I don’t usually quote other writers, with long excerpts but I found an interview that really caught my attention. The interview was with the author Robert Greene about his book Mastery. In this book, the author discusses what the secrets are to mastering a skill and his belief that passion can turn into expertise.
The interviewer, Dan Schawbel of Forbes, poses the following question:
“Do you believe that passion can turn into expertise? A lot of people are saying that you shouldn’t follow your passion anymore. What do you think of that?
“Not only do I believe passion can turn into expertise, or mastery (I prefer that term), I believe it is absolutely essential. To not follow your passion in life is a recipe for failure and unhappiness. Most often people choose career paths that diverge from what really interests them because of pressure from parents and peers, or motivated by the desire for money. What ends up happening is that in our twenties and maybe even in our thirties, we can do pretty well in our work, even though it is not a passionate interest. We are young and have energy; we get satisfaction mostly outside work. But it then eventually our lack of deep connection to the field catches up with us, often in our forties.
“We feel increasingly disengaged and not challenged. Our natural creative energies have gone fallow. We fail to pay attention to the changes going on in our field because we are disconnected. People younger, more creative and less expensive quickly replace us. We find that we cannot shift or adapt because we have not build up the proper learning skills with the requisite patience. It is funny, but the people in life who are primarily motivated by money or security often end up losing whatever they gain, where as those who follow their passion end up making more money than they ever desired.
“To really become an expert or master requires the infamous 10,000 hours, or even 20,000 hours – perhaps the difference between being a chess master and a grandmaster. To apply yourself to a field or to a problem for that long a time means there will inevitably be moments of boredom and tedium. Practice, particularly in the beginning, is never exciting. To persist pass these moments you have to feel love for the field, you have to feel passionately excited by the prospect of discovering or inventing something new. Otherwise, you will give up… If you are excited and obsessive in the hunt, it shows in the details. If it comes from a place deep within, the authenticity of the task will be communicated…There is no mastery or power without passion. Through all of my research, that I much I am certain about.”
I have written extensively on the “process” of studying ballet; and on finding joy in that process. I have been watching my students closely, for a number of years. I watch them from the moment I walk into the classroom (most students don’t seem to realize that teachers and choreographers are watching them when they AREN’T dancing as well- and that this can tell us a lot). What I see, as students wait for class to begin, is that the majority of them are engaged and focused somewhere outside the realm of ballet class. They are very often focused on their phone, or chatting with their friends, or rummaging through their bags. I see fewer and fewer students using that precious time to engage in a “pre-class ritual” of warming up, or checking positions and alignment in the mirror; preparing mentally and physically for the highly intense and complex task of building and honing a classical technique. And that speaks volumes. In fact, I was discussing this very point this morning with a colleague. I asked her:
“What do our students lack that made me spend hours in the mirror at home, often till 2:00 AM, trying to get a line just right: examining my arabesque, adjusting my arms, adjusting my foot, adjusting my head, looking for just the right feeling to breathe life into the position- never being quite satisfied?”
Her response – which was unprompted by me:
“The same thing that caused me to fall asleep, stretching in second position until my mother came in, woke me up and forced me to go to bed…PASSION.”
Each student sets out down the road of pre-professional ballet training for their own reasons. But, as Robert Green discussed in this interview, a lack of passion is a recipe for failure. I think many students are enamored with the IDEA of being a ballet dancer. I think many are drawn to ballet out of a desire to be in the limelight. I think some are drawn to the glamour of the stage. And sadly, there are still students who are the products of over-ambitious stage-mothers/fathers. But what I see missing so often is the one key element to success: a passion for the WORK. I know a lovely ballet dancer in her twenties. I see her in open classes in New York City quite often. She has been blessed with excellent equipment and she has a well put together, professional level technique. As a dancer she is perfectly fine. But we all know that “perfectly fine” is no longer good enough to secure a contract. Last week she was standing next to me at the barre and she said to me; “It is so hard for me to get out of the apartment and get to class every day…but I know I HAVE TO do it.” And right there is the reason why she is “perfectly fine” and has no career. The lack of passion. Still, after all these years, long after my performing career ended, I can’t wait to get to class; I can’t wait to work on the fine tuning of what is left of my technique; I can’t wait to discover something new…Because I was the person who initially followed a career path that was not in line with my passion for dance. And just as Robert Greene stated, it was a recipe for failure and unhappiness. It wasn’t until I allowed my passion for dance to guide my path that my career took shape. And every day it is growing, evolving and is ever more exciting. I now am in the process of negotiating guest teaching engagements in Ireland, Switzerland and Russia; something I never would have thought possible. And it all just seems to fall into place as I allow my passion to be my guide.
So now I am suggesting to students that they really examine their motives. The dance industry is brutal. Be sure it is the WORK that you love. Be sure that your heart is yearning for the PROCESS of studying, refining and cultivating a near flawless technique and a uniquely personal sense of artistry. Because without that passion, the goals are simply unachievable. And your parents can not instill that passion. Your instructors can not teach you that passion. Your peers and colleagues can not encourage that passion. Just like long legs and high arches, you must be BORN with that passion; and it is both a GIFT and a CURSE. For although the passion for the work can bring a lifetime of joy; it will lead to a relentless pursuit of an unachievable perfection. And for that I am truly grateful.
When the student finds the joy in the process, a dancer is born.