Adam Gopnik, THE REAL WORK: On the Mystery of Mastery

Adam Gopnik, THE REAL WORK: On the Mystery of Mastery

Zibby interviews bestselling author Adam Gopnik about The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, a spirited and profound collection of self-help essays that investigate how we learn and master a new skill–from boxing to drawing nude bodies. Adam discusses the bliss of accomplishment: pursuing a new hobby without needing to do it perfectly. He also reveals what he’d like to master next and his best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Adam. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery.

Adam Gopnik: I am delighted to be here. I am married to a mom who didn’t have enough time to read books but is catching up on it now and had a typically robust pandemic program of big books. She read through Moby Dick and Proust and all of those things.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow. I can’t have them on the podcast. We need an offshoot of classics. Oh, well. Next time. The Real Work, this phrase comes from magicians. Tell everyone what your book is about. Why this book? Why now?

Adam: My favorite line in the book was originally intended to be its opening line, which is, “This is a self-help book that won’t help.”

Zibby: I loved that, by the way. That was awesome.

Adam: My publisher asked me if I would keep it but move it to a slightly later spot so people picking it up in the bookstore wouldn’t say, what? It’s a series of personal essays, really — comic essays are the kind that I write for The New Yorker magazine most often — about learning to do things in what I’ll call politely later middle age. Specifically, it’s about, as the subtitle of the book says, The Mystery of Mastery. How is it we get good at things? How is it that we get satisfaction when we’re not particularly good at things? How do we learn to do new things in later life? How did we learn to do new things when we were younger? I hope, as with all good books, its pleasures lie in the particulars. There are, I hope, some very funny portraits of the back-and-forth between me struggling to learn a new skill, like learning to drive, and the combination of patience and exasperation on the part of this wonderful gamut of teachers who I was blessed to stumble upon. Jacob Collins, a hard-nosed reactionary drawing master, taught me how to draw nude bodies. Arturo Leon, a wild Ecuadorian driving instructor, who taught me in my fifties how to become the noodle, how to be both relaxed and present in the car, where I was terrified. Right on to Joey Contrada, my wonderful boxing instructor who I hope I’ll see again tomorrow, I’m still very much engaged with, who demonstrated to me that boxing is not unleashed belligerence at all, but just the opposite. It’s learning a tight, balletic-like choreography of gestures that you have to internalize. There’s all these encounters with wonderful teachers. If there’s a kind of takeaway from it all, aside from the pleasures of those particulars, the takeaway is twofold. One is that accomplishment matters more than achievement. This is a theme that I decanted on in The New York Times just last week. I tried to compress the book from fifty thousand words into one thousand for the .

Zibby: Thank you for that.

Adam: The point is that we live in a society that is absolutely driven by an idea of achievement. It’s particularly something that we install or instill — both words operate — into our children. We want them to achieve. We want them to pass the next test. We want them to get straight A’s. Then we want them to get into a competitive college, on and on. We drive them that way. We drive ourselves in similar ways because we are those children grown up. As a consequence, we kind of are caught up in, not even a rat race, more like a rat maze where you’re constantly turning the next corner. We’re having our kids turn the next corner. They get the next sugar shot of achievement approval, and then they go on. Against that, I posit the existence of accomplishment — by accomplishment, I mean all of the inner-directed, self-made, self-nourishing activities that we choose. I gave the example in that piece in The Times of my learning to play guitar, teaching myself to play guitar when I was twelve years old. If I turned the camera, you would see I still have an acoustic guitar and my will and a big book of Beatles songs with big diagrams of chords. I had never touched a guitar before, but I wanted to be a Beatle. This was how to do it. I laboriously, literally painfully because stretching your fingers when you’re twelve years old over a classical neck — which my son, who’s a very good guitarist, told me was a stupid thing to do; I should’ve had a proper folk guitar — is difficult, but I managed.

I’ve played guitar professionally once on stage in the subsequent fifty years, but I am nobody’s idea of a good guitarist. In fact, I will tell you quickly, a story that I have not mentioned to anybody else because it’s sort of relevant. The time I played, if I may drop a name, was with James Taylor, the great singer-songwriter, who is a friend. James had asked me if I would come on stage at Carnegie Hall on the night when he was doing a demonstration of his passion for the guitar. He was doing a season at Carnegie Hall. One of the nights was going to be about the guitar. He asked me if I’d come on and sort of host it because there were lots of guitarists coming on and off stage. I said, sure, but why don’t we do this little bit that we had done once before at a New Yorker festival where he taught me to play a piece on guitar? Everybody would love to take a guitar lesson with James Taylor. I would stand in for the whole audience. We did it. We did it on stage at Carnegie Hall. James taught me to play “You Can Close Your Eyes,” that beautiful lullaby, which I had tried to play for years for my own children and had been playing incorrectly. He taught it to me. Audience seemed to enjoy it. I realized as I left that I could say — there are very few superlatives that we can confidently claim in life. I can say with that confidence that I am the worst single musician ever to play his instrument at Carnegie Hall. There’s no question. That is the one superlative I can absolutely claim. No worse musician has ever played an instrument on stage at Carnegie Hall. In any case, that was my one time.

Nonetheless, though that was the only time I’ve ever played guitar professionally, or unprofessionally as it happened, everything else that I’ve accomplished in life, everything that I’ve achieved in life is really built on the pedestal of that accomplishment. It was when I taught myself how to play guitar through sheer dint and perseverance that for the first time in my life, I felt confident in the pursuit of any task. Once you’ve done that, you recognize — in a funny way, Zibby, your body recognizes it. I don’t know how else to put. Your body learns that given a difficult task, you may not master it to the ultimate level, but that you can manage it. We all know as parents how enlivening, how empowering, to use another old-fashioned word, that is for our kids. It doesn’t matter if they get to be the best at it. The moment when they can hit a baseball or serve a tennis ball or write a haiku or, in my son’s case, learn to do complicated sleight of hand with a deck of cards, those are the moments when we see them light up, when they seem genuinely to have become in touch with the thing psychologists sometimes call the flow, the presence of absorption, which is all that happiness is, really, is absorption in a task outside ourselves. This is a very long-winded way of saying that the book posits a difference between accomplishment and achievement and is really about the joys of accomplishment.

Zibby: Wow, thank you for that. Long-winded is great. That’s the whole point, is to get you to talk, so there you go. It was funny because you talked in the book about how in middle age we are perhaps less — you had a funny line, that we’re less able but more aware. Tell me a little bit more about that. Is there hope for us middle-aged people?

Adam: Totally. When we’re kids and adolescents and we’re searching for a vocation, the thing we do well in life, we sort through a bunch of things. We rule out a lot of stuff that we don’t, in some sense, naturally do well. I tell the story in the book about when I went to learn to draw. I’d been an art critic for forty years and did not know how to draw at all. You could make a case that you don’t have to know how to draw to be a good art critic in the same way you don’t have to be able to hit a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball to be a good sportswriter. Just the opposite, most often. The greatest sportswriters tended to be — my hero, A.J. Liebling, the greatest boxing writer, tended to be a corpulent, stolid, immobile man who loved to observe, though Liebling, in fact, did box as a young man. I do think that if you have some general tactical, corporal sense, haptic sense, if you like, of what that task is like, you may not be able to do it better, but you have a much deeper understanding of what the particular challenge is that confronts the boxer or the painter or whomever it might be. Once you’ve studied drawing, even if you draw very badly, when you look at a renaissance picture forever after, you’re a little more immune to the temptation of seeing it as a kind of move in a game of abstract historical chess. You’re aware that what Michelangelo or Castagno or Montagna was struggling with was, how do you describe the way the weight of a foot lands on the ground while the weight of the opposite hip is lifted above it? That’s what they were struggling with, not, where does this fit in the development of Western civilization? In that sense, I think it’s hugely valuable. We sort those things.

As a kid, I couldn’t draw at all, so I just put it aside and said, I’m not going to dissect frogs when I’m grown up, and I’m not going to do art. I’m going to be a writer. When we come to them again later in life, we realize we don’t have to be good at it to get something extremely significant from it, something significant both in the sense that I was just describing, that we become more attuned, sensitive, if you like, to the nature of the tasks other people take on — if you want to appreciate what a great pianist does, play piano poorly. That’s the way to get it. I do that. I do play piano poorly. When I hear Bill Evans or Erroll Garner or someone like that, I have a sense of the power, virtuosity of what they do. The other great advantage of it is that the internal sensation that learning a new thing supplies you is, paradoxically, every bit as rich for those of us who do poorly but attempt it passionately and with perseverance as it is for the people who are genuinely good at it. I tell the story at one point, as you know, Zibby, in the book about the hummingbird and the elephant. That could’ve been an alternative title for this book, The Hummingbird and the Elephant. There’s a famous folk tale that hummingbirds and elephants have the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime, a billion heartbeats. You’d be sure that that was just a folk tale, but it’s true. It turns out to be true.

There’s a whole heartbeat project at North Carolina State University where they study heartbeats, grosso modo, with obvious exceptions. Every mammal and bird basically gets a billion heartbeats in a lifetime. The hummingbird gets hers in a hundred days and the elephant gets his in a hundred years, but they have the same number of heartbeats. The poetic reflection one inevitably makes about that is that their experience of existence is identical. The hummingbird, in a hundred days, mates, eats, feeds, exists, flies just as intently as the elephant does over its hundred years. The next poetic extrapolation that comes immediately to mind is that we all have the interiors of hummingbirds. Our hummingbird heartbeats rest in our own interiors. When we take on a new task, we get the flutter, the thrill, the excitement of having gotten a bit better at it. Every single task that I undertook in the course of doing this book — it wasn’t planned in advance. One thing after another happened. Every single thing I did had exactly the same structure. That is, we’re introduced to these very counterintuitive, stubborn, halting steps. Dancing is the model for everything else. I’ve learned to foxtrot with my wonderful daughter, Olivia. You trip over your feet trying to follow the step that your formal dance teacher is insisting on. You look like a fool. She struggles to follow your lead and so on.

Then over time through sheer passionate perseverance and repetition, those stumbling steps become a dance. You hold your daughter in your arms, and you realize, oh, darling, we’re dancing together. That’s the model of how all of those things happen. You don’t have to be dancing at the level of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire to have that enormous sense of bliss of release of the flow being a tangible thing between the two of you simply by having done it. The glorious thing is as we get older, that feeling, which is in some ways rarer in our mature lives than it was when we were younger — when we were younger, we were getting that hit, that high all the time. It’s still available to us if we undertake the new thing. We tend to condescend to older people who are learning watercolors or doing batuque or playing chess. We have a horribly agist culture, as I’m sure you agree. We patronize those people, but those are the people who have rocket fuel in their veins. Those are the people who are getting high on the most powerful cognitive opiate that there’s ever been. That is human entry into the power of absorption, into the flow, into the bliss of accomplishment.

Zibby: I wish my grandmother were alive to hear you describe her late-stage painting career — not career; enjoyment — that eloquently. She would’ve loved it. It’s true. I’m wondering, what do you think — I feel like some of the things I accomplish or I have to master are on the computer. They’re not learning to back dive anymore or all those things I used to do. It’s, I can’t upload this ad. I have to troubleshoot it. I finally figured it out. Now it took the ad. I pressed submit. Phew. Does that count?

Adam: That’s why God invented teenagers, so they can do those tasks for us. There’s a line — I don’t know what it is. Anything you didn’t master technologically before you were forty is going to be totally opaque to you. As much as anyone around, I can’t turn the television on without calling my son in Texas and saying, “Luca, do you have a moment? We’re trying to get onto the Disney app, but I can’t do it. Walk me through it again.” Patiently, he walks me through this very simple sequence that I forgot. One of the things I think is true, I know it sounds implausible, but authors learn about their own books, very often, by having conversations like this one. In my case, I’ve just come back from a book tour. I’ve been in twenty cities. I am the Willy Loman of American hoping to be well-liked . You learn about your own book when you’re out on the road. One of the things that many readers pointed out to me, which should’ve been self-evident but wasn’t, is that this is a book very much about someone who has spent a large part of his life living in his head, which writers naturally have to do, communicating with symbols, little black and white marks on a screen, as now, or on a page, who then takes up physical activities, dancing and boxing, drawing, even driving.

One of the truths of all those physical activities is that they’re not physical. They are profoundly psychological. Anything we do becomes everything we are. You cannot learn to drive a car in isolation from your memories of your father driving, from expectations of your son learning to drive. We are meaning machines. Human beings are meaning machines. Anything we attempt, we can’t do mechanically. We do it through the accession of meaning in our heads and hearts and lives. They’re not physically in that narrow sense. They’re richly psychological, but they do involve mastering physical actions, like boxing or dancing. In that sense, I suppose there’s a built-in predilection in this book that we all do well by picking out a physical pleasure to pursue as we get older. It’s good for your body. It’s good for your synapses. It’s good for your soul to perpetually pursue that. That in itself is good, pursuing the physical, even if we understand that there is no such thing as the purely physical in life. The most purely physical things we do, like lovemaking, are the most complexly psychological things that we can take part it.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Do you think you can ever really master writing?

Adam: Here’s the truth. Writing has been my passion since I could read. I never ever wanted to be anything else except a writer. I’m very monomaniacal in my pursuit of it. I think it is the one thing that I do do well. I’m too old to pretend otherwise now and have published too many words. The paradox of that, of course, is that the thing we’d really do well is inevitably the thing that gives us, in a certain sense, the least flow, the least bliss. With everything else we do, simply by watching all the stumbling steps begin to form themselves into an internalized sequence, we get high, but when you do one thing well, inevitably, you can only experience the space between your ambitions and your accomplishments. When I sit down to write a sentence — I am rare, if not unique, among writers because I love to write. Flip open my laptop at nine o’clock with my coffee, and I’m a happy man. I love the physical act of writing. Inevitably, when I read it through again, I want every sentence to be as psychologically intricate as Proust, as centrally rhapsodic as John Updike, and as sardonic as S.J. Perelman, and I don’t get that. I don’t produce that. I like what I produce, but I don’t produce that. The space between my ambitions and my accomplishments, as with everyone — I have a dear friend who’s a winemaker named Randall Grahm. I wrote a profile of him once. Wonderful winemaker in California. When Randall goes to sniff and to taste his own wine, a look of un-immeasurably painful disappointment crosses his face. The wine is good, but he has in mind a 1945 Cheval Blanc, the greatest wines ever made. That’s what he’s trying to make. Making a terrific wine is just an internal source of disappointment to him.

Zibby: I wonder if there’s a way to get to a place where we’re all just happy with the best that we’re doing. Possible? Not possible?

Adam: In all seriousness, Zibby, I think what you can get to — that’s what I was trying to describe — is a place where you love doing it. That, you can get to, where you’ll never feel that it’s good enough, but where you actually actively love the act of doing it. Dayenu, as we say at Seder. Dayenu, that is enough.

Zibby: I actually have a novel coming out in March. One of the characters has a dog, and I named the dog Dayenu.

Adam: It’s very Jewish, but I always think it’s one of the greatest words, phrases of wisdom that there is. That would be enough. That much for us, that would be enough. It’s a beautiful thought.

Zibby: I agree. What is something you would like to master next? Is there anything on your wish list?

Adam: Absolutely, two things particularly. Both of them, I’m pursuing but was just kind of nosing around when I was working on this book. One is singing. I write songs. I write musical theater. Though I’m a lyricist, not a composer, occasionally, I’ll paint a tiny tune, and a composer will take it and move it to another dimension. I would love to be able to sing my own work because it’s very hard to demonstrate a song to a singer or an actor or an actress without singing it. I have a good friend, Richard Maltby, wonderful lyricist, who can really land a song. A composer, Andrew Lippa, who I’m writing a show with right now, is a fantastic singer, professional-quality singer. I’d like to be able to sing well enough just to learn it. The best singers I know all tell me it’s not that hard. Singing is just speaking in pitch. I’m struggling with that. The other thing is to learn Italian. I love Italy.

Zibby: I thought you said accounting. I was like, what? Why?

Adam: No, no, no. Accounting is totally off the mark. I learned to draw, and that was difficult. I’m never going to learn accounting. I love Italy. Who does not? I love going to Italy. I speak decent French having grown up in Montréal and having lived in France for many years, but I don’t speak Italian. I feel that terrible sense of frustration and inadequacy. The worst thing I ever do in life is to pretend to speak Italian when we’re in Italy. In a restaurant in Venice, I ordered very confidently, wild strawberries for dessert and got a plate of green beans instead because there’s a single R in fragolini and fagiolini that divides them. The kids thought it was the single funniest thing that had ever happened in the world. They do not pause in compassion to repeat the story to their friends. I would like to be able to speak with enough authority to distinguish between wild strawberries and green beans.

Zibby: I tried to take Italian when I was in my twenties. I took it for a year. Now of course, I remember nothing. It’s such a beautiful language. It’s fun even when you fail.

Adam: Yes. I would like to have enough to be able to order dinner.

Zibby: Of course, the waiter served you the green beans. What a move.

Adam: Yes, of course. He wasn’t going to cut me a break. I will say that of all the things I’m proud of, I have a wonderful Italian publisher who publishes all of my books in Italian, beautifully designed. So far as I can tell, they’ve never sold a copy, but they all exist in Italian. Nothing makes me prouder than looking over at my shelf and seeing my books in Italian.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Adam: Two things, in all seriousness. First is that the big task in writing is to turn the mental task of writing into a physical task of having written. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, but you don’t really write with your head, though you live in your head to some degree. You write with your stomach. That is, you just have to treat it as a challenge, like riding a stationary bike or being on a — what do you call that? I’m losing my mind.

Zibby: Elliptical?

Adam: A treadmill. You just commit to doing it physically day after day after day because your brain is smarter than your mind. The best sentences, the most interesting ideas you ever have will come from your brain into your fingers without the intercession of your conscious mind very often. If you make that commitment just to work four hours a day the way you would go to the gym, you will astonish yourself by how much you produce. Then something that exists can always be made better. Something that doesn’t exist can’t be made to exist. That’s the fundamental challenge in writing, is releasing yourself just to produce and trusting that the process will eventually produce something good. That’s one part of it. The other thing is the same as with everything else. Make an absolute commitment to perseverance. Anthony Trollope, my favorite novelist in English, had a full-time job at the post office. He woke himself up at six AM to write for three hours before he had to go to the post office at nine. He wrote not only among the greatest series of English novels, but the most voluminous series of English novels. Make that commitment. Make the commitment to the time. Then make the commitment to the physicality of it. You will astonish yourself by what you’re able to accomplish.

Zibby: I’d much rather commit to the writing than the gym if we have to choose.

Adam: I’m sure you’ve had the same experience too. I talked about that moment of inner bliss of the flow when the stumbling steps become a sequence. That’s true in writing too. I know that there are mental aerobics, just like physical aerobics. About forty-five minutes into my own stumbling steps on the keyboard, even after all these years, the aerobics kick in. The sentences begin to spin themselves out. All the little jokes, puns, alliterations, begin to unspool without your being fully in control of it.

Zibby: I’m going to disagree with the self-help that doesn’t help because I do think it helps. I think it is actually an ode to the growth mindset, which every parent is trying to teach their kids every day. It’s been packaged and repackaged in so many articles and ways. People learn through hearing stories of people trying things, so this is actually quite helpful. I think it’s important for all of us grown-ups not to lose that joy of learning and mastery, even if it is just uploading a file or writing a page or whatever it is.

Adam: You’re kind to say so. Yes, of course, I think the book helps. It helps us to become aware of how we became selves in the first place and how we can continue to expand ourselves as life goes on. Yes, I think it helps, even if it doesn’t give you shortcuts and recipes. It gives you long-cuts, so to speak. It does certainly give you stories.

Zibby: Thank you, Adam. This was so much fun. I really loved talking to you. I’ve been a fan for so long. Thank you very, very much for coming on.

Adam: It was truly my pleasure. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Adam: You too now. Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE REAL WORK: On the Mystery of Mastery by Adam Gopnik

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