Eight Artists Reflect on Their Breakthrough Moments

February 28, 2018

by Mitch Ziems

If we had to point to the most serious problem with a celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s that it has a habit of dismissing reality.

Being seen as a star has come to mean being seen as something almost more than human. Something like an extension of the work; the subject of a Truman Show-esque life in which the highs and lows of every day are packaged into dramatic, glamorous episodes for a craving audience.

In the process, we forget what makes most, if not all of these people great – their dedication to craft.

It’s not glamorous to imagine the world’s biggest movie star sleeping on a mattress on the floor of their crappy apartment. It’s not exciting to hear about all the rejection letters an author received when pitching their first book to a publisher.

But it matters. It matters that those who truly want to follow in the footsteps of the artists who inspire them know where that journey will lead, and can instill in them the courage and fortitude required to succeed.

In 2016, New York Magazine published a series of articles entitled Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment. Featuring insight from 95 artists as they recall their breakthrough moments, the series puts into perspective the importance of practice, technique, and doing the work.

Below are reflections on the comments made by several of these artists. You can click on their names to see the stories in full.

Helen Mirren – Actor

If you’ve ever read or seen a Shakespearean play, you understand the barrier that his words can create between actor and audience. Performed without full comprehension or ability to deliver, the experience can be uncomfortable at best, repelling at worst.

So when Helen Mirren was rehearsing for the role of Queen Margaret in Henry VI, Part Two, and realised she had the ability to completely “control the language”, she realised her potential as an actor.

At the time, she’d been performing for seven years.

Jon Favreau – Speechwriter

Jon Favreau might not be an artist in a traditional sense, but the words he wrote in speeches for President Obama helped craft the shape of history.

Not that he was thinking about that at the time. Favreau ended up in the job originally for John Kelly in 2004, but only because nobody else was willing to take it. When he joined Obama following his election to the Senate, he felt no more comfortable in the job. Obama was a brilliant writer – how could Favreau produce something as memorable as his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention?

By doing the work.

In October of 2007, Favreau pulled an all-nighter on coffee and Red Bull to produce the speech that turned the primaries in Obama’s favour, and solidified the central theme of his campaign.

That was when he knew he was up for the task.

Judith Light – Actor

When Judith Light was three years old, her mother made her learn the words to Twas the Night Before Christmas so she could perform it for her father.

In the process, she fell in love with performing, and this love weaved its way into her song. It made her father cry.

The older people get, the less likely they are to grasp onto what makes them passionate. Expectation stops them from latching on. Obligation stops them short in their pursuit.

Excellence means putting that reticence aside, and recognising that this love isn’t there to confuse you. It’s there to guide you. Light realised that at an age when most children don’t even have a concept of jobs.

Misty Copeland – Ballet Dancer

At first, Misty Copeland didn’t realise, as both an African American and someone who didn’t start until she was 13, that she was a rarity in ballet. Even when she did, it didn’t matter.

That’s not just because her breakthrough moment was inspired by what she’d come to mean to inspiring ballet dancers around the world, but what ballet came to mean for her. Times were tough in Copeland’s household, and ballet came to be something she could dedicate herself to. The joy, the confidence, the dreams her newfound dedication ignited dispelled the negatives in her life, and carried her to greatness.

You can read more of Copeland’s story here.

Alain de Botton – Philosopher

While studying at university, Alain de Botton read a book that revealed the extent to which philosophy was once a practical part of daily life in ancient Greek and Roman culture.

Questioning why the same could not be said of modern Western culture, de Botton’s breakthrough moment came when he decided he’d be the one to change that.

“I was at 21; thank goodness I didn’t quite realize the scale of my blindness or I would have stopped right away.”

Thank goodness, indeed, that de Botton did not let social norms sway him from his vision.

The result of his efforts was The School of Life, an international school with a focus on practical application of philosophical theory. The school also holds public events, such as the In Conversation with Nigella Lawson event held earlier this year in Melbourne.

Teller – Magician

Teller’s breakthrough moment came when he learnt to shut up.

Well, not exactly. The silent magician hated the preamble of his peers, so he focused on performing at frat parties while not speaking at all.

The moment he first controlled a room without a single word was the moment he knew he could make a profession out of his craft.

Of particular interest in Teller’s story is his note on mastery. Many would consider Teller a master magician. Teller does not.

“There’s a constant sense that you’re never quite at anything like mastery, because there’s always something new to learn.”

It’s a fantastic point to keep in mind. Feel like you’re in total control of your art? That’s the point you start slipping.

Rick Harrison – Pawnbroker

Rick Harrison embodies the initial perseverance that makes any excellence possible.

Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Harrison went down to Las Vegas city hall and asked for a license. He was declined – the city of Las Vegas would only release a new license when the population of the city reached 250,000.

Over the next year, Harrison called the city statistician on a weekly basis, until they estimated that the population had reached that point.

When city hall proved reluctant to provide the license, Harrison hired a lawyer. The license was soon provided.

Dita Von Teese – Burlesque Performer

Dita Von Teese’s article is perhaps the most fascinating of all, because it demonstrates the continuing development of craft over an entire career.

From her early days recreating traditional burlesque in sleazy strip clubs, to the daring development of experimental extravaganzas, Von Teese’s story is one of courage, self-respect, and a testament to her vision.

She calls her appearance in Playboy her breakthrough moment, primarily because it marked a surprising shift in her audience. Gone were the days of the strip clubs; now she was performing in theatres to crowds made up mostly by women. That’s when she understood that her goal to reinvigorate burlesque had been a success.

“Wow, this is such a shock. I’m not a Pam Anderson. I’m not a sex symbol for men. I’m a sex inspiration for women!”

These are the human moments that have defined people from whom modern culture has dislocated a realistic sense of humanity.

These are the human moments that remind us that the glamour that often comes from a life of excellence is not what defines the excellence itself. Only we can do that, when we dedicate ourselves to the craft, hold firm to our visions, and do the work.

To read all of the artists’ breakthrough moments, click here.

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