It's Better To Not Know Better

Danny Burstein was cast in a local production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along."
During his first year at Queens College.
At just 18.
In fact, he was given the lead role of Franklin Shepard.
A deeply flawed character, who everyone has an opinion about how he should be played.
Burstein, not wanting to muck up the play, decided to ask the one man whose opinion mattered most.
Stephen Sondheim.
Who was once described as, "the greatest, and perhaps best-known artist working in musical theatre."
So Burstien wrote a letter to Sondheim.
A very long letter.
Asking question after question about how best to approach the role.
The something strange happened.
Sondheim responded.
The greatest artist in musical theatre wrote back to an 18 year old in a local production.
He said to answer all of Burstein's questions he would have to write a letter the size of War and Peace.
And, being tremendously busy, Sondheim simply didn't have time for that.
Instead he gave Burstein his phone number, and told him to arrange a time to drop by.
And in two weeks later Burstein found himself sitting in Sondheim's living room.
For three hours they sat, talked and drank from a carafe of white wine.
While Burstien learned how Sondheim felt the character should be played.
But he learned more than that.
He learned the importance of giving back to those passionate about your craft.
Rewarding people with curiosity.
It's also a good story about not being scared to reach out.
Not knowing what is and isn't acceptable.
Having the guts to write a heartfelt message.
And that by showing passion, you might end up with a legend's phone number in your mailbox.
Though it would probably be electric now.
Sometimes it's better to not know better.

There are certainly a lot of people who "knew better" and never got to spend three hours with Sondheim.

Add a Bit of Perspective

It's often easy to forget how much we've done. To look at others for our barometers of our own success. To see the things we haven't done as opposed to what we have done. While it's important to look forward, it can be a big help to look back at what you once were. And what you've become.

My old high school friend Ben Levin posted this as a note on Facebook. It is something I think all people in creative fields should read. Some of it might not apply directly to you. But more does than doesn't. Enjoy:

I think I understand how to succeed as an artist or musician.  There seems to be only one way that works in the absence of being independently connected or wealthy.  I believe that the only way to succeed is to truly feel as if you are in the process of succeeding.  In other words, the way to succeed is to be successful.  I know that sounds like bullshit, but humor me for a minute.

Being a creative person has a cyclical quality to it.  First you want to learn, then you feel like you know something, then you realize you don’t and you want to learn again.   The same goes for the business end of a career as an artist.  First you try something, then you get attention, and then it’s not enough to last so you try something else.  I have found this cycle to be comfortable with the music part but unbearable when it comes to the business.  I am sick of it and it is making me feel weak.  There is so much excitement that leads to nothing, so many empty promises, so many people coming and going, and it really sucks (not to mention I’m just getting started.)  But you know what?  Tonight right before I wrote this, I realized something that could possibly change the game for me.  I think it will help you too.   

Try looking at your life in five-year blocks.  Whenever you are feeling discouraged about your progress in the arts or in business, think about five years at a time.  Think back to how good you were in your field five years ago and compare it to now.  Have you improved?  You are probably a lot better at some things, a little better at others, and possibly worse at a few.  Overall however, I think most people will see a distinct and objective growth between five years ago and now.  Now, look back 10 years… holy shit right?  You’ve done well my friend.  When you note the clear difference between where you were ten years ago and now, I think you will see things move in a nice subtle upward curve.  So try and guess at where you’ll be in ten years.  Just kidding, you can’t.  Ben Levin Group just formed five years ago, Bent Knee didn’t exist, and I wasn’t yet a member of Black Trip.   My best piece of music was clever at best and I hadn’t written any of the music I play now.  In terms of business, I didn’t have a website, I didn’t have a band Facebook page, no one in the east coast new any of my music, and I had never gone on tour.  Everything I have now is so distant from five years ago and it makes me feel amazing!  If five years isn’t enough, just go a little farther back to see how far you’ve come.

When I do this exercise, I feel successful.  When I feel successful, I am happier.  When I am happier, I enjoy my work more.  When I enjoy my work more, I do more of it.  When I do more, I get more results.  I know this idea is similar to what I wrote about meeting Steve Vai in a previous article.  But man, I need a reminder about this stuff sometimes.  You’ve got to stick it out and remember who you are and how much you can do in five years.  I want to have a long and extremely successful career as a performing musician.  I have big dreams and lofty goals, but I should not rate my success based on how much further I have to go.  Instead, I should focus on how far I’ve come.  Let yourself feel good about what you have.


By the way Ben made this video, and got to meet his idol Steve Vai. Pretty fucking rad.