Some time in the near future I will be doing a session with arts students at the University of Guyana (as part of my Artist in Residence work with UG) as well as a Moray House talk, sometime in May, on being an artist. Against that background, I was skimming a sports channel on TV recently, and heard the famous golfer Lee Trevino (now retired) say something in an interview that pulled me up short. Responding to a comment about the intensity he was known for when he was playing, he told the interviewer, with a laugh. “Oh yes. To succeed you absolutely have to be passionate about what you do. When you have that passion, you wake up in the morning and the first thing comes into your head is to get your hands around a golf club. Whatever your quest is, if that passion isn’t there, forget it.”
Trevino’s comment jumped out as one of the things I have pencilled in, for both of the talks mentioned above and it is this: it doesn’t matter what your field of endeavour is, your success is going to depend largely on the degree of commitment you put in. You need talent, yes, but you also have to be passionate about what you do, so that you learn the craft, you maintain the high standard that the best are known for, and you put in the grinding hours, and the long nights of work, that are needed if you are to shine. Passion is paramount.
I remember as a young immigrant to Canada reading about the hockey player from Ontario, Bobby Orr, a star with the Boston Bruins team, talking about his youth in Canada, and that as a youngster in school, he would get up early every morning in the winter and go out in the backyard all alone, to spend an hour or so firing pucks against a wall his father had built in the backyard, to develop his accuracy and power. It was an integral part of his day before heading off to school, and he did this for years, obviously long before he was a professional, but it shows the passion he had for hockey to take on that schedule. There was no financial benefit for him, but he was preparing; he was getting ready. All on his own, he was on a mission; he was improving his skills. We hear of this commonly in sport – US basketball star Michael Jordan, playing as a professional, but at the height of his career, often going back out onto the court when a game was over and taking shots at the basket, over and over, trying to eliminate some minor imperfection he saw in his shooting. No coach sent him out there; he did it of his own volition to make himself a better player.
But it’s not just in sport. In virtually any field of endeavour, people become good at what they do by putting in the hours – in study, in physical conditioning, in learning techniques, in acquiring data or information, in establishing contacts – that underpins what they do in their specialty. And in all the successful ones, as we learn about these individuals, see that that commitment, that passion, is always there as an integral part of the apparatus behind a success. In the arts, in business, in politics, in sport, it is always there, and if you’re allowed to get close to those stand-out individuals, or study their lives, you will recognise it. Ask Ian McDonald how many rewrites a piece of his poetry goes through before he feels it is finally good enough for other persons to see.
There is the story of the detective story writer, Earle Stanley Gardner, after hours of work at his desk, with pages of crumpled paper all around him on the floor. A friend walks in, sees the clutter, and says, “What a waste!” Gardner responds: “It’s not a waste. I’ve learned what doesn’t work.”
The thing to notice about Trevino’s comment is that he does not mention athletic ability. He assumes that is there, but the point he’s making is that talent alone is not enough. There has to be passion for the cause, the art, the project, which drives the willingness to work hard, to refine, to improve. When we see the successful athlete, musician, businessman, painter, dancer, acrobat, we are seeing an ability or a skill that has been sustained and advanced by what Trevino calls a passion for the undertaking, and it is striking how often one sees this edict playing out in our own experiences.
With my first band in Toronto, this is before Tradewinds, I was rehearsing with a Trini musician, a talented young man, but one who seemed more interested in the social side of music as opposed to the hard work. On one occasion, I pointed out a line in a song we were rehearsing where he was mixing up the words (he hated practice) and after the second or third time I did that, he said, “Don’t worry, man. I’ll get it on stage.” I could see I wasn’t getting through so I let it go. Inevitably, however, in the performance on stage, as we got to that line, he sang the line wrong again. The other three guys in the band broke up laughing; the Trini was furious and told me. “I ain’t singing this song again.” Of course, it wasn’t long before he was out of the band. He simply didn’t have the passion for the thing.
The Trini example is not an unusual one. It’s a gap I have seen, over and over, among performers, and one can recognise it as well in folks in other walks of life. You can see it in the attitude of some sales people or some craftsmen. The passion for excellence just isn’t there and it shows in their work or the excuses they make for flaws. It’s what I call the “It can wuk suh” mentality; no passion. As Trevino said “If it’s not there – forget it.”