For decades, Adam Gopnik has been one of our most beloved writers, a brilliantly perceptive critic of art, food, France, and more. But recently, he became obsessed by a fundamental matter: how did the people he was writing about learn their outlandish skill, whether it was drawing a nude or baking a sourdough loaf?
The Real Work
In The Real Work―the term magicians use for the accumulated craft that makes for a great trick―Gopnik becomes a dedicated student of several masters of their craft: a classical painter, a boxer, a dancing instructor, a driving instructor, and others. Rejecting self-help bromides and bullet points, he nevertheless shows that the top people in any field share a set of common qualities and methods. For one, their mastery is always a process of breaking down and building up―of identifying and perfecting the small constituent parts of a skill and the combining them for an overall effect greater than the sum of those parts. For another, mastery almost always involves intentional imperfection―as in music, where vibrato, a way of not quite landing on the right note, carries maximum expressiveness. Gopnik’s simplest and most invigorating lesson, however, is that we are surrounded by mastery. Far from rare, mastery is commonplace, if we only know where to look: from the parent who can whip up a professional strudel to the social worker who―in one of the most personally revealing passages Gopnik has ever written―helps him master his own demons.