To make art look effortless…takes a lot of effort

While watching a documentary called “Six by Sondheim” on the career of Stephen Sondheim, the famous Broadway musical play composer, he said something I found very applicable to anything worth doing well. Sondheim said “To make art look effortless, takes a lot of effort.” Here is a link to more on the documentary, which is worth seeing.

During the documentary, Sondheim notes that he learned a lesson from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein about not to overwrite a song. The song can say something very profound, yet it needs to have a beginning, middle and end, and not get ahead of the audience. They need to hear and listen to the lyrics. Sondheim’s gift is to write lyrics that come out of the preceding and abet ensuing dialogue. He would actually comb through dialogue for words to highlight in the songs. His songs resonate with this context whether it is in  “Send in the Clowns” or “I’m Still Here” or just about anything from “Westside Story” where he wrote the lyrics in concert with Leonard Bernstein’s music.

However, if you step back and look at his quote, you can see its applicability with anything worth doing well. In business, if you prepare for a big meeting to give the factual impression you are on top of things where facts and appropriate anecdotes come easily, it takes a lot of effort. When I have done my homework and anticipated the questions we might get asked, it is much easier to respond. Someone may ask “how do you know that?” or “where did you get that tidbit from?” It is equal elements of perspiration and preparation. Plus, experience builds upon your experience. So, a good meeting may come from a cumulative set of experiences over time.

In sports, exceptional athletes spend 95% of their time to prepare for 5% action. They practice to improve so that when they do play a game, they are making it look effortless. The famous golfer Gary Player once responded to a question about a “lucky golf shot” he had hit earlier in the day. Player said “I find that the more I practice, the luckier I get.” But, the same could be said about any successful athlete. During Sunday night’s football game, the announcers spoke of the methodical practice habits of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. He can alter who he would throw the ball to under pressure as good as any quarterback, sometimes throwing to his third choice. A key reason is he would practice this very thing.

In his book “Outliers” about successful people, Malcolm Gladwell notes through numerous examples the following observation. Successful people have four traits:

they are smart enough, but need not be the smartest;

– they are given opportunity;

– they recognize opportunity and take advantage of it; and

– they work hard – he cites practicing a craft for at least 10,000 hours.

He said Bill Gates was one of the best programmers in the world by the time he was 21.  Why? He was given the opportunity to write programs online at the University of Washington after 1 am in the middle of the night. But, as Gladwell points out, he got up out of bed and went to program all night, so he seized the opportunity. And, through his efforts, he made programming effortless and took it to a new level.

“To make art look effortless, takes a lot of effort.” Sondheim’s words ring so true. So, prepare for that test. Prepare for that interview. Prepare for that athletic contest. Prepare for that recital. Prepare for that drawing. In the end, you will be the one who is rewarded as you have done your best. And, someone may take notice.