Watching the hour-long NBC fundraising concert special for Hurricane Sandy survivors, one saw A LOT of talent on passionate display. And not so coincidentally, this talent all hailed from the affected areas.
Christina Aguilera: Staten Island Girl
Bruce Springsteen: Jersey Boy
Billy Joel: Long Island Boy
Steve Tyler: Yonkers, NY Boy
Mary J. Blige: Bronx Girl
Sting: Okay, he’s the exception but since Sting is not his real name we’re not going to deal with him right now.
It can be enough to be extremely talented. But if you want to deliver 200% on your potential you also have to figure out what aspects of your talents in your passionate sweet spot you can use to take you to, as Stevie Wonder once sang, your Higher (Highest?) Ground. As a writer, what are the stories you lived or saw others close to you live that you have to tell? As a visual artist, what moves you the most and what do you urgently even require to express to us visually? What kinds of people and situations hit home for you as an actor that you are compelled at all costs, especially embarrassment, to embody? Most people have one area where they are best or at least most emotionally connected. And yes, it is possible to be very good and financially successful at stuff you don’t love or care about. But you will never reach the heights in that field the way you will by using a skill in an area that truly unleashes your inner passion.
Most actors are not equally adept at comedy or drama. But for the few that are there is still a universal depth of character in all of their performances that accounts for their stand out work, rather than timing, lucky breaks or a facility in a particular genre. For example, Sean Penn is a rare actor who can do both. In comedy, no one can forget his iconic Malibu stoner Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but I would argue this is partly because he grew up in Malibu among stoners who attended schools like Ridgemont High and admittedly carried that memory deep inside. Mr. Penn won his second best actor Oscar for playing political crusader Harvey Milk but it would also be logical he was particularly able to rise to one of his greatest roles in part because Mr. Penn has been a real-life political crusader for 20 plus years (no I’m NOT saying he’s in Harvey Milk’s category, please…) and can innately understand how that feels.
In particular, real-life politicians also fit this bill. Bill Clinton is never better than when he is charming crowds of people with the Southern charm he grew up on. Barack Obama is also inspiring to large crowds but usually emits a coolness that seems to imply he does not suffer fools gladly, or, at least, does not feel their pain in the same Clintonesque fashion. On the other hand, Pres. Obama seems to have a very strong personal moral compass, instilled in him by his Kansas born and bred mother and grandparents that Mr. Clinton doesn’t always have, that seems to engender likeability and respect (well, mostly on the latter). He and his staff also know how to marshal forces in a conspicuously effective way partly because of the traits that enabled Mr. Obama to be the outstanding community organizer in Chicago he once was and, as some would argue, continues to be, only now on a national and international stage.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who tried to take apart the President as Mitt Romney’s keynote surrogate at the Republican convention, has a talent to be a plain talking everyman, albeit one who is brash and pushy. Some people dismiss this as simply an ability to bully people into his beliefs rather than based in talent or personality. Perhaps it is a talent to use one’s personality to a bigger goal. Clearly, we all might have these hidden talents that we reserve for actions with family and friends but using it outside our inner circle in work and in public life allows us to transfer these traits into other arenas and enables us to develop them as one of our truest talents. If we don’t choose to work at them and go public, these traits are still ability but not one we might put to maximum talent effect.
Yet if all this is true, why was Gov. Christie’s speech as a scripted attack dog roundly panned at the Republican convention when his impromptu brashness at press conferences – most recently this week’s performance praising Pres. Obama for his quick Hurricane Sandy disaster response in New Jersey – consistently seem to get him praise? I would argue that’s because Mr. Christie’s brash abilities are put to their best use when he finds a cause that hits home, in this case literally. When his beloved New Jersey found itself devastated this week by a hurricane, mostly out of love of his birthplace and partly out of self-preservation as governor, he dropped his negative attack dog mode and with the best of his passion and talent reached across the aisle and gave everything but a tacit endorsement of the man (Pres. Obama) he tried to take apart to millions of television watching voters just several months earlier. Mr. Christie’s talent for impromptu passionate speaking – okay, perhaps bullying plain logic –worked in an entirely different and arguably much better way to greater effect when he found a cause that hit closest (again, literally) to where he lives rather than in the philosophical, issue-oriented faux world of politics. More simply put, recovering his state from natural disaster could have provided something perhaps equally valuable — a tipping point for national bipartisanship in a hopelessly polarized political landscape across the country.
Watching people rise to the height of their talents and potentials in a certain area can be dizzying, thrilling, emotional, sweet, lovely, fun or just plain nice. I’ve had any number of careers and have been good at all of them. But some took much better advantage of my talents than others. I find that teaching makes the most of many of them. When all I did was write for a living I got lonely. When I worked as a reporter I found myself not being creative enough by solely sticking to the facts. I enjoyed the money I made doing publicity but disliked being a salesperson who had to often push “items” (nee movies) I didn’t personally believe in. While I could marshal my talents in discourse, writing and general geniality to do well but as a sales person, something always felt off for me even when I was successful at it – as if I was in the wrong place at the right time.
Creative people are faced with this all of the time in the commercial marketplace. I teach my students to work on what they care about but to also understand the outside world and take steps “to be able to eat” in choosing at least some of the work they do. The latter can be either inside their discipline or in taking “day jobs” outside of it to pay the rent if the former isn’t comfortable. Clearly, no creative person feels equally passionate about each creative job they’re paid for. But part of the task in doing your work well is to find a glimmer of passion in that particular task that will enable your talent to shine through and bring your work on that particular task to the best of your professional levels at the time.
Even icons in the entertainment business have to deal with the issue of passion. Here’s a pop quiz:
Who is the only recording artist to have five #1 singles on the Billboard charts – one each decade – in the1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughts?
No — It’s not Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joe, Barbra Streisand or Frank Sinatra.
Yes, Cher. But as much as she’s achieved over the last 50 years, one could argue that Cher’s creative life has probably not been best displayed or utilized in the public arena in the last decade. She seldom makes films and when she does (“Burlesque”) they’re more campy rather than memorable. Her records are few and far between; her stage shows are fun but sort of walk-throughs down memory lane. And yes, at this point of course she’s entitled to have taken some time off from talent, passion or whatever. However, she hasn’t. Not really. What’s publicly moved Cher lately to her greatest effect is being the politically active mother to Chaz Bono – perhaps one of the most famous members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community. In the last few years, Cher has taken to Twitter, gaining respect and fame as a plain-talking mother hen spokesperson for the cause. She has over a million Twitter followers and advocates tirelessly not only for LGBT rights but also on women’s issues – often getting into trouble for tweets like this:
Friends who’ve known me for years might be surprised at my Cher shout-out since they all also know I worked with her in the mid-eighties and, let’s just say, didn’t have particularly favorable anecdotes from the experience. This was solidified a few years later when I found myself with her and a friend in a post movie screening social situation and the subject of life as a gay person came up in conversation. While I tried to argue one could be gay and have just as happy and fulfilling a life as anyone else, Ms. Bono Cher argued that I only thought this because I was young and that as gay people got older their lives would be quite lonely because their world was particularly youth-oriented, they couldn’t marry and that the vast gay majority would, inevitably, age and die sad and alone. And no – I am not embellishing what she said. Not. At. All.
Which is why her transformation to what she most clearly and publicly believes today is all the more impressive and worth noting. The world has changed in so many ways. This is part natural evolution and part due to many individuals, especially creative people and their personal passions to fuel whatever they deeply believe in through whatever work they’re doing. That work is at its best when it comes from a particular and usually awfully private place from way, way back or from a more recent but no less personal place that one finds themselves newly invigorated by. That’s why it’s important to stay engaged in the world – you never know how a change in thought will move you, or others, to a cause – artistic and/or political – that you once believed, or have yet to believe in. Or how it can move it into whatever spotlight (either large or small because it doesn’t matter – all spotlights inevitably lead into each other) that you will eventually cast.