February 22nd, 2017

Success and single-minded obsession

Obsession may be a necessary but not sufficient requirement for success in the arts (and perhaps even elsewhere).

I know quite a few people who later became famous—some a little famous, some more famous. Having known these people in childhood and/or adolescence, I’ve noticed that they all had something in common: obsessive focus on one exclusive interest, and usually that focus began in childhood.

Why am I writing about this now? After seeing the film “La La Land” the other day, I was reading about its writer/director, who was only 30-31 when he made the movie. His extremely youthful age got me to wondering how on earth he could have gotten so far so fast in the movie-making biz. I took in a bunch of articles about him (none of which will be linked here, because I was reading them for fun and didn’t take any notes), all of which indicated that Damien Chazelle (that’s his name) has known since earliest childhood that he wanted to make films.

That’s true despite the fact that Chazelle is smart enough to get into Harvard (his alma mater), and so he must have had a lot of choices. But as he describes it, he knew—practically as a toddler, when he was watching old Disney stuff like “Cinderalla,” the sort of thing just about every kid views—that what he wanted to do with his life was to make films.

That is a highly unusual choice at that age. A lot of teenagers and college students decide they want to make films, but I don’t know of many 5-year-olds see Bambi and think “I want to create something like that.” However, Chazelle was a student of film and film technique from the start, so in a way you could say that by the age of 30 he’d been apprenticing for about 25 years.

In addition, Chazelle met another similarly focused (from early early childhood, that is) young man while at Harvard, composer Justin Hurwitz. And away they went, thinking about the films they’d be creating together, which is exactly what came to pass. I remember reading in some interview or other that Hurwitz was so focused—as a six-year-old—on composing that he’d be up every night for hours doing it, and that his parents had to impose limits on his composing in order for him to get enough sleep even as a young child.

So it’s no accident that the films of Chazelle and Hurwitz (the other film they are known for is “Whiplash”) are about this very thing: focus on a goal in the arts, and the perils and costs of that focus. Although the two have been wildly successful, of course the vast majority of such dreamers are not successful. The musical “A Chorus Line” got that just about right.

21 Responses to “Success and single-minded obsession”

  1. chuck Says:

    > obsessive focus on one exclusive interest, and usually that focus began in childhood.

    That’s my experience also, although the tech folks I’m familiar with tend to start a bit later than the artists.

  2. AesopFan Says:

    So very true. One of my sons, while in middle school, realized he would never be as good an instrumentalist as his friend Jason, because, instead of just being in the band like most of the kids, Jason lived to play his French Horn, hours of voluntary practice daily.
    There are lots of dedicated kids like that; they don’t get as much credit as they deserve.
    However, some grow up to become Winton Marsalis and Yo-yo Ma.

  3. Artfldgr Says:

    His extremely youthful age got me to wondering how on earth he could have gotten so far so fast in the movie-making biz.

    thats cause you have no idea how the business works…

    i did work in film, was kind of going out with a married woman whose husband knew we hung out. she wanted to know what i wanted to do in film, produce, direct, etc…

    THATS how it works… from her i moved on to the grammys and other music stuff.. sesame street…

    its all favors, nepotism, deals, blackmails, etc..
    who you know, and who you get near matters

    its NOTHING what people think it is…
    NOTHING…

    though note… its all very talented people
    once you get that moniker, you move from general public, into the waiting room of the talented…

    ever see a cattle call? open call?

    talent is your pass, social associations and favors, and etc..

    but once your in, your in..
    until your not

    and just cause your not in the public eye, doesnt mean to others your not important…

    i hated getting calls at 3am
    but, i got them because i can deliver

    one of the oddest was to take a photo of marissa tomei ears… given that they rent or borrow jewelry they dont own, the designers publicist, called tomei publicist, who pulled out my number, pegged me and had me run to manhatten at 3am, yell out a code word and get the shots.

    but as a kid i performed at lincoln center, carnegie hall
    and my cousins went to juliard… one performing in another hall than i did at licoln center. (i was at alice tully hall, he was at avery fischer)
    was in the manhatten chess club
    nearly married a social register deb
    bronx science..
    and all from a inner city poor area 🙂

    life can be interesting
    and i am sure given the chance, it will be again
    but only if i get the chance

    [note.. i played clarinet, a buffet, for hours a day. my cousin would play his piano up to 8 or more hours. in fact, his instrument of choice was the same as bach, the three teired organ. the one he played had a trumpet en chamade!!! at one point he took a baby grand, and we got the peddals from a organ, and wired up the piano so that hitting the pedals would play the chords and he could practice. his tiny apartment had three pianos, and he would always try to tag me to tune them for him.. his brother was a neer do well that liked rock and played the drums… other family members read much like a very unfamous version of families like the huxleys… grandmother a researcher, etc]

  4. AMartel Says:

    Mission accomplished. Now what?
    Also, I don’t think that’s the only way to success: 1. childhood obsession; 2. unrelenting focus; 3. success. Except maybe in ballet and most sports and for these two guys and maybe some other people.

  5. AMartel Says:

    And tech, definitely.

  6. Esther Says:

    So interesting how some people are able to get past their own heads. They must also need a lot of self confidence, in addition to the talent/obsession.

  7. Esther Says:

    Artfldgr, it’s also called a “gift.” Which, to me, also means we’ll do it for free and is its own reward.

    Some years ago I decided to be analytical and toted up the pro and cons of my particular artistic ‘gift.’ The con side was vast, so I stopped, thinking to do something else that used my other abilities. Hahaha. Nope. Way to learn about depression.

    Must be harder to have a talent in something that requires other people, expensive equipment or youth. I draw and make things with my hands. It causes clutter, but I can do it by myself until I keel over.

  8. Fausta Says:

    My son has wanted to be a film editor since he was 11 years old.
    He is.

  9. Artfldgr Says:

    Artfldgr, it’s also called a “gift.” Which, to me, also means we’ll do it for free and is its own reward.

    Thats funny…
    When you have that level of gift, you really find out things

    1) that being an artist with such a gift gives you a socially acceptable obsessive compulive disorder… 🙂

    yes, you can get depressed by not using it… but thats if you only have one and cant.

    But what is MORE depressing is similar to being rich. that is, do your friends want you for the favors and skills you have for them to “borrow” for free or do they like you?

    Do you know how many weddings i have done? a wedding photographer can get a decent amount, but me? why even give me anything? nothing like getting $5k of work for nothing and at my own expense!!

    oh, then there are the people that steal my work, so now all i have is a scan. why pay for it when you can take it on five finger discount and the police dont take art theft as seriously as money.. so even if you know the name, address and have a off duty cop as a witness, they get to keep it.

    then there are people like my mom who wants me to do a portrait of her as i did one of dad (who is a great artist as well, grand master oils in any style, in fact you would find it hard to tell that our works are all by us) and myself as a young baby. but that takes hours and hours and no one respects that and not being single, well, how do i get that going?

    oh, then there is work that tries to steal my other creative endeavors. or block them so they are never made.. they did that with a device i prototypes on verilog that could go through a genome in several orders of magnitude faster for SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms)… and then new designs for disposalbe pest control for the military, other pest systems. and devides for people with porpheria, and others with certain hearing problems… then there are the energy stuff.. and and and and.

    and i dont do it any more.
    got tired of red carpet.
    got tired of fashion shows and backstage
    i got tired of mysic when i was 15… so that stopped long ago… and chess i only played to be with my dad and maurice seymour the famous fotographer.

    my skills are extreme…
    neo has seen some of it..
    you may have seen some of it when reading magazines or watching the news or such.
    [went into the projects one xmas alone and did pics of JayZ… ]

    I would send her a few things to put up..
    But who would want to see it?

    Must be harder to have a talent in something that requires other people, expensive equipment or youth.
    yes, because you have to be the best… and others have to consider that, or else someone else gets the time. the darker side is also having sex you dont want, and other things like that…

    The truth is that every year we used to pick someone from the crowd of photographers and try to help them become famous.

    But nearly 100% couldnt do it..
    Oprah did the same one episode for dancers..

    here is what you find out. most people would rather pretend that they could be something than actually find out. they would rather say, if i had a chance, or this or that, and never do they ever really know what it is to do it.

    the other side of that same razor blade is the person who thinks talent isnt anything special, it can be learned (sort of), and make little of it as if no one has any and everyone can… (socialists?)

    balancing in the middle on the edge of the razor are the really talented who bust their hump to achieve with no promise of it… the waste bin is full of very good people that didnt have the luck, missed out, were sick that day, etc.

    I used to never have an answer when people tried to compliment me with “oh, i wished i had your talent”, to which now i say, no you dont..

    because what they think is talent is a skill withotu work, when talent is the potential to really master things and extend them, and thats usually only after lots and lots of work.. though in some things my talent is natural and i didnt have to work as hard..

    Aptitude is talent unrefined – Arfldgr

    then there the new politics of which many many great potential artists gave up given that the new soviet art was literally what anyone could do and was made art by the false cognoscenti who would declare that smudge as great and led us away from uplifting and complex and hard to things like shoving a dinner knife in your twat and throwing tomatoes at it (i DO like the Harmon movie where they make fun of it with a man that gives himself paint enemas and explosively poops color onto the canvas… and who could forget the rich biatch artist in the duds life (big lebowsky)]

    the new politics means if your not of color, or dont have a pudenda as an expression of your victimhood prior to birth, and a story of some political angle.. well then who wants to look at what you do?

    they think being abused makes for better art
    that if your well adjusted, an individualist who doesnt want to be part of the collective, not colored or female, or male claiming to be female, then your artwork isnt worth much

    the point was to kil the arts and they have almost succeeded in that…

    soon, its all soviet gray

    want to know why painters are discovered after their deaths? the family doesnt want to throw their work out and then donates them to hospitals and such… and they enter the stream of history

    i am more like Stephen Wiltshire, but more borderline in terms of socializing… the sad part is i am so tired i just cant get up to get turned down any more and see someone else with bs story win out with really really crappy work.

    oh.. and no one has seen a lot of my work despite whats public.. lots of tiny things that i made fo rthe family that unless catalogued would just disappear… a small bass wood heart… a jadeite and gold thing.. various stone carvins.

    this is why i dont mind the end coming
    there is nothing left to do alone
    and the people playing games made sure myw ife and i would never have a home or children, and THATS what inspires me and gives me energy… and the socialists took it away.. when i was inner city youth heading to bronx science, i was a hero… when i actually succeeded i had to be punished… and my wife too.

    so i dont care
    let the end come
    even now they take my work and use it and dont pay me stealing 20 years of effort..
    so who cares??

  10. Esther Says:

    Everything you say, artfldgr, makes perfect sense, though I can’t feel bent out of shape about it. But mostly because I try to avoid success as a goal, lol.

    True, people want you to work for free. You can say “no,” maybe not to your mother though.

    Hilariously potential clients sometimes offer “the exposure” as compensation. “Free,” curiously, never translated to “respect.” So I turned down unpaid jobs unless the brief was “do whatever you want.”

  11. zat Says:

    Alma Deutscher (father from Israel, mother from England where they live), 12 years old, knows exactly which music she wants to play and compose: music in the style of the classical period. She knew that already when she was three years old. Any attempts to make her also interested in modern styles have failed completely. She never watches TV, she isn’t interested in spending time with computers or smartphones. The modern world is ugly, she says. She’s reading a lot. But most of her time is used for dreaming and composing and practising the violin and piano.
    She’s not one of those prodigies trained by parents with big ambitions. Alma’s dreams are her own dreams, the dreams that began at the age of three or even before. She wrote her first (small) opera at seven, her first concerto at nine, a full-length opera, Cinderella, at ten.

    Here she is in her latest video, making perfectly clear in her own words that she knows what she wants:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yf_pbVvIWk

    And here she is (2015) playing a violin concerto she composed herself. It’s catchy! And look at her face:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zad7fkhGzzs

  12. David Swadell Says:

    One of my old girlfriends grew up next door to Steven Spielberg. As a kid he was already obsessed with making movies. No surprise he became his era’s Wunderkind director. Talent + obsession (or dedication/devotion) + work + support and guidance are pretty significant indicators of the potential for success in any endeavor.

  13. TommyJay Says:

    My favorite similar example is Hillary Seitz’s screenplay for “Insomnia” starring Pacino and Robin Williams, directed by Chris Nolan. I think it is one Nolan’s best direction efforts and the writing and acting is terrific.

    I can’t find a birthdate for Seitz, but she talks on the DVD extra about burning 4 years of her young life working on the project. She had a co-writing credit on “Eagle Eye” many years later.

    I was interested enough in “Insomnia” to look up the original Norwegian (I think) production which has many of the same major elements. But Seitz’s version changes the ethics of the last third of the film rather dramatically.

    I am guessing she didn’t make much money in her early endeavors and dropped out of the business.

  14. Artfldgr Says:

    The current state of the art was on display at the AvantGarden in Houston:

    Still in shock over a performance from days ago, [owner Mariana] Lemesoff said there’s now one band in town permanently banned from her place.

    The incident happened last Friday during a cancer fundraising event when Lemesoff says Sonic Rabbit Hole, a pair of performance artists, took the stage and one attempted to give the other an enema.

    “Everybody at that point was really shocked and then he proceeded to defecate on the stage and splatter feces everywhere,” Lemesoff said.

    Shrugs Michael Clemmons of Sonic Rabbit Hole,

    “What I did is not all that out-there. This is nothing, literally. I don’t understand why I’m getting the attention for this.”

    And so, i have lots of art work, excellent quality, and designs that wow, and devices and things that people can use.

    but how can i compete with that or get anywhere with real skills and such if the cognosenti (ignorati) deem the above art, and seek out such?

    One day, i went to sleep
    When i woke up, we all looked like we came from R. Crumb comics and The Aristocrats wasn’t funny or shocking anymore given a culture that seems to run parallel to the performance.

    Robert Dennis Crumb is an American cartoonist and musician who often signs his work R. Crumb.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Crumb

    “The Aristocrats” (also called “The Debonaires” or “The Sophisticates” in some tellings) is a taboo-defying off-color joke that has been told by numerous stand-up comedians since the vaudeville era.

  15. Molly Brown Says:

    I can barely draw stick people, but when my son was three I got him one of those kid’s artists easels because his dad paints. He filled the whole thing up with rows and rows of numbers and symbols he made up. I thought, ‘Well, that’s weird.’ 22 years later – he’s a coder. If I knew then what I know now…

  16. miklos000rosza Says:

    This is a subject that’s actually too close to home for me to comfortably talk about in this format. I know too much about it, you might say.

  17. Tuvea Says:

    I guess I’ve made it then.

    Ever since I was a young child I’ve done everything possible to avoid … well … work. At 12 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress came out with one of the main characters being a self-aware computer that did all the hard work. So … computers were the career for me.

    Four decades later I’m doing what I wanted to do since I was a child. Pretty much sit around the whole day reading. And spending the rest of my time playing playing with my toys.

    America! What a country!

  18. Rufus Firefly Says:

    Artfldgr, thanks for sharing all that! In reading many of your comments I’ve pieced together that you were a prodigy in at least one area, but it’s fascinating to learn more of the details.

  19. Rufus Firefly Says:

    In regards to Damien Chazelle and “La La Land…” First, I liked the movie. It’s nice to see someone making a traditional musical. About every decade Hollywood does one of these, “Grease,” “Moulin Rouge…” and the films make tons of money but no one makes another because “the public is not interested in them.” Seems counter-intuitive to me, but what do I know about Hollywood?

    Second, it’s not the greatest film in the history of film. The hype is way overblown, but it is fun and entertaining and I like traditional musicals, so I won’t spend any more time criticizing its flaws.

    Now, on to Mr. Chazelle. Seems like a good guy. The Harvard thing? Harvard and the other Ivies admit a fair amount of young students who don’t have stellar aptitude on the ACT or SAT, so we don’t know that he excels in other areas. He very well may, but who knows? He’s parents have a good, academic pedigree and his only sibling is a circus performer, so he sounds like the type of kid the Ivies would have been interested in.

    Next, it’s very common for young boys (more so than young girls) to be obsessive about one, or a few topics, even at a very young age. Prior to the 80s every street had a young boy who could recite batting averages, box scores, whole rosters of entire baseball teams going back decades… And boys who would obsess on a musical instrument, or throwing or hitting a ball over and over and over. or playing with erector sets or Lincoln logs or trains. There were whole clubs of young boys devoted to memorizing all the routes and spurs of the New York Subway system, the same thing for rail systems, including engine numbers (trainspotting). Boys would piece together diagrams of Ma Bell’s switching equipment from counting clicks on rotary calls they would dial all day long.

    Technology got cheap enough that a movie camera and film were within reach for some young men in the 60s (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas). And by the 90s almost any kid could make a movie. In my circle of kids and their friends and my friends and their kids a significant percentage have been interested in making movies as a profession. Most got the passion at a very young age and most have been making movies from childhood through adolescence, and many are getting College degrees in the subject.

    And, just like the majority of kids who throw or hit balls all day, or play musical instruments all day, they will be unable to earn a living as film directors, but will hopefully find a way to incorporate their “hobby” in their adult lives.

  20. Rufus Firefly Says:

    As many have already stated, luck and contacts play a huge role in success in the arts. Almost any time I research a famous actor, director, musician, photographer… it doesn’t take long to find a parent, or uncle or grandparent with connections in the industry. As the costs of production and access continue to plummet in the music, film and television industries it will be interesting to see if merit makes a return as the primary decider in what gets consumed; and consequently generates revenue.

  21. GRA Says:

    @ Artfldgr said “though note… its all very talented people
    once you get that moniker, you move from general public, into the waiting room of the talented… ”

    How come I’m not impressed with most of the actors I see on screen then? Robert Pattinson (Twilight fame) very talented? I can only name a handful of actors under 30 that I consider rather talented in the acting department. The rest? Well if that’s talent then there must be a low threshold of talent in the entertainment industry (or the more talented of the actors pursue stage). I get the sense the real talent are the ones we don’t see, the technical jobs, the costume designers, the set designers, the photographers (in your case).

    Though what you said about there being no open calls is what I’ve observed as well. Once you’re in you’re in until you’re not. That’s probably why we see a handful of actors being rotated in their age range. You can narrow down the potential actors for playing X role to a shortlist and that shortlist will rarely change.

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