My flight from Phoenix to Orange County was miles better than my flight from Chicago to Phoenix, and I don’t think that’s just because it was many miles shorter. In fact, I think it’s because Southwest was flying an essentially Southwest route when it took me from Phoenix to Orange County. The chief flight attendant spoke an unmistakably southwestern English. She sarcastically explained the procedures for a water landing to a cabin of people who would soon pass over the Sonoran Desert and dropped a “y’all” that said “This ain’t my first rodeo, Cowboy.” She’d probably flown that route a thousand times before.
The flight couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Granted, it was only an hour long, but I’ve never walked off a plane feeling rejuvenated. I had been delayed for three hours trying to leave Chicago, and that flight refreshed me. I think it’s because Southwest Airlines was acting essentially, and acting essentially is a paragon of how.
People doing what they do best, or acting essentially, gets the job done well. The doer acts with confidence and care, in the spirit of muscle memory. This helps others as only jobs well done can and prevents logistics from overwhelming the doer.
“That’s great, Nathan, but your pleasant flight means nothing to me.” Well it should, because you too can act essentially! (Putting all four of the requisite commas in that last sentence renders it unreadable.)
Malcolm Gladwell observes in Outliers that most people reach peak competence with jobs in their tenth year. Thus, he says that it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a job. Why were the Beatles so successful? They logged their 10,000 hours of rock and roll before any other four-piece British band by playing eight-hour sets in a Hamburg strip club. Why is Bill Gates a billionaire? He had access to a computer years before most and spent his youth running programs through it well into the night. So, both the Beatles and Bill Gates were content to toil in obscurity. Providence just had it that they struck it rich.
But not only were the Beatles and Bill toiling in obscurity, they were acting essentially. (The Beetles and Bill is a straight-to-video entomological production of Bill Nye the Science Guy.) We now consider the Beatles as essentially rock and roll, and Bill Gates is essentially a computer nerd. Sometimes, however, your essential activity may not be what pays the bills.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone made obscene cartoons in college, but those cartoons got in the hands of Hollywood higher-ups. Soon, Trey and Matt were writing, producing and voicing South Park. They’re still doing so fourteen, going on fifteen years later.
But Trey is a lover of musicals at heart. That’s why, four years before South Park, Trey and Matt made Cannibal! The Musical. This year, they won nine Tonys for The Book of Mormon. I’m going to go ahead and claim those Tonys as a triumph for essential acting.
Can you imagine the sheer logistical weight of scoring, producing and directing a Broadway musical? Now, imagine doing all that while you have a weekly animated show to write, voice and direct. Why haven’t Trey and Matt collapsed? Trey, at least, wasn’t hampered by logistics in working on The Book of Mormon. Logistics aren’t overwhelming when you’re confident — i.e., not thinking about yourself — and have an abiding care for what you’re doing. That care is quiet, too. The excitement may have subsided some, but something deeper is there in its place. Also, Trey drinks Dayquil to pull all-nighters.
And while professors can fret about lesson plans well into the night, conveying information in an engaging way is no problem when they’re talking about their pet subjects. Just let Sonia Sorrell talk about Galla Placidia or John Struloeff go off on Leo Tolstoy. The logistics of lesson plans don’t matter when they’re explaining what’s essential to them. If professors act essentially, the information teaches itself.
“So, discover what you love to do and do it a lot! You’ll make lots of money! You’ll be famous!” No. Find activity that makes you forget yourself. That’s a good sign you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Even if you’re not doing it better than other people, you’re doing it for a decent reason. But just because you’re doing something well doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something good.