Tag Archives: careers

Preparation and Creative Success

A young recent college graduate found out I was an experienced often-published writer and came over and asked me if we could get together to talk about writing. And so we went to a restaurant and talked for an hour and a half.

writing-828911_640She wants to be a poet. She’s started reading poetry but isn’t trained in it. She’s a fledgling poet, a poet in the making. She showed me samples of her work and I liked it and could see what she’s trying to get at. I encouraged her. As we were finishing up she mentioned magazines and poetry journals she was going to send her poems to. They included the New Yorker and Poetry and other of the most prestigious publications in the country.

I went home thinking, “I hope she doesn’t get too disappointed if her poems are rejected. They probably will be. She doesn’t yet realize how competitive publishing is. She’s thinking only of the gift she senses in herself. But there are whole armies of other gifted people everywhere in the world. There’s no premium on giftedness among creative people. They’re all gifted.”

And I thought, “There are a million poets nowadays, just as there are two million novelists and three million artists, some of them extremely well-trained in their craft and who have long experience. And every poet, novelist, and artist would like to be extraordinarily successful.” But why would I of all people discourage her? She’ll find out for herself. Then we’ll see what she’s made of. Will she still be writing and still be as enthusiastic in five years? Ten years? Fifteen?

Then I received an email from a graduate student in Texas who’d heard me speak. He wanted to know if I could refer him to an agent and publisher he could contact after he started writing. He hadn’t started writing yet.

I replied in my email, “I think the most important task for you now is to focus on writing, writing, and more writing. And reading good writers who are writing the kinds of things you want to write—write and study how to write. Learn bestsellers-67048_640and learn more. Read because people you read about are people who’ve spent their entire lives reading. Develop your abilities. Getting an agent, getting a publisher are separate activities from writing and should be kept separate. After you’ve gotten good at writing, then it’s time to start thinking about getting your work published. First get good.”

What I was saying was that success–particularly in the arts–is difficult, and that preparation is the key. And is the key to success in everything. And that if you lack the skill to reach a goal you will not reach it. You will not reach the goal pen-27043_640until you have the necessary skill. There has to be a perfect match between goals on the one hand and skills on the other.

The main reason most artists and writers fail is because they haven’t developed the skills they should have developed, but neglected to. The need is to develop an expertise not in every skill but in especially the key skills a person in that field must excel in if they are to be as successful as they could be. If you don’t have the skills, if you’re to succeed you’ll have to acquire them. If, for example, a fiction writer isn’t strong in the skill of characterization she’ll have problems because characterization is an essential skill. Many say more essential than every other writer’s skill. So a writer better focus on developing that skill.

You can take a flyer and try—nothing ventured nothing gained. And if you fail, you fail, so what? But something unfortunate often happens to artists and writers (and actors, etc.) with high hopes who, because they’re unprepared, fail and fail again, and again, and again. They may never succeed and never know why they don’t. Their beginner’s confidence, once so strong, now flies out the window. They become deeply discouraged and may quit, and that’s it. Their career, once so hopeful, is over.

Their dreams of being creative all the time and living the life of a writer, painter, or actor, or dancer dissolve. Why? Because they’d been so hungry to succeed fast they’d neglected their preparation. And preparation is what they should have been doing—slowly, patiently learning, learning more, overcoming their weaknesses, and building up their strengths.

I can’t possibly tell you how many promising writers and artists—talented, impressive people–I’ve known who failed pencil-1203980_640and gave up and never reached their peak. All professional writers and artists have encountered more than a dozen more talented writers and artists than themselves who no longer write or paint at all. Who knows what they might have accomplished? How much better it would have been for them if instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough” they’d thought, “I’m not YET good enough, but one day I will be if I commit myself to getting good, very good.”

A theme of mine is that it’s always best to face reality, however harsh and however much at times we want to hide from it. Face reality head-on and don’t lead a life of illusions. Never hide. And a reality that a creator has to face head-on and not hide from is that it takes a long time—usually many years–and a lot of patience and an almost unbelievable amount of work to become what I call a REAL painter, or REAL writer, or REAL actor, or REAL dancer who has what Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway called “seriousness.” And there are no exceptions.

According to the research on the development of expertise in any field thousands of hours of application have to be put in if your aim is to excel or even be competent. No outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without that much work on the part of the creator, however much natural ability he or she possesses. Some degree of that mysterious stuff called talent is necessary. But it’s far from everything. Talented people are a dime a dozen. The poet Hesiod who lived hundreds of years before Plato wrote, “Before the Gates of Excellence the high gods have placed sweat.” Sweat becomes part of the real creator’s everyday life.

The expert makes the performance look easy and we’re seduced: “I can do that.” But we have to look past the ease of the expert and realize creating is fun, it’s a gas, it’s fulfilling, and nothing else in your life compares with it. But succeeding at it at a high level is exceedingly tough. But many people have acquired a TV-ratings kind of mentality. It’s either quick results or cancellation.

It’s the same in the arts. A couple of tries without reaching success and it’s ratings time: “Who needs this? It’s harder to succeed than I thought. I’ll go into something else.” Then if you quit, nothing will be gained and many perfectly good years will have been wasted. But when we look at creative people who’ve “made it” we invariably find beings who have (1) persevered through setbacks (2) been devoted to developing to a high level the specific skills that made their high performance possible, and (3) had a thirst that can’t possibly be quenched to get better and better still.

So it’s wise to ask yourself as you work, “Am I really ready? Am I sufficiently prepared?” Lay your ego aside. If your answer is an honest “No, I can see I’m not,” go back, be patient, and focus harder on preparation.

Feel your expertise growing, your unique creative voice becoming clearer, your skills being refined before your eyes. For backdrop-772520_640a while don’t concern yourself at all with appearing on The New York Times best-seller list or any best-seller list. The hunger to see your name on these lists is the bane of writers. Don’t worry about having your work shown in the fanciest galleries.

When you’re prepared and your skills are strong enough that well may happen. But not until. But whatever you do, don’t quit till you’ve seen how high the skills you’ve so conscientiously developed will take you.

Sometimes I see the young poet on the street and I ask her, “Are you working?” And she smiles and says she is.

 

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

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Advice to Young Writers

I was asked by an administrator of a middle school in my county (grades seven and eight) if I would speak at their Career Day. Adults from about 50 careers from soldiering to farming would speak that day about their careers for twenty minutes each to five classes of students thirteen and fourteen years old. I would be the writer. I was told by a very sincere and enthusiastic woman that it would be fun and rewarding. My first thought, as would be the first classroom-510228_640thought of any conscientious writer, was, “It would mean giving up an entire day of writing,” so I said I’d have to think it over. My wife is a writing teacher/tutor of some reputation, so she said what I knew she would: “You should really do it, you know,” and of course I knew I should—it’s important to nurture the young—I know that. (I have two adult sons who write and I nurtured them, didn’t I?)–and if your wife’s tone says, “How can you not think of doing it; what kind of man are you?”–the issue is more or less settled. So I did research and wrote notes (sacrificing another half day), and rehearsed my talk (another two hours), and a few weeks later appeared at Career Day.

I opened by asking if they knew what the author of a book means by royalties, and they knew. I talked about “The opportunities available for a person who wants to make a living writing” and gave them figures on writer’s incomes and the demand for writers, telling them that opportunities are good and that there are writers who own private jets and others who have a hard time making a living, and that the quality of the actual writing sometimes (but not always) has an inverse relationship to the income—writers of trash who own the jets and authors of masterpieces who have the tough times. (At the same time Nobel Prize novelist William Faulkner’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill, while every atrociously written (but exciting) thing Mickey Spillane wrote about his rugged gumshoe Mike Hammer topped the best seller lists). But that statistically, on average, professional writers, including freelancers, can make a decent living. They didn’t have much faith in statistics and wanted to know how much dough I made.

Even the students who were not especially interested in becoming writers were kind of curious because the life of a writer is romantic to most people, including the young. When I was a boy planning on being a writer, I thought all male novelists—the only kind of writer I thought at the time a man should be—wore cool green corduroy sport coats with leather patches on the elbows, were automatically remarkably handsome, and beautiful women with long legs and dangling earrings that glittered thought them uncommonly sensual, and couldn’t help themselves, and fell in love with them right and left. Popular novelist of the fifties John O’Hara wrote, “How nice, people say, to be a writer and be your own boss, work when you please and don’t have to punch a time clock, knock off whenever you feel like it, and go to Sun Valley or Hobe Sound or Placid or Bermuda” and later said, “I’m afraid that one illusion is responsible for more brief writing careers than any other single factor.” But I told them Flaubert, who sweated and moaned over every word and comma, said “It is a delicious thing to write.”

hand-299675_640(1)They found it appealing that if you write at home, as many writers do, you have tremendous freedom, can break for lunch whenever you want,( but, I cautioned, need equally tremendous discipline so as not to slough off and miss deadlines and get editors furious with you), and can work in your underwear if you’re in an underwear sort of mood. And if you’re a man, since you’re not planning to see anyone, you don’t have to shave every day if you’re not inclined to, which the average nine-to-five man would give an arm and a leg not to have to do.

They asked was I famous, and that gave me a chance to tell my famous story. Someone in a Canada was trying to get hold of me and didn’t have my phone number, but knew I lived in Chicago, a city of three and a half million. So they called Chicago Directory Assistance and asked for the number of David J. Rogers. Now there are scores of David J, Rogers in Chicago. Rogers is the seventeenth most common name in the U.S. But without a moment’s hesitation the operator said casually, “You must mean the author” and put them right through to me. The Canadian said to me, “Wow, you must really be famous” and I thought, “Somewhere here in this city is at least one operator who read my book.”

Then we got into:

What the life of a professional writer is like; what a professional writer is like

What a professional writer does

The skills and abilities a writer needs

How a writer prepares for a writing career

I told them that “all writers take pride in their writing and are always trying to get better. It’s important to them to improve and that happens the more you write and the more you study how to write. Making it a point to improve your writing all the time is important. Ask yourself today, “Am I improving,” and tomorrow and the next day ask, “Am I improving?” You are learning how to write here and will in high school and college, if you choose to go there. There are many books and magazines and web sites about how to get better. Just try to get better and better and learn as much as you can about writing. Many famous writers were more or less self-made and pretty much self-taught. Good writers are reading and learning all the time because who knows what they might have to write about? Writers are craftsman. Words and language are their tools—the sounds of language, the rhythms of language, the meanings. Words are at the center of a writer’s existence. Writers have the strongest appreciation of words, the largest vocabularies, and a highly sensitive ear for speech. Build up your vocabulary every day. not to impress people—who cares about that–but because the more words you know, the more you can express, and a goal of a good writer is to be able to express anything he/she has ever experienced or can imagine.”

When I was in business I hired only English majors not business majors because English majors can express themselves and they can also think clearly. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t write clearly. To me, clarity is the most important thing. And I believe it is to the reader too.”

“Also, you’d better like working alone in solitude at least a few hours every day. If you like working with other people go into sales or acting.”

The day ended. I was exhausted. I thought, “How do teachers do it?”

A Writer’s Cork Board of Inspiration

A girl named Hannah in one of the classes whose ambition was to be a writer sent me some quotes by writers about Girl writingwriting (she could tell I loved writer’s quotes), and I sent her a letter thanking her. She wrote me another letter thanking me for what I had said in my letter. I had merely asked her what kind of writer she would be: “Will you be writing novels?” She wrote: “I really enjoyed writing those quotes and I’m glad you like them. It’s really inspiring to hear them and think how true they are. The quotes, along with the letter I have received from you are going on my cork board of inspiration. I’ll have it in front of my desk to motivate me and spark my imagination.”

What had happened I could see was that I had taken her seriously–possibly in a way no one else had yet–and given her a vote of confidence. I just assumed that what she wanted to have happen would in fact happen: sure as I’d followed the writer’s path, one day she would follow it—and in fact was already following it. I was acknowledging that, and that acknowledgement in that one sentence of my letter—“Will you be writing novels?”—would be on her cork board of inspiration and would be there for her to see and gain encouragement from every day. How glorious that made me feel.

Who knows what treasures one day Hannah will write?

© 2015 David J. Rogers

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Writers, Dancers, Actors, and Artists: How to Excel

The information in this post is applicable not only to artists, but to people working in any occupation.

 A Friend Was in Town

lavender-21357_640A friend was in town and we went out and had a few laughs, and told a few lies, and he reflected on his career. He said, “I knew when I started out there were an awful lot of writers who were more gifted and more intelligent and went to fancier schools and got better grades. So I decided then and there that to survive competitively I had no choice: I would have to buckle down and out-work the others, and that’s what I’ve done. Now I’m a popular author and I’ve never heard anything more about them.”

Every artist, every person, who reaches high expertise in a field—a “domain”—will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to excellence.

Lengthy training is nearly always the reason for superior performance.

The best way to improve your abilities is to deliberately practice, even if you have no interest in becoming one of the greats, or any more proficient in your art than being excellent, or “pretty good,” or “not bad.”

One sign of prodigies is that you can’t keep them from practicing. That’s all they want to do and they find it exciting. But many people, I’m told, find practicing drudgery. I’ve never found drudgery a problem. I don’t mind drudgery. But drudgery or not, if you want to excel, it’s got to be done.

Good artists manufacture themselves.

The enlightened artist begins with the knowledge that an art is a learnable performance made up of a number of separate skills, each of which can be learned, developed, refined, and put together with others.

Dancers who practice until their feet bleed so their performance is all it could be are developing and increasing talent. Writers, actors, composers, and artists who go over and over and over their work until it is as perfect as they want are developing and increasing talent.

You don’t have to be born exceptional to achieve exceptional things as an adult.

 The Deliberate Practice (DP) School of Development

While looking closely at the superior achievements of great artists like Faulkner, Shakespeare, or Picasso, we are strongly tempted to believe that the rules and principles determining the development of abilities simply don’t apply to rare individuals the way they do to us who have not written The Sound and the Fury, or Hamlet, or painted Guernica.

But according to what I call the Deliberate Practice (DP) School of expertise development the ways in which famous artists develop exceptional capabilities are quite similar to how everyone else develops their abilities; that if certain procedures are followed high artistic performance is a more realistic goal than might be expected.

Every artist, every person, who reaches high expertise in a field—the “domain”—will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to excellence. Lengthy training is nearly always the reason for superior performance.

The Amount of Time Devoted to Deliberate Practice is the Best Predictor of Your Attainments

ernest-hemingway-401493_640It is generally believed now according to “The 10 Year Rule of Necessary Preparation” that to reach peak performance in most domains ten years and 10,000 hours of application are required, a sizable portion of that time devoted to sustained, focused “deliberate practice.” Ten years and 10,000 hours sounds intimidating, but if you stop to think about your own artistic career, you’ll see it’s not so intimidating after all. And there are many exceptions to the ten-year rule.

Studies of piano students show a very precise correlation between the number of practice hours and the student’s proficiency. The best students practice substantially more hours than students at a mid-level of proficiency, who in turn, practice considerably more hours than poorer performers.

When I was an 800 meter runner on the track team, a few of us spent more hours than others on the team practicing and even sent away for information on the world’s most innovative training methods, and trained year round. Our goal was to develop our abilities as high as we could so that we might win races. We consistently lowered our times and won more often than not. But some of our teammates were satisfied to come in third, fourth, or fifth, and left practice well before we did, didn’t study training methods, and worked out only during track season.

I notice the same in writing groups. It’s obvious that certain hard workers really want to write a better poem this time than they did last time, want eventually to write supremely well, and that others in the group have much lower ambitions. They reach a certain level of ability they’re satisfied with, and there they stay.

If your ambitions for your art are high, practice more hours; if not high, you needn’t spend as much time practicing.

The Rule Is Not A Rule

More recently, research has shown that the ten year rule is not a “rule” after all. Some artists require even more time. Generally the number of years from a pianist’s first lesson to a major concert performance is seventeen years. And some artists require less than ten years and 10,000 hours. In fact, the people who will become the best in a domain ordinarily require less time than others to reach high expertise. They get there quicker and they are better. They also produce more volume of work and more high quality work in their career than others in the domain. Very tall professional basketball player—seven feet—become very proficient after six or seven years.

What is Deliberate Practice?

The best way to improve your abilities is to deliberately practice, even if you have no interest in becoming one of the greats, or any more proficient in your art than being excellent, or “pretty good,” or “not bad.”

To deliberately practice is to set out and conscientiously follow a specific program to improve your performance, including increasing your knowledge because a major way of leaping up in performance–and possibly the most significant way–is through the acquisition of knowledge about your domain.

Being intelligent explains many successes, but the best chess player, the best athlete, the best creative artist, the best business person, is not necessarily the most intelligent, but has acquired more sheer knowledge of the domain than others in the field. He or she has a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand—possibly a few million chunks.

Acquiring more and more chunks is what you’re doing all the time you’re working at your craft, talking about your craft, studying it, and practicing. Major artists are immersed in their art—they breathe it; they dream of it.

The knowledge of the domain you possess also depends on your motivation to learn. Some artists—some people in general–have an insatiable appetite for new information; others have virtually no appetite. (Research show that more than 50% of college graduates never read a book again after graduation.) But since the best artists are also the most knowledgeable, it’s clear that studiousness is a characteristic of the best.

One sign of prodigies is that you can’t keep them from practicing. That’s all they want to do and they find it exciting. But many people, I’m told, find practicing drudgery. I’ve never found drudgery a problem. I don’t mind drudgery. But drudgery or not, if you want to excel, it’s got to be done.

A Useful DP Program

ballet-335493_640(1)DP should really be called “Sustained, Private Deliberate Practice” because to be maximally effective it should continue over time and is usually carried out in private. A violinist who practices four hours every morning needn’t have a teacher with him all the time. (Though children taking music lessons are more likely to want to continue practicing if parents stay with them.)

Deliberate efforts to improve performance beyond its current level require concentration, problem-solving, and a continuous striving to find better methods for performing the artist’s tasks. The primary prerequisite is always bearing in mind and never forgetting what the goal is—concentrating on improving some specific aspect of performance.

For example, in practicing a piece, a less experienced pianist will play the entire piece, but the more experienced pianist will concentrate repeatedly on a particular passage or small set of notes that she is weak on and needs to play better. You stunt your artistic growth when you practice what you’re already good at and neglect what needs more work.

The enlightened artist begins with the knowledge that an art is a learnable performance made up of a number of separate skills, each of which can be learned, developed, refined, and put together with others. He analyzes his performance as objectively as possible, particularly strengths and weaknesses, and sets realistic (not unrealistic) performance-improvement goals, sets aside specific and regular practice hours (when and where it will be done), practices conscientiously and hard (but takes regular breaks, gets sufficient sleep and rest, and takes naps), coordinates practice with instruction (which may be self-instruction), seeks feedback, seeks help when needed (consulting, mentoring, advising), focuses more on weaknesses than strengths (that’s important to do), and keeps track of and evaluates improvements over time.

Focus on a Small Set of Crucial Tasks

It is important to identify and focus on developing expertise in the most crucial tasks in your art (and your style and technique)—those tasks that occur often and that capture the essence of high performance in your domain. Very important to me are the rhythm, the “sound,” the “flow” of the words, and refining that ability is important to me.

All artists are trying to establish a relationship with an audience. Poets are particularly interested in doing so through imagery, size and scope of vocabulary, particularly concrete language, fluency, and succinctness; dramatists in crisp dialogue; non-fiction writers in conveying complex information clearly and simply; dancers in physical preparation, strength, balance, elevation, control, and the ability to imitate movements; actors in improving their ability to memorize lines and to assimilate information quickly; fine artists to convey in colors, shapes, and perspectives a very direct form of self-expression.

Right now, what would you say are the crucial tasks you should focus on?

List them: 1,2,3,4 and set up your goals and your schedule.

Is Talent Important? Does it Even Exist?

The DP School doesn’t buy the notion that people, in our case, artists, are born with innate talents that are the causes of one artist being a better artist than another one, or that explains why artists seem naturally equipped for artistic performances. They would reject the notion that Hemingway was born with more “creative stuff” than the other writers of his era. The Talent (T) School agrees that practice is essential, but believes that if you don’t have the sheer talent—that “creative stuff”– you’re at a serious disadvantage.

THE DT School points to other causes than innate talent to explain remarkability, particularly effort and the amount of time spent on improvement. The T School maintains that some people will never become experts no matter how hard they apply themselves because they lack the necessary talents that would equip them to excel. A well-known acting teacher wrote, “the overwhelming majority of trained actors who have more than fulfilled the 10-year/10,000- requirement proposed by the strict deliberate practice view” seem to be missing the ability to rise above the competition, but “superior talent does eventually get noticed”

An orchestral violinist said on hearing a brilliant eleven year old violin prodigy: “I was so overcome by what she did in rehearsal…If I practiced for three thousand years I couldn’t play like that. None of us could.”

The Middle Way

drama-312318_640My Middle Way philosophy which avoids extremes tells me that innate talent and basic abilities do exist and that to disbelieve that is contrary to everyday experience. You know that from your own life. Since your earliest days you were always the best writer, or best painter or dancer, and you knew that even as a child and everyone knew that and you didn’t know how you got that way: you just were. Deliberate Practice is not the only cause of excellence in the arts or any other domain.

My friend, the late composer/performer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch, was a creative genius who showed exceptional musical ability at three and auditioned for and was accepted into the Julliard School of Music, the world’s finest music school, at seven. Marvin went on to win many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and was a tremendously hard worker. But unlike Marvin, most prodigies are not exceptional as adults. Other people who were not as advantaged in childhood surpassed them just as you and I have surpassed others who were born with more talent.

Artist’s life after artist’s life show us that talent is not a hard and fast commodity that some people possess and will always possess, but that talent is malleable and changeable, and something you develop through devoted effort and persistence. Good artists manufacture themselves. You don’t have to be born exceptional to achieve exceptional things as an adult.

Dancers who practice until their feet bleed so their performance is all it could be are developing and increasing talent. Writers, actors, composers, and artists who go over and over and over their work until it is as perfect as they want are developing and increasing talent. Self-taught autodidacts like poet Walt Whitman who begin their careers with no discernible talent at all and become the most talented artists of their age intrigue me very much.

Long hours of hard work painting, writing, dancing, and acting, combined with a sustained schedule of deliberate practice and deepening of knowledge, and the talent you know you possess and have known for a long time you do will go a long way, and can lead to undreamed of satisfaction, rich experiences, new talents, meaningful friendships, and success, profit, and recognition.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Aligning Your Past, Present, and Future

eiffel-tower-417962_640Even at the age of eight Sarah dreamed of visiting far-away places. She would lie in bed and imagine lush, exotic islands, and grand cities with great cathedrals and towering spires. Her favorite subject in school was world geography, and she would press the pages of her texts open and study the pictures of nomadic Laplanders, ocean-liners, snow-capped mountains, and South Sea Islands. She would stand in front of the family globe, and spinning it, would watch the world race by.

After working in a large department store until she was twenty-two she married and in ten years had four children, two boys and two girls. She was a stay-at-home mother, and was wonderful at raising the children who loved her dearly. For the first twenty-five years of her marriage she was never gainfully employed outside the house. She and her husband were never able to save enough money to travel very far, as she still dreamed of one day doing. She came into her own and found fulfillment as a wife and mother, but when the youngest child reached his teens she realized it was time to change her life and venture outside the home to start a career.

She suffered the same fears and insecurities most people would who had been out of the job market for a quarter of a century, and didn’t know what to do to find a job. One day, on a whim, while passing a travel agency she had driven past hundreds of times on the way to and from errands, she went in and applied for a job. She was hired and now, in her late-forties organizes and accompanies group tours to Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. She is doing what she dreamed of as a child, and is happy. Life offered her the opportunity for a fresh start, a new life path, a second birth, and she took it.

aircraft-74020_640The Wright brothers–Wilbur and Orville–were the first to demonstrate controlled, mechanical flight. But their insatiable interest in building a machine that flew began when they were children. Their father, Wilton, went on frequent business trips, and made it a point to bring home from each trip something for his children. He brought home from one trip–when Wilbur was eleven and Orville seven–a small toy helicopter made from bamboo paddles and a rubber band that when the rubber band was wound and released could lift off the ground. The brothers fell in love with the toy and played with it constantly, until it broke.

Then they disassembled it to see how it was made, and then built endless copies of it, even getting in trouble in school for playing with them. The toy made an indelible mark on them, got them started on aeronautical design, and they never forgot it. Even as older men, long after they had invented the flying machine and were world renowned, they would make helicopter toys for their nieces and nephews.

I asked my nurse in the hospital why she had gone into nursing and she said, “When I was a young girl I was sickly and I had to have a nurse. We were together night and day, and she was a good woman who seemed very happy. We became close, and it was then I decided that when I grew up I would be a nurse too. I’ve had such a wonderful life, and nursing has been so rewarding, that I’ve never regretted that decision.”

When Harry Truman was a boy, while he and his father worked together in the corn fields of Missouri, his father entertained him with exciting stories of the great ancient Greek and Roman orators and statesman, stories which Harry vividly recalled when he went into politics and when he had to make critical war-time decisions as President of the United States. Many times he called those stories his father told the most beneficial education he had ever received and an important reason he pursued the career he did.

woman-304812_640When my friend Rebecca was a young girl she would play “office.” She would pretend to be the president of a company and would have her younger brother play her assistant. She would spread papers every which way in front of her on the kitchen table as if it were her desk and she was very busy. She would call to her assistant-brother, “Bring me my pen” and he would bring it and she would then scribble her signature on papers. In her mid-thirties she founded and is president of what is now one of the most successful mid-size advertising agencies in the Midwest. She still signs papers all day long.

They are professional guitarists who as children were given an old battered guitar by an uncle and taught themselves to play. Or they are accountants who have always loved working with numbers, or a movie director whose parents loved movies and took their child to the show along with them, or a car dealer whose parents owned a dealership.

Innumerable artists–writers, musicians, composers, dancers, painters, architects, performers, and professional people, particularly engineers and physicians–became seriously interested in what would be their adult pursuit as young children.

 Foreshadowing

A distinctive quality of many people leading fulfilled lives is that quite early in life they became interested in the subject matter they later pursued as a vocation. The continual deepening of their interest and the development of appropriate skills was what guided them to their careers and that largely accounts for their success. They find their greatest achievements in occupations which build on their childhood interests.

From the earliest years on, patterns of choices show remarkable consistency, even over long periods of many years. Our lives of today often were foreshadowed and our intended destiny laid out for us years ago. Foreshadowing is a clue to our life’s most important purposes, though at times the path to fulfillment is not direct, but roundabout, with many side-trips, delays, and false starts.

Many highly accomplished people in varied fields find fulfillment pursuing their childhood interests in avocations–parallel careers.

A strategy when you are confused and don’t know which career direction to go in is to remember what excited you as a child, for it may be that in what comes to mind then is the most promising and most fulfilling direction.

********

One warm afternoon when I was five or six I was playing on the floor in front of the television that my mother had left on while she went away to vacuum in another room. I was playing with my fleet of toy trucks, and as poet Dylan Thomas would say, I was “As happy as the day is long.”

But from time to time I found myself glancing up at the screen and then after while found myself putting my trucks aside completely and getting closer to the screen and folding my arms in front of me and watching an old black and white movie very intently. I realize now that the semi-strange language the actors were speaking was British English.

One person in particular on that screen mesmerized me. I wanted to watch him and listen forever—the way he moved, the way he spoke, his voice, how he gestured, everything about him. What was happening to me was beyond me to describe. I was young; I didn’t have the vocabulary. But I still do not have the vocabulary, not because my vocabulary is deficient, but because when you see or read or hear something that is so out of the ordinary, you are unprepared for it and no words in all the lexicons, even the most expressive, are sufficient. You are mute.

All you know is that what you are feeling is jubilation; is joy. In my little child’s way I knew that on that screen before my eyes a performance that was not commonplace, but extraordinary was occurring, and it was because of that man’s skills and his presence, his being. My mother walked by and I touched the screen with my finger and said, “Who is that man?” And she answered. “That is Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.”

How did I know that? How could I tell? What in my little boy’s mind was responding to an artistic achievement of the very best? I was so young. But even when you are so little, true art has a way of breaking through to you and declaring its power, and as you can see, you remember it all your life and cannot forget.

 ********

One day in the third grade my favorite teacher (at any level), Miss Gross, standing in the front of the room, started reading aloud an essay I had written. She had had us describe something that had happened to us, and because I loved to run and could run like the wind and ran whenever I could, I wrote about running while playing football.

I heard her read (very dramatically as only Miss Gross could) my words: “The boys tackled me and I fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar.” Then I heard Miss Gross say, “That is poetic language. That is an image. David has made a simile.”

So, I’ve made a simile, I thought. Isn’t that something?

Then running home under the maple trees after school, I got to thinking that if I wanted I could make similes all the rest of my life. So, why do I write, and why do I try so hard, and why have I been doing it with extreme passion and happiness and commitment these years, and why do I find that there is nothing I would rather do than study and learn and write about artists—Debussy, Cassatt, Faulkner, Graham, Baryshnikov, Hepburn Gershwin, Stravinsky, Wright, the Beatles, Satie, Calder, O’Neill, Chekhov, Chagall–any artists at all, and fill my life with their desires and aspirations, their capacity for hard, sustained work, their sacrifices, their single-mindedness and persistence, their devastating setbacks and colossal achievements, their strengths as human beings, and their frailties that all contributed and made possible works that I can actually hear, and look at, and read, and touch?

Because, you see, the glorious experience of that pleasant afternoon in front of that screen—the finest actor of his era and I alone together in my living room–had somehow made a tribute to other creators of such beauty seem necessary and inevitable. And because of my need to make similes, I can’t help myself.

 Let Me Know

These are childhood stories of human destinies being set in motion—a direction, a future–taking shape. I would like to hear your story. I would like to know about the experiences that set you on the right course and led you to what has consumed you most. What key events from your youth led you to becoming what you’ve become?

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Finding a Creative Second Life: Parallel Careers

rails-407242_640This post is about realizing what marvelous talents and gifts you may possess and may not yet be fully using, but may wish to. It tells the stories of people who felt the same.

People from many countries will read this post and there is no doubt in my mind that they will think of similar examples from their own countries. I’d be interested in learning about them.

 George Bernard Shaw

Before settling down to a playwright’s life and eventually being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, Irishman George Bernard Shaw drifted aimlessly and unhappily from one occupation to another, including selling men’s clothes in a shop. He thought of becoming a novelist, so dutifully while selling real estate, he wrote one novel each year for five years and submitted the manuscripts to a publisher. Each was rejected, and he was discouraged.

Finally a sympathetic editor accompanied a rejected manuscript with a note stating that while the publishing house would have to turn down this manuscript too, the dialogue was superb. The editor asked, “Did you ever think of writing plays?” Shaw had written little plays as a boy that he and his friends would perform to entertain his family, but he hadn’t written one since.

Encouraged now, immediately he turned to using his strength–writing dialogue. He wasn’t meant to sell men’s shirts or real estate. He wasn’t even meant to write novels. He wasn’t meant for a thousand things. He was meant to write plays. (In my language, that was his intended destiny.) That’s what he was best equipped to do, just as you are best equipped for certain undertakings.

Core Strengths

An important way to find fulfillment in life and perhaps stumble upon a new identity is by making regular use of your principal strengths–your main aptitudes, talents, gifts, personal qualities, and capabilities, and doing so freely, without inhibition, without conflicts, without being interfered with.

Your strengths are what, in particular, out of all you’re capable of, you do better than anything else, and perhaps are happier doing than anything else. They are whatever you’re doing when you feel deep down, “Now, at this moment, I’m doing what I do especially well. I love it. It makes me happy.”

You have many strengths, but one is dominant. It is your main strength, your core strength. You’re at your best when you’re making use of your core strength in an occupation, or while pursuing a purpose that is important to you, or in an abiding interest, all of which bring fulfillment.

From your earliest years you have gravitated toward activities that enabled you to make use of your core strength. As a child you enjoyed building bridges with blocks. You never forgot the joy you felt. You became an engineer so that you could feel that the rest of your life. Or you liked to paint; or liked sports; or liked to sing; you liked to play in the garden; you enjoyed being with friends and showing them your poems. You were particularly good at math.

The life pursuits of people who excel were often foreshadowed by what deeply interested them as children. A chord was struck; something crystalized; a future was laid out. At times, like Shaw, they drift from one field, one occupation, to another, experiencing dead-ends and false starts, and only later return to that earlier interest, and then feel, “This is what I should have been doing all along.” So it is a good idea to never forget what your heart was once drawn to, but to keep it in mind whatever else you might be doing in your life.

In a previous blog I described the Zeigarnik Effect (named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the first person to study it): you don’t forget important things you started even long ago, but did not complete. They linger in your mind, reappearing from time to time, and in fact you remember them better than you do completed tasks. You have a strong desire to finally complete them, and you may do so many years later. That people have a need to finish what they start is true especially of the most highly motivated people.

As a boy, my friend loved to listen to his father tell stories of significant events in history and great people who did great things. He would then tell his friends the stories his father had told him. He worked hard and became a top executive with one of the world’s largest retailers. But he found that something was missing–the stories his father had told him and that he had loved. So while working at his job during the day, he earned a PhD in history at night, a subject which he now teaches at a university after work. Now he can tell his father’s stories again.

Putting yourself in a position to return to your past interests and make use of your core strength, if you aren’t already, is a strategy for bringing about positive change in your life and lifting up your spirits to new heights.

 A Parallel Career

The majority of people across the world are bursting with talents and gifts they are longing to make use of. Most people are far greater than their jobs no matter how excellent that job is. They usually have valuable qualities that are never called upon. They possess more intelligence, energy, motivation, imagination, and creativity than their jobs will ever require of them, and their core strength may go unused. So while working their entire career in one occupation that is otherwise perfectly fine and brings them satisfaction, they find more creative outlets to express themselves further and to make use of their core strength and find still more satisfaction. And sometimes the parallel career consumes them and they achieve extraordinary accomplishments and make names for themselves.

Robert Ardrey was a Hollywood screenwriter in high demand and a playwright who had two plays on Broadway at the same time. But he loved anthropology and the behavioral sciences and studied them on the side. He popularized the concept of “the territorial imperative” which asserts that living creatures, including human beings, instinctively protect their territory. (The farther away from the center of it you stay, the less interested in you they are. But step into their territory and the more aggressive they become.) Ardrey became a renowned paleoanthropologist and wrote the best seller African Genesis.

Busy housewife and mother Anne Sexton watched a PBS show on “How to Write a Sonnet” and sat down and wrote one. That first exposure to creative writing ignited an interest, revealed a core strength, and started her on the path to a parallel career. She never attended college. Her only formal education consisted of sporadic adult education classes at a handful of Boston-area colleges. Yet her poems won immediate attention through their appearance in literary magazines and newspapers. A stream of awards and grants followed the release of each of her first three books. Her fourth, Live or Die, won the Pulitzer Prize. She said, “Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn’t know I had any creative depths.”

Charles Ives—“an American original,” was one of the first American composers to receive renown internationally. He worked during the day as an insurance company executive, as did poet Wallace Stevens, who received the Pulitzer Prize and twice won the National Book Award. American influential and innovative poet William Carlos Williams and Anton Chekov, Russia’s finest playwright and the world’s best short story writer ever, were both practicing physicians. Franz Kafka was a government bureaucrat during the day. Twentieth century English novelist Henry Green, called “the most original…the best writer of his time,” was born into a wealthy family and was the managing director of its bottling business.

Henri Rousseau, a self-taught French post-impressionistic, though busy at work and with a family, started drawing and painting seriously in his forties. Although untutored, he influenced many painters, especially Pablo Picasso. Rousseau worked as a customs official, and was known as Le Douanier, “the customs officer.” Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and Billy Budd, was also a customs official– at the New York Port Authority.

Englishman Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific, respected, and successful writers of the Victorian Era. Not much of a believer in art-for-arts-sake, he wrote that all “material progress has come from man’s desire to do the best he can for himself and those about him.,” and stated that what motivated him was what motivates lawyers and bakers—“to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort.” He was a career post office employee who wrote his 47 novels and dozens of short stories and travel books while on trains to and from assignments. He claimed that he wasn’t extraordinary, but that any writer could be as prolific if he just budgeted his time efficiently.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, one of history’s foremost linguists, was by profession a chemical engineer and fire prevention inspector. He studied linguistics as a hobby. Truly a towering figure in sociology, Herbert Spencer was also an anthropologist and political theorist, and made a separate reputation in biology.

William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus; in fact it was called Herschel until Uranus was universally accepted. By profession he was an orchestra conductor and a composer known for his twenty-four symphonies.

Colorful novelist and art critic Andre Malraux, called by Jacqueline Kennedy, “the most fascinating man I ever talked to,” was a statesman, the French Minister for Cultural Affairs. Popular novelist Tom Clancy worked as an insurance salesman. Another Nobel Laureate, poet and literary critic T.S Eliot, worked full-time as a banker and then as a chief executive in a publishing company. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, was a professional mathematician, and noted photographer.

Samuel F.B. Morse was a prominent American portrait painter. He received a message that his wife Susan, age 25, was seriously ill. He rushed from Washington to his home in New Haven to find that she had died while he was returning. Devastated by his failure to reach her in time and the inability of the current message technology to get the news to him faster, he set out to develop a more effective system of long-distance communication. He then invented the telegraph and the Morse code that achieved that goal, connecting all four corners of the globe.

Follow Where Your Core Strength Leads You

Which of your many strengths is your core strength, not your second strength, or third, or fourth? What do you do especially well and continually gravitate toward? What are you doing when you don’t want to quit? What are you doing when you feel most fulfilled and can say, “This is me at my best. There is nothing else like this.”

The goal is to be able to make full use of your core strength freely, without inhibition, without conflicts, without being interfered with.

Possibly in a parallel career.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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