In the spring of 2010, two consummate artists will stage a bold experiment. Damian Smith, a Principal Dancer with the San Francisco Ballet Company and Muriel Maffré, one of the greatest ballerinas of our time, will create art. But there will be no stage, no grandiose opera hall. Damian and Muriel will work with a composer and choreographer to create a series of early stage rehearsals in a San Francisco storefront. Instead of a performance, passersby will get a peek at two perspiration-soaked ballet stars presenting their process for public consumption.
Muriel Maffré is the poster child for process over performance. An unusually tall ballerina at six-foot-four en pointe, this cerebral French artist has long defied expectations to become an international sensation. Her career has been defined by many successes; she danced for seventeen years with the San Francisco Ballet as a Principal, and upon retiring in 2008, she received the highest honors a French artist can attain when she was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. And yet, for Maffré, all of this is secondary. She dances because she is deeply in love with the process, not the honors, the adulation or the applause.
“It is very gratifying for me to deemphasize the moment of the performance,” she says in her thick but elegant accent, “which can be very beautiful and very rich and intense…but also, when you are a perfectionist, the performance can be disappointing. By bringing focus and value to the process, I found a place where I could be gratified at all times with my work.”
Maffré’s discipline and devotion to her art is both intensely subjective and objective.
“Process can be just the digging deeper and deeper every time,” Maffré explains. “It’s also cumulative, building something…constructing and not ‘the performance thing,’ not showing you at your best every time and not having that goal necessarily. That can be vain.”
Striking words from a woman working in a world defined by vanity, presentation and the pursuit of perfection. After all, Ballet is a grandly constructed illusion where flawless beauty is the goal. And yet, Maffré strives to strip the polish. “There is the luster which is actually a barrier to seeing what is really authentic. There is a projection, there is a forcing, forcing to have you like it. It’s selling something.”
In those three sentences, Maffré articulates five traits that are shared among great human beings. She is not only acutely aware of and sensitive to others (in this case, the audience); she has a respect for them that is egalitarian at its core. She is as intent on the joy of creating a ballet as she is in performing it, and sees through the artifice. And finally, she is profoundly true to herself. And that sincerity is riveting. Damian Smith, who has frequently “partnered” Maffré over the years, says that “You can have the whole San Francisco Ballet leaping in high costume on one side of the stage while Muriel simply walks on to the other. And the audience will watch her.”
That kind of power from a dancer who was not even supposed to dance.
Growing up in a small village west of Paris, Maffré started performing on an outdoor tennis court because there was no theater. At the age of nine, she was accepted at the revered Paris Opera. But by sixteen, she had grown tall—a formidable five foot ten and six foot four when fully elevated ‘en pointe’. “I had a very formal education in ballet at the Paris Opera and I think it made me very, very self-conscious about myself.”
“Because they were critical?
“What did they say to you?”
“They said “You are a beautiful plant. But you can’t dance.”
Nonetheless, ballet had captured her heart, even if it had quashed her confidence, “I fell in love with ballet. I fell in love with the physical aspect of ballet and then through that it took something away and brought something in. But what it took away – was kind of this ability to relate easily through words, through normal means of communication.”
With ballet’s arbiters declaring her unfit, Maffré turned inward, focused on meaning as much as technique, what she calls, “a quality of intention” for each and every movement. Despite her detractors, she created a life and career “by really developing something that was completely in tune with who I was and cultivating that out.” What irony! By developing an ability to communicate her humble yet powerful individuality, Maffre defied detractors who felt she’d never fit in.
In life, most of us are judged by what we deliver, not how we deliver it. The best among us not only deliver great products, services, and performances; they also take great pride and joy in the doing. Of course, by making your process joyous you have a much better shot at being a top performer. It’s about creating a daily routine tailored to your talents, needs and most of all --wants. Instead of making your work merely a means to an end, make it an end in and of itself… and the ends will very likely take care of themselves.
Maslow on “the doing itself”
Abraham Maslow writes that great beings clearly distinguish between means and ends, between preparation and achievement. But they also find delight in their work. They are “somewhat more likely to appreciate for its own sake, and in an absolute way, the doing itself; they can enjoy for its own sake the getting to some place as well as the arriving.”
This is wonderful because it supports the notion that you ought to do what you want to do. And even more compelling, the best among us invert that premise—they want to do what they ought to do. As Maslow puts it, among the best human beings, “desires are in excellent accord with reason…Duty cannot be contrasted with pleasure nor work with play when duty is pleasure, when work is play, and the person doing his duty and being virtuous is simultaneously seeking his pleasure and being happy.” What an affirmation for doing what you love!
It’s not always about putting out the most effort, or having the most spectacular career. You just have to set up the circumstances in which you love to work. You must master the art of elevating process. Once you do that, the performance will take care of itself. That’s how dreams become realities, and success becomes yours for the taking. What a revelation!
Warren Buffet Tap Dances to Work
Warren Buffett advises business school students to choose work that they like, and to choose to work with people they like and admire. Waiting to do that, he warns, is “like waiting until you’re old to have sex!”
In his 2009 Shareholder’s letter, Buffett writes that he still “tap dances to the office every day.” That’s being in love with the process. If you shift to a job that delights you every day, you will vastly increase the odds that you’ll be successful, even in a field where you have little to no training. When you experience this kind of exuberant joy on a regular basis, life becomes less about the end goal and more about what’s right in front of you.
Unfortunately, we’re often taught from a young age that the only thing that matters is achieving the goal. It’s part of living in Western society. Our culture rubber-stamps the same message time and again: results matter, winning is the most important thing. Or, even worse: winning is the only thing. From trying to get into the right grammar school to taking the SATs, it’s all about amassing the right credentials, not the day-to-day joy of living and creating. There’s an over-emphasis on winning and on doing rather than being.
The irony is that, so many people who excel at ‘getting’ are not great when it comes to being. Many, maybe most of the business and political leaders I’ve encountered, are this way. The minority who are also great individuals are great beings who’ve chosen to be great achievers. And there are many great human beings who choose to not be highly recognized achievers. They’re great parents or family members. They’re great friends and community leaders. They’re great in quiet ways. They know who they are. You know who they are. They’re the people you admire and one reason you admire them is that they move to their own music.
That’s how you find the path that’s yours—the path that sets you tap dancing to work every day. Find your music. “Follow your bliss,” is what Joseph Campbell, the late, great professor of comparative religion used to say. That will get you where you want to be, even when where and who you want to be changes and shifts as you grow.
Cheers from Sonoma,
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Check out Donald Van De Mark's series on the 19 Personality Traits of the Best Human Beings
Donald Van de Mark is a motivational speaker and has interviewed hundreds of leaders in business and politics including: Andrew Weil, MD, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, Jack Welch, Starbucks' Howard Schultz and Intel's Andy Grove, in his nearly 3 decades as a correspondent and anchor at CNN, CNBC and public television. He is the host of The Wisdom of Caring Leaders and The Wisdom of Teams, training videos used by corporations and schools to teach leadership skills.
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