Can only the starving create art?
To David Mamet, a truly accomplished actor must have nothing to fall back upon. In his book on acting True and False, Mamet argues that a career alternative or a convenient inheritance acts as an emotional crutch, without which an actor must stand to face the rigors of their art with the courage necessary to excel at it. This view is not new. Sun Tzu argued centuries earlier in the Art of War that a general should burn the bridges behind his army once they have crossed the river into enemy territory, for there is nothing they cannot accomplish when standing upon death ground.
But is it truly necessary to cut off all your options to be a success? This “death ground” philosophy recognizes the power of commitment: great achievement is almost impossible without it.The philosophy breaks down when it argues that it is necessary to face death to achieve true commitment. Certainly it is not necessary for obsessive-compulsives, who throw themselves into absurd tasks in the face of their survival rather than in service of it.
Archimedes, a man who claimed that, given a long enough lever and a place to stand, he could move the world, is perhaps more famous for running naked down the street after having discovered the principle of displaced volume, and was so obsessed with his work that he was ultimately run through by an invading soldier who became incensed when the scientist ignored him to work on a diagram.
A gruesome end for a committed man, but perhaps these obsessive traits survive because in a more balanced degree they can motivate someone to great achievement. Science fiction writer Larry Niven had inherited money — and thus the luxury to expend ten years of his life perfecting his craft. For Niven, an inheritance was not a crutch but a lever, enabling him to ultimately producing Hugo-award winning stories.
Niven is not alone in dedicating himself to his work to achieve greatness. The director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy quoted a local New Zealand saying that summed up his work ethic: “One job at a time, every job a success.” Victor Hugo had this attitude, sentencing himself to “terms” in his study … years of isolation that produced masterworks like Les Miserables.
This kind of focus is not practical for everyone. Some have lives to fall back upon, and others have lives they cannot abandon. I do not think David Mamet would suggest that someone with an inheritance must give it up to become a great actor — and clearly Victor Hugo did not need to abandon his wife to become a great writer. However, commitment is not just necessary for artists trying to achieve masterworks or soldiers trying to vanquish their enemies; instead, it is necessary for everyone.
For a time, the graduate student must put aside his social life— or fail to finish his thesis. For a time, the programmer must put in the extra hour to root out the last bug — or be drawn into a treadmill of endless maintenance. For a time, the part-time deejay must tune out the requests of his friends — or find that that the club goes dead because the right tracks are not cued to play.
Everyone comes to a point in their lives when the goals that really matter become truly difficult, and where achieving these goals requires focus upon them to the exclusion of all other distractions and enjoyments which arise before them. No matter how skilled or strong we are, each of us will face a stone too heavy to lift unless we put our other baggage down.
This strength — not the strength to carry the stone, but to put other baggage aside — is dedication, and it is the key to achievement. Dedication is not a mystic elixir, available only available to the impoverished or the imperiled. It is a fundamental attitude towards life, and it is available to everyone — great and small, rich and poor, facing death or living life. Some accept this burden, and are rewarded with the things they most truly desire; others turn away, and leave the sour grapes to others.
Not everyone can be a great writer, or a great actor, or even a great plumber — each person must find their own stone to lift . But it is possible for each and every person to face their personal challenge, to stand up to the breach with courage, and to step across the chasm to their own death ground — to that place to stand where they can, with the right lever, move the world.
- The Centaur