Why I’ll Never Be Baryshnikov

“Honey, if it’s good, it lasts.”

Those were the words of 83 year old Broadway and cabaret singing legend Barbara Cook, who I had the pleasure of hearing at UCLA on Monday night.  That was after being treated to four brilliant actors named Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, in a no-holds barred evening of couples dysfunction called “God of Carnage” at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.   These four actors, whose ages range from 47-56, have been working at their craft for more than a quarter of a century each (that’s 100 years or more of total stage experience) and are so adept at what they do and having so much fun at it that they take what is certainly a solid good play and make it into a great evening.  Great actors can do that for writers.  Great writers can even do that for good actors.  But it takes practice.  A lot of it.

I’m consistently amazed by people who are experts at things that I  suck in  am somewhat “challenged” in.  I moved into a new house this week (it’s a rental, don’t think I’ve hit pay dirt…yet) for the first time in 23 years and have found that expertise does indeed extend beyond the entertainment industry.  Rewire switches?  Are you kidding?  Fix the injector thingy on the cook top?  I don’t think so.  Hang blinds to perfection with my significant other while we tear each other’s hair out as the true issues of our relationship begin to surface (Spoiler alert: a la “God of Carnage”)  Hah!!!! Not on your life!!! I’m expert enough at relationships to know that NOT doing this is one of the reasons I’ve been in a successful relationship for 23 years!

Not doing certain things has nothing to do with laziness, a caste system, or my lack of ambition to try new things.  It has to do simply with this  — there are only so many hours in the day and there are people that truly know and are experts at this stuff.  Like a great actor, a great (and honest) electrician can do it fast and make it look easy.  This costs money and you’re lucky you can afford to pay someone, you say?  Well…true.  But when I couldn’t afford to I quickly realized as I stared in awe at the people who could do these things that there were other things I was practiced in and could do well and that a deal might be worked out where I could do that thing for them.  You scratch my back.  I scratch yours.  So to speak.  Life works like that.  So does show business.  Though the two should never be confused.

But let’s get back to skills and annoying but true phrases like “practice makes perfect.”  Or old jokes like: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall — practice.”

Certainly there are prodigies in every field but for the rest of us mere mortals expertise takes time.  In his bestseller, “Outliers,” sociologist gadfly Malcolm Gladwell (cheap but I couldn’t resist the sort of rhyme) estimates it takes 6-10 years or 10,000 hours to become expert at something.  And even then there is no guarantee.  His suggestions:

  1. You must learn it by reading or listening to others who know how to do it, but most especially by doing.
  2. Then do some more.  At this point, you’ll start to understand it, but you’ll suck.  This could take months.
  3. Do some more.  After a couple of years, you’ll get good at it.
  4. Then do some more.  If you learn from mistakes, and aren’t afraid to make mistakes in the first place, you’ll go from good to great.

Yes, there are several holes in this theory.  I could spend the next 10 years studying ballet, but I will never be Baryshnikov.  Because there is only one him.  Or 20 years doing music, performance art and whiskey shots and never ever attain Gaga status.  Because there is only one of her (I think).  We’re just talking expertise and adeptness.  Not brilliance, which certainly rises out of this but is not necessarily a by-product of such.  Or as Joe Gideon, the fictionalized version of the brilliant director-choreographer Bob Fosse, says to a discouraged female dancer in the yes, brilliant film, “All That Jazz”:  “I can’t make you a great dancer.  I don’t know if I can make you a good dancer.  But if you keep trying and don’t quit, I KNOW I can make you a better dancer.”  Sometimes it takes a person who is brilliant and has gone through the rigors of the Gladwell program and then some, to convince us of these things. (By the way, that dialogue was written in the early seventies.  Even before we had final draft or computer programs guaranteed to tell us how to expertly write a script or do pretty much anything else expertly).

As for Barbara Cook, she wasn’t mentioning my opening quote in reference to herself but famed composter Irving Berlin and a 60-year-old song of his.  Most true experts I know are, indeed, like this.  They don’t need to constantly remind you of how good they are because they know it is pretty powerful and obvious to those who aren’t  all on its own.  But what the most generous of them do is to share their gifts with you.  Especially if you ask.  Or charge you a nominal fee to see them.  Or offer you expertise in return for some of your own.

It (expertise) doesn’t happen overnight.  And it might even take more than 10,000 hours.  But consider how happy you can make others (thank you, master electrician and blinds hanger and most of all my dear designer friend who is showing me where to properly and most efficiently place a couch, two chairs, a table and treasured photographs and not make it look all like a big dorm room).  Not to mention how good you can feel about doing an honest day’s work at something you love.  As for Harden, Gandolfini, Daniels and Davis – hurry – the play closes on Sunday.  For a nominal fee you can see four really expert masters work seeming effortlessly at their crafts.

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