#TBT: Necessary But Not Sufficient

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Necessary But Not Sufficient.

You need air to breathe, but it’s not enough to survive.

You need to be big to play in the NFL, but you need a lot of other things, too.

These are what’s known as ‘necessary, but not sufficient’ conditions. The Beatles sang that “All You Need Is Love,” which is obviously wrong, but it’s hard to blame them when “Love Is a Necessary But Not Sufficient Condition” probably wouldn’t have been as catchy.

But you know it’s true.

By the same token, to make it in, well, any competitive field of endeavor and certainly in entertainment, you need a tremendous amount of talent, combined with a longstanding work ethic to get your Gladwellian 10,000 hours.

But this is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Why do I mention it? Because it’s easy to get tripped up in the logic that says, “Just play great music/be a great actor/do great art/whatever it is and you’ll make it.” I’ll agree that if you put in the time and dedication, you probably won’t be a complete failure, but if someone’s ambition is any bigger than that, there’s no guarantee at all.

Why? Because there are at least two more necessary but not sufficient conditions, and one is what is crassly called good marketing. You could also think of it as finding a way to build an audience for what you do, and it’s critical. There’s an old retail saying that goes like this: “Unseen and untold equals unsold.” If nobody knows how great you are, you might be very satisfied artistically, but you can’t expect much in the way of external reward or praise or note. (And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, to some degree, if you’re not doing whatever you’re doing in large part for your own satisfaction, you’re not likely to get through those 10,000 hours anyway.)

But most people do want external reward and recognition. In some fields, their expectations are enormous, especially in pop or rock music, where some people have expectations that they could be a star. And to be a rock star is to be a kind of living god: unlimited money, unlimited access to the world and, of course, adoration.

Bob Lefsetz the other day [2010] wrote this:

“I get e-mail every day giving me shit for not offering solutions [to the problem of not succeeding in the so-called music business].

It’s very simple. Make good music and don’t rip people off.

I know, I know, you want it to be more complicated than that, you want multiple entry points, you want to believe it’s about Twitter or Facebook or Spotify or …

Usually, anything but music. Because music is hard. Requires a ton of practice and moments of genius.”

Bob’s sharp, but he’s only partly right here. When he says that it’s about ‘making good music and not ripping people off,’ he’s partly right in that it’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition. He’s very right, of course, about the fact that the great majority of would-be stars will never get past this condition because as he says, it’s  hard.

But there are musicians, actors, visual artists, writers and others who ARE good enough, but they don’t make it. For them, the stumbling block is that OTHER part: the foul rag-and-bone shop of actually connecting with people who care about your work. It’s a romantic notion to say that if you crank out great stuff, people will find you, but I don’t think there’s evidence for that. You can always cite the great ones people do find, but that doesn’t prove the point. It just says that it CAN happen that way. You and I personally know extraordinary people in their craft who never really made it the way they wanted or the way they deserved based on what they’re able to do.

I used to think Bob Lefsetz was suffering a bit from the Great Performance Delusion, but I’ve rethought that. He’s just telling people they haven’t even completed Step 1, so don’t bother thinking about Step 2, however important or challenging Step 2 may be. If you haven’t done Step 1, Step 2 is a distraction and a waste of time. Absolutely right.

In the performing arts and theater fields, there is a far greater proportion of people who are actually qualified to move on to Step 2, as compared to the pop or rock business because there are fewer wannabes. In fact, in fields like opera and large commercial theater, the problems are almost all in Step 2, because Step 1 is covered: The talent is excellent. Many times, they fall down on audience-building, which is very difficult in its own right.

And the third necessary but not sufficient condition?

Luck. At least a little. Maybe a lot. Any successful person who doesn’t believe luck had anything to do with their success was probably very, very lucky.

My only advice there is to do so well with the other two that this one gets squeezed down to just needing a couple small breaks rather than needing to win the lottery. Play the game long enough and you’ll probably get a couple small breaks, but you could go multiple lifetimes without winning the lottery.

So work hard at your craft, then find a powerful way to build an audience, thereby putting yourself in a position to need as little luck as possible, and then get lucky.

Simple, right?

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