post! keep writing