"Are there others like me/Alone in the night?
I could be anywhere."
-- from an unpublished song lyric I wrote, circa 1975
"Thousands upon thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls."
-- Seymour Krim, "For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" (published posthumously in 1991, and reprinted in Phillip Lopate's (ed) The Art of the Personal Essay, 1994)
When I was in graduate school, in between marriages, I fell in love with a beautiful woman. I thought she was in love with me, and perhaps for a month or two she was, but at a party I took her to -- admittedly somewhat to show her off -- she met a fellow graduate student, and suddenly she was with him and not me.
Although our relationship was over, we stayed friends, and one day she said, "You know I made a list of all the men in Cambridge I had slept with, and it was a long list. But then I realized that there were even more men in Cambridge that I hadn't slept with!"
Though the word may not be politically correct these days, my brief lover and then friend was promiscuous. She needed the acceptance and love she had never felt growing up; her beauty attracted a large number of men who might possibly -- but never fully seemed to -- fill that need. If a man was interested in her, and so many were, she might excitedly go off with him for a while; but soon perhaps there would be another, and then yet another.
I have been burdened by a different kind of promiscuity. I have a promiscuous mind.
Just as my erstwhile lover and then friend might have envied women who settled easily into long-term relationships, I have long envied those who have truly found a singular calling in their work, a passion that they have stayed with for years and years. This is not me. Unfortunately, I have a number of abilities and talents, and if anyone -- and by this I mean institutions and companies as well as people -- takes an interest in any one of them, I'm theirs -- at least for a while.
There's an expression that captures this phenomenon perfectly -- "Jack of all trades and master of none" -- and an important question is why some people turn out this way and others do not. I don't know the answer, and given that there are at least three or four other things that are holding my interest right now, I don't intend to try to find out. But what I do know is that it is an unpleasant and highly unsatisfying feeling. I don't know whether my lover of old ever found someone to settle down with, but if she did I assume it was someone who loved her so deeply and so forgivingly that it could work. And perhaps if somewhere along the line, someone had appreciated one of my creative directions more fully than anyone ever has, I would have stuck with that.
I thought I had found solace when I discovered Margaret Lobenstine, whose workshop, titled "Secrets of the Renaissance Soul," I attended nearly seven years ago. Margaret subsequently published an excellent book on the subject, The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One, and she was my "life coach" for several years. It is her belief, and I suspect she is right, that some of us are born to be driven in several different directions and will always find it hard, if not impossible, to settle on any one of them.
Margaret makes many suggestions in her book on how to manage one's multiple interests and/or talents, but no matter how hard I tried, I never felt satisfied with this kind of life, as I watched my peers and friends, who stayed with one thing, achieving far more success than I did. Indeed, when it comes to books on how to be successful, Margaret's is the exception; virtually every other self-help book I have ever seen on success talks about pushing ahead in spite of repeated failures, persisting, not giving up, keeping your "eyes on the prize" -- not "prizes."
Whenever I read about secrets of success -- and I have read a lot on this subject -- it always seems to come down to three elements: talent, persistence, and luck. Of the three, many argue that the second is at least as important as the first. Surely, this is the message in Thomas Edison's famous dictum that "genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." And it is implied in Malcolm Gladwell's mega bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. The people Gladwell writes about are immensely talented -- they include the Beatles and Bill Gates - but he focuses more on the special opportunities they had (their "luck") and how long and hard they worked -- in one specific field.
It would seem like we have control over the persistence part, but do we? I have heard successful writers say, "I don't write because I want to. I write because I have to."
I have spent my whole life looking for the "have to." Oh, I've thought I have found it many times, just as my lover of more than 40 years ago probably felt for a few weeks anyhow that she had to be with me. But then someone else came along.
In my case, it's been something else.
My bi-weekly conversations with Margaret were helpful. Her ideas for trying to limit yourself to four areas (a difficulty for many multi-interest people) make sense, and her suggestions for organizing your time do as well.
I tried hard to follow her recommendations; but over and over again I came up against the fact that I had not gotten as far in any area as I had hoped, that compared with my single-minded friends I was, if not a failure, certainly not the clear successes they were. Margaret believes that there is nothing wrong with being a Renaissance soul, that the world needs its Franklins every bit as much as its Mozarts. Nonetheless, no matter what I did, what a couple of people had said to me years before I met Margaret came much closer to the way I felt.
One, a young assistant professor of mine in graduate school, hearing me talk about how much I loved to write songs and play guitar, said "Aha. You're cursed with outside interests." Though he was just six years older than me, he already knew that to truly make it in the academic world required the kind of focus that a person who loved playing his original songs at parties every bit as much as doing research in psychology probably didn't have.
The other is a friend, whom I met when we were both graduate students, and who ultimately went to law school and became a partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in the northeast.
He had always been a big fan of my creative work, mostly my funny songs and humorous essays, but, as we sat in the backyard of his million-dollar home in one of the most desirable places in America, I was complaining of my lack of wordly success.
He said, "You've got the temptations of talent."
Both of these men, one my teacher when I was 22, the other a friend talking to me when I was in my fifties, had gotten it right. In spite of hearing so often how great it is that I have many talents, in spite of Margaret's call to embrace our Renaissance souls, it has for many years felt like a curse. And the word "temptations" fits perfectly.
It is much more polite to talk about one's interests rather than one's gifts, and just as my lover of yore, and other beautiful women I have known, would probably feel awkward describing themselves as beautiful, it is hard for me, or anyone, to refer to his or her own gifts. But the shameless truth is that I, like many people, have attracted interest from others not with my looks but with my mind.
And the fact is that I was cursed -- because indeed at this point in my life that is truly how it feels -- with several different gifts or talents. I once heard the late and brilliant comedian Richard Pryor say on a talk show say that he was so grateful that he was funny because that was pretty much his sole talent. I suspect that at an early age, Pryor was recognized for his wonderful humor, and he kept doing the work anyone in the creative world must do to rise up. Clearly he had the talent; but that is rarely enough.
Like most academics, I did well in school. I also had a father who pushed me to do as well and go as far in school as I could. He also appreciated my writing, but the songwriting I began doing as a teenager got no notice whatsoever from either of my parents. It was not until I was in graduate school in psychology that people began to urge me to bring my guitar to parties and sing my improvised funny songs.
By the time I was teaching college, I was also playing my songs at all kinds of venues, sometimes alone and sometimes with other musicians. But I never did what the singularly driven do -- put my songwriting and performing ahead of anything else. Was I good enough? I'll never know.
In a recent New Yorker article about the brilliant, mercurial, and short-lived drummer of The Who, Keith Moon, Harvard professor and drummer himself, James Wood, talks of the liberation of rock and roll, and says, with the word "good" meaning well-behaved, "...sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for being so good."
Nearly 30 years ago, when, just a few years shy of near middle age, I complained to a young student about my frustrations around not having gone further with my music, she said, "The trouble with you is that you did all the right things."
But who knows how far I would have gone with "the right things" -- my academic life -- if I had not spent so much time and effort writing songs and playing them on stage? As I wrote in one of those songs some 34 years ago, "By day I'm a psych professor/By night it's a whole other scene/But as a thinker, a teacher, and a guesser/I still don't know what it all means."
Maybe for people like me, Sally Fields said it best, when, on accepting her second Academy Award, she exclaimed, "You like me, right now, you like me!" The big problem for me has been that, in my case, you've liked more than one of the things I do.
Copyright © by Mark Sherman 2010. All rights reserved.