Monday, February 9, 2009
There has been a lot of talk lately about the latest book for Malcolm Gladwell called ‘Outliers’. The basic premise of the book is that superstars don't arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky." One of the most memorable parts of the book is where he goes on to talk about how these people had achieved success. Not only did they have certain advantages but they also put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort. The figure he comes up with as far as the time that needs to be put into an endeavor is about ’10 years or 10,000 hours’. He cites that this is the necessary amount of time needed to achieve that level of success.
As an artist and a teacher I can see the validity of this point even if I don’t agree with the specifics. I look back at my own journey and see the value of sticking to a certain program and keeping focused on the music. I can also see the same thing in the students I teach. Whenever I get a new student I can already visualize all of the steps that he/she will have to go through to obtain some measure of artistic success. The problem I have is the notion that there is a certain time frame that we all need to adhere to. I have had too many experiences with too many people to magically throw a number at how long it will take for them to master a certain technique. Moreover, different disciplines require different approaches and completely different time frames. For example if a student comes in and tells me that he wants to become a concert pianist I can honestly say that the 10 year mark is pretty close. The level of proficiency for that kind of career is so high that even the brightest and most talented students will take many years of concentrated effort to get to a professional level. The same goes for a student wishing to become a master jazz improviser. For a young player to attain the level of playing necessary to compete, he/she will have to put in much more time on their instrument to achieve any kind of success. The difference between these disciplines and for example being in a rock band is that there is a certain prerequisite of playing ability just to get started. Arguably the bar isn’t as high when playing in a rock band where you’re look and performance has just as much importance. Most rock music is built on attitude and great songs and not chops and virtuosity. Although there is no reason why you’re rock band can’t be musically tight and put on a great virtuoso performance. The levels though are simply not the same.
One of the first things that I discuss with a student or somebody I’m working with is what we’re trying to accomplish. For most artists this is a hard thing to describe. Mostly because artists want to think that they have something completely original that can’t be described. Or, they’re not exactly sure what they want to do and are just hoping to get to work and see what happens. This is ok when first starting out or beginning on a new project. Just letting things happen can be a great way to start because you’re open to everything and you’ll just try things to ‘see what works’. In the beginning, defining yourself may not be necessary. There does come a point however, that it becomes absolutely necessary that you define yourself and your band. This is the best way to make sure that you are all on the same page and gives you an idea of what to strive for. Even if you don’t sit down to define who you are and what you sound like, it will happen anyway. There will be a point where you’ll be working on something and realize that it’s not you and that it doesn’t go with your sound. The point is that you will eventually have figure out what exactly your plans are and how you’re going to go about achieving them. Even now, when I get a new student or I start working with a new writer or vocalist the first question I ask is ‘what are we here for?’ This may be a generic idea like ‘we’re going to write a pop song’ or ‘we’re going to try some demos of our new material’. Either way, you have an idea why you’re there. Most projects, like most songs start out with a basic idea. After working on the project for a while, things become more defined. There will have to be a point where you see a general direction and will want to continue with that. Every individual in the Outliers book had focus. It was one of the things that separated them from the rest. They were willing to put in an extraordinary amount of time, and they had some external forces that helped them get that valuable experience. Were the external forces that the individuals in the book a result of the fact that they were so focused? Is one factor reliant on the other? We may never be absolutely sure about that but one this is certain: you absolutely need focus! Extraordinary opportunities may arise from simply keeping with the program.
Just Plain Lucky
There are a couple of examples from the book where Malcolm outlines circumstances in the individuals’ lives that gave them an edge over other people. The fact that Bill Gates had access to computer equipment when most people at the time didn’t was one of the reasons why he had an unfair advantage over others. I’ve written about being lucky a couple of times in this blog. My notion of luck is that it does have some force over things happening in your life but this isn’t something that you can depend on. I’m a big proponent of making your own luck. One of the examples Malcolm cites in the book is about how the Beatles had the chance to hone their skills by playing numerous shows a day in a club in Hamburg, Germany. I agree with the notion that this did have an effect on their abilities as musicians and as a band. The part I have trouble with is the fact that this was extraordinary luck. There have been other bands that have come and gone which had the same chance as far as honing their chops onstage. The Beatles had made an effort to go out and get the gig in the first place. The point is that they made the effort in the first place and made sure that when the opportunity came up, they were there to take advantage of it.
There is no question that the life of artist can be hard. There are times when some people seem to fall by the waste side while others achieve incredible success. There have been times when it seems like the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Sometimes it seems that there is no reason why some people succeed and some don’t. There is the notion in the book that some people gain an unfair advantage by simple blind luck. Some of the people had extraordinary circumstances that allowed them to achieve what they did. He mentions timing, environment and cultural advantages among others. My favorite examples are the extraordinary number of the richest people in history born within the same 10 year period. If they had been born 5 years either way, they would have been too young or too old to take advantage of the circumstances of the time. As far as artists go I have to agree with this. I mean could Bob Dylan have been as successful at any other time as he was during the 60’s? If he emerged as an artist today, would have he had been as successful? I doubt it. The problem I have with this is the fact that most people are a result of the time that they live in. If Bob was born in the 80’s would he have been a folk singer? We’re getting into some grey areas here that probably could never be answered but the fact remains that it’s impossible to separate the people from the time they were alive. There have also been artists who were relatively unknown in their own time, to be discovered long after they died. Bach immediately comes to mind here. They say that you can’t plan on becoming an icon. These things happen without your control whether you like it or not. Some people work hard and do everything right. Some people don’t. Some people will achieve an incredible amount of success in their lives. Some people will only achieve marginal success. The question of whether it was deserved is built upon preconceived notions of right and wrong and do’s and don’t within each society. There is the notion in our society that some people deserve success more than others. We have this idea that if you play by the rules and do everything right, then you deserve some measure of success. While I hold the same ideals most of the time, it simply doesn’t work like this.
Increase the Odds
Whether someone has unfair advantages is some thing you cannot control. Whether someone deserves it is neither here nor there when it comes to your own personal success. Your definition of success is just as personal as your goals in life. Some people work their entire lives to obtain some success. Some people reach most of their goals by the time they’re 30. What you want to do is take care of business and take control of what you can. Leave the legends and the acts of God to the cosmos. You have no control over that. You have no control over how long it will take or even how much talent you were given in the first place. Art is about self expression. You can be 10 years old and express yourself like a true genius. You may write your masterpiece after only a couple of tries or it may take you a decade. The only thing you know for sure is that you’ll never know until you sit down and get to it. The genius is in the doing and not the succeeding. You never know what’s going to happen in the end but you can enjoy the process. You can spend your life creating things that only you can create. There are better ways of doing things. Learn and utilize. That’s what this blog is all about. Figure out what you want to do and how you’re going to do it. Leave the luck and the rest to the gods. They have their own agenda.