The pianist and the astronaut
“I would try to discourage all but the very gifted from going to the conservatory today,” the pianist Philippe Entremont once said in an interview, “because the competition is very fierce.” He continued:
If young artists in the conservatory realized what they were up against, I am sure they would do something else, right away. Because the average piano student at the conservatory has about as much chance of becoming an internationally known pianist as being the President of the United States.
Entremont said this more than thirty years ago, in a conversation with the pianist and author David Dubal in Reflections from the Keyboard, and if anything, his warning seems even more relevant today. Elsewhere in the same book, which I recently picked up on a whim, another pianist estimates the chances of professional survival at something like one in ten thousand—which, while it isn’t quite as unlikely as becoming the next president, is remote enough that the comparison isn’t totally inappropriate. For obvious reasons, I’ve long been fascinated by the mentality that allows people to irrationally pursue careers in which they have almost no chance of succeeding, and the career of a concert pianist, even more than that of a novelist or ballerina, feels like the ultimate example of a profession that continues to exist only because so many music students refuse to accept the odds. (This applies to their parents as well: the typical pianist has been practicing since the age of six.)
Last weekend, I brought this up with a friend of mine whose perspective is particularly interesting. He’s an astrophysicist at Fermilab, a published science author, and a founding member of a popular Chicago soul band, which means that he knows something about the role of talent, intelligence, and luck in three very different fields. We talked about the difficulty of threading the needle when it comes to publishing a book or succeeding as a musician, and after mentioning the dilemma of the concert pianist, I said something like: “Every kid wants to be an astronaut, but how many make it that far?” My friend responded with what I thought was a remarkably insightful point: “The difference between a pianist and an astronaut is that if you don’t succeed at the latter, your consolation prize is a really good job.” He’s right, of course. We aren’t talking about the people who dream of going into space but lack the skills or ability to do so, but the ones who are smart, driven, and qualified, but who didn’t quite make it because of factors outside their control. After a certain point, the competition in any desirable field comes down to an arbitrary selection between candidates who are all but indistinguishable in terms of qualifications. Tiny external variables become disproportionately more important, and those who fail to make it to the astronaut level are still left with skills that will allow them to do pretty much whatever else they want.
This isn’t true of a lot of other dream jobs, which can leave their aspirants looking like Frederik Pohl’s fiddler crabs, with nothing to show for all their efforts but one huge, overdeveloped claw. The skills acquired in the pursuit of a career as a pianist or ballerina aren’t readily transferrable, except perhaps to teaching, and they may even make it more difficult to move into another profession later on. You could argue, in fact, that a truly rational actor would choose his or her goals based on that principle of transferability: you want to aim as high as you can, but in a field in which falling just short at the final stage still leaves you with viable options. (It’s unclear to me, incidentally, how this applies to writers, and in particular to novelists. There’s no doubt that writing a publishable novel leaves you with skills that could, in theory, be applied elsewhere: you can write a clear sentence, structure complex ideas, take a project to completion over the period of many months, work productively in solitude, and keep both granular detail and the big picture in view. Yet the way in which these skills express themselves is often absurdly specialized: writing a novel is so different from any other human activity that it doesn’t lend a clear advantage to most other forms of work, especially at a time when nearly every category of media suffers from an oversupply of qualified writers. It also leaves a glaring hole in your résumé, and it can take you out of the workforce for years. And the fact that so many writers, like pianists or ballerinas, turn to teaching implies that their skills aren’t so transferable after all.)
That said, almost nobody thinks in those terms at the point in his or her life when these decisions really matter. We all lack perspective at precisely the moment when we could use it the most. (As Joan Didion said: “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”) On a cultural level, if not an individual one, there’s an advantage to encouraging a degree of irrational optimism at an early age. Otherwise, nobody would ever try for a career in the arts, few of which confer any appreciable advantage, in practical terms, to those who drop out of the game. It’s possible that the most “successful” group of people, on average, consists of those who start out with unrealistic ambitions, use those goals to build discipline and achievement in adolescence, and then transfer out of those fields before that kind of tunnel vision has a chance to do lasting harm. If I’d given up on the idea of being a writer at age twenty, I’d still have acquired a set of skills and habits that would have allowed me to do just fine at something else—as it did, more or less, in the years before I decided to make an effort to write for a living. I’m still confident that I made the right choice, but there were a few close calls along the way, and a writer’s life consists largely of postponing the moment of reckoning. If I’d been more practical, I’d have taken on just enough ambition to inoculate myself with it, and then moved on. But I never would have made it into orbit.