Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Getting good

30 October 2018

Grand Central Maira Kalman’s Grand Central, one of my favoirte paintings

“The formula for success: TALENT + ENERGY” —Derren Brown

As an actor or writer or director or artist, you really have two things you can focus on: your art and your career. Derren Brown writes that this is his formula for success: talent plus energy.

Brown is being tongue-in-cheek about there being a “formula”, but what he means is that these are the two variables you can control — success itself is not quite under your control. The only way to be happy is to focus on things under your control. (This is the basis of Stoicism and his book Happy.) Therefore, focus on developing your talent and energy (i.e. putting yourself out there), which may eventually lead to success.

The secret that Brown does not touch on, however, is that most people focus on developing their career, and not their art.

Don’t be the director whose only goal is to finally get into the rehearsal room. Because when you hit your goal and it’s day one, you’ll realize you spent no time developing your talent and you’re in over your head.

Instead, our primary goal should be getting good.

Brian Koppleman, the screenwriter and co-creator of Billions, used to have a series called “Six Second Screenwriting Lessons” where he would use Vine to give quick screenwriting tips. One of my favorites:

Say you have a day job and want to be a full-time artist and you have one hour a week to devote. Spend fifty minutes making art, ten marketing, zero complaining.

Marketing — or developing your career/energy — is certainly important. You should be networking, sending out emails, submitting to things, making friends and mentors, and doing all the things that will develop your career.

But you can’t spend all your time doing that. You shouldn’t spend most of your time doing that.

Instead, we need to focus on getting good. Which means developing your art. Working on exciting creative projects. Reading and writing and going to art museums and taking in things and seeing theatre and watching old films and getting lost in discographies and taking long walks under the morning sun and evening stars. Performing and practicing and self-producing your own weird experiments. In the beginning, focusing on quantity, and letting the quality develop.

Because the truth is that most people focus on their career. They stop getting good when they leave college.

And this means that not many people are actually good.

So the secret is that, if you get really good, you will stand out. People will take notice. And this is the best form of marketing. (That old Steve Martin line has truth in it: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”)

For example, there aren’t many truly original theatre directors out there right now, especially in the United States. Many young directors focus on their career, and forget about their art. If you can become really, really good — and network the appropriate amount — the opportunities will come.

At least, that’s what I choose to believe. That’s why I believe in focusing on getting good as the most important thing for being an artist.