Trimming Book-Fat: “Enemies of Promise” Surprise Edition

Searching for the end of the bookshelf and the belt line with K.M. Zahrt

As you know from installment #2, we are exploring The Train to Crystal City (2015) by Jan Jarboe Russell and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) by Jamie Ford for #3, which should appear shortly, so just hold your horses, hold your hat, hold the bag, or hold the fort — whichever cliché you prefer. This, folks, is a surprise edition. At any rate, onward…

One night this week I stayed up way past my bedtime and watched the film Whiplash (2014) starring now Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons, who could be hailed as something of hometown hero having, as he does, Detroit roots.

Andrew (played well by Miles Teller) idolizes Buddy Rich and is driven, like Rich, to be considered the greatest jazz drummer in America. Meanwhile, Terence Fletcher, the band teacher (played by Simmons), is hell-bent on weeding out the wannabes from the prodigies.

Spoiler Alert! The trailer, though as dramatically compelling as the film itself, leaves little of the plot to the imagination.

As a result, the film riffs, to borrow the musical jargon, on the following questions: Where is the line between striving to reach one’s full potential and driving one insane? Does achieving greatness require a bit of obsession, a dash of crazy, or does one simply go nuts in the process? And, what’s the value proposition of success versus craziness?

These are interesting questions and subjects not unfamiliar to Hollywood to say the least. I’m thinking of the Rocky poster that’s hanging on the wall over my head as I type this with the caption: “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” In fact, even though I was captivated enough not to notice nor care that the clock was creeping toward midnight, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another film that suggests achievement may require ruthless passion and/or violent motivational techniques as tolerable means to great ends.

The film I’m referring to, as you may have guessed, is Jobs (2013). In that film, Ashton Kutcher delivers a convincing enough performance as America’s sweetheart temperamental genius-jerk, Steve Jobs, that I find it somewhat surprising IMDB’s search field still uses The Butterfly Effect (2004) as his token credit (Not Two and a Half Men. Not Dude, Where’s My Car. Not That 70’s Show.).

Both of these films make me wonder if there isn’t a less destructive and less violent way to the achieve greatness. Does one have to be abusive or frankly an asshole, or both, to motivate oneself, or one’s band or team, to reach for the pinnacle of capability? No, I find that impossible to believe. Steven Johnson, whose book How We Got to Now we discussed last time, would probably argue that, if Jobs hadn’t created his empire with his signature, let’s say, gusto, history tells us that someone else likely would have because — and here we are with that cliché theme, again — the technological time was ripe.

I’ll admit (hangs head) I’m as big of a sucker for the “How did the creative genius-jerk become so great?” question as anyone else.

It may have been a coincidence, or some kind of sign (exactly why I felt compelled to write about this topic), that in this past week I just so happened to read an old “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column of Nick Hornby’s from February of 2004 as preserved in the recently published tome Ten Years in the Tub (2014). Hornby was discussing the book Enemies of Promise (1938) by Cyril Connolly. Based on Hornby’s descriptions of Connolly’s ideas, I think Connolly, Fletcher, and Jobs may have seen eye-to-eye on the question of striving for greatness and the perceived intrinsic value of tyranny in the process, although had they been contemporaries I suspect they would’ve been, at best, “frenemies.”

According to Connolly, women (or, for you 21st century readers, family by extension) “make crippling demands on [a drummer’s, or an upstart founder’s, or a writer’s (in Connolly’s case)] time and money, especially if they set their hearts on his popular success” (Hornby, p. 52). Andrew in Whiplash and Steve Jobs certainly struggled with the life portion of the buzz-phrase “work-life balance.”

I’ll also admit — now, there seems to be a pattern of confessions appearing — that work-life balance has been particularly challenging for me of late since, as I’ve written about elsewhere, my family life grew by 50% a little more than a year ago.

As Hornby is quick to point out, “Enemies of Promise is about a lot more than the damaging effects of domesticity, however; it’s also about prose style, and the perils of success, and journalism, and politics” (p. 52). A similar qualification can be made for Fletcher and Jobs, or any other “great.” There are more factors at play than simply being a bit prickly.

Whatever magical recipe that produces greatness in any field is a mystery yet unsolved, particularly with regards to ingredients like practice and time dedication. It can’t be as simple as Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours, can it? According to a recent Business Insider article by Drake Baer, “A new Princeton study tears that theory down. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains.”

So, maybe the question should be: How many hours does one have to put in to maximize that 12% difference?

If one could get a sense of the answer to that question, then once one maximizes capability by 12% through the right amount of practice, one could, in theory, focus on the work-life balance and, thus, minimize craziness. That reminds me of that other cliché: A balanced day keeps the doctor away. Isn’t that how it goes?

But, here comes those more nagging questions again: What if I didn’t hit my 12%? What if I only needed to write one more sentence, make one more revision, to take this post from “good job” — the most harmful two words in the English language, according to Fletcher — to “genius”?

This is what happens next:

2006_stranger_than_fiction_006

On the other hand (Ah, such a catch-22!), in an effort to close the loop on this unwieldy surprise edition, and with a bang no less, here’s what achieving full potential looks like:

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