One thing that's always, like, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that's it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a Starry Night again, man!' You know? He painted it and that was it.
– Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles
Unlike painters, singer-songwriters, comedians, and many professionals share a common challenge: You get known for something you are good at, and then people want you to do it–everyday. But your interests change over time. And when your interests change not everyone accepts or supports what you want to do–especially if your desired change requires an investm ent in time, money, or reinvention. Or if your change requires patience and an open mind from others–who've grown to expect you to be "as seen before."
Ever had this happen to you? It happened to Steve Martin in New York in December at the 92nd Street Y, during a program billed as "A Conversation with Steve Martin." Many audience members complained and got full refunds after expressing their disappointment with Martin's topic of conversation: His crime? He talked about his latest book, An Object of Beauty and art.
Over the course of his career, Martin has dazzled many with physical humor, wry wit, and knack for comedy. But on the side, he's written plays, a novella (Shopgirl), non-fiction essays for The New Yorker, and is an avid banjo player. As he once said of his own career, "Stand-up comedy was just an accident. I was figuring out a way to get on stage." He has always been a guy with diverse interests.
But the audience wanted to see this side of Steve Martin.
Those who were there–and close-captioned viewers–sent e-mails and notes to the hosts, asking for a change in tone. Martin was asked–before any q & a period–to switch the course of conversation to his career instead. The conversation flatlined.
Now let me try to answer the question you might be asking yourself at this point: was I boring? Yes, I might have been…I have no doubt that, in time, and with some cooperation from the audience, we would have achieved ignition. I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note. My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have.
But I can’t help wondering what we might have said if we hadn’t been stopped. Maybe we were just around the corner from something thrilling. Isn’t that the nature of a live conversation? It halts, it stutters, it doubles back, it soars. We might have found a small nugget, something off topic or unexpected, that wouldn’t have warranted the refund that was offered.
If the e-mailers could have lived with “I am unamused” for just a little longer, or had given us some understanding based on past performance, or even a little old-fashioned respect, something worthwhile, unusual or calamitous might have emerged. Who knows, maybe I would have ended up singing my novel.
Does anyone like being interrupted? Especially in pursuit of an interest? As Langston Hughes wrote "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Maybe it just sags with a heavy load…"
My wish for you in 2011: That you find the space and support you need to explore your interests and pursue your career goals–even and especially if they are different from what others want or expect.
May you find mentors to seek out for advice, trusted peers who can help you navigate transitions, and friends and family who can serve as your cheerleaders along the way. And if you don't need it for yourself, may you be able to provide it for someone else…
Cross-posted on Career Hub. Photo by Sebastiano Pitruzzello.