Part two of a three part series exploring some significant people in my life at the moment (albeit for vastly different reasons). If you’re interested in the loosely-affiliated part one of this faux-trilogy (on Joseph Kony, professional douchebag), it’s here.
Topic the Second: Jack Gilbert, man about town (1950-2012).
There is no delicate way to put this: a friend of mine (and friend to many others, as well) passed away last week. Jack Gilbert will be remembered fondly, mostly because it’d be impossible to remember him otherwise. He was a kind, considerate, intelligent person, and — as is one of life’s most cruel tricks — the extent of his legacy, reach, and influence won’t be fully realized until well after his passing. However, there are better, more qualified people/friends/family to eulogize him than I, so I’ll simply share the best advice he ever gave me and leave the rest to the aforementioned.
It was a cold but sunny autumn day in Hilliard, Ohio (okay truthfully I have almost no recollection of the weather that day, but it makes for a much less interesting tale if the scene heading reads “INT. That One Place, either rainy or sunny, day or evening, hard to say”). I was seated at a table in what I’m sure was the “heavy tippers” section of our local Skyline Chili — an establishment that if you’ve never dined there, I simultaneously pity and envy you — and to my immediate left was the hero of our story: Britney, our waitress. Britney (or maybe Brittany) had many fine qualities, but awareness/respect of one’s personal space was not among them. Brittany (or maybe Britnee) took our order — which, like the entire Skyline menu, was just Grade-C meat, cheese, and pasta/bread in various combinations — and promised to help us with whatever we needed. An amazingly huge promise for Britnee (or maybe Brittani) to commit to, as I was looking to establish a career as a working actor/writer in the film/tv industry of LA/NY (a notoriously difficult and time-consuming industry to break in to), but I appreciated her pledge of dedication to my endeavor. Allegiance declared, the three of us set about planning for both my move out west and the trials that would need to be overcome in order to make it a success. I was providing the ambition/drive that can only come from someone who truly has no concept of the difficulty of the journey upon which they are about to embark, Jack was providing the mentorship/experience of someone who’d paid his dues many times over and come out a legend on the other side, Brittani (or maybe Britnie) was providing Pepsi/oyster cracker refills promptly and at no additional charge, per company policy. And so it went for quite some time, sorting logistics and locations and connections, until Jack asked me a question that, prior to that moment, I hadn’t really asked myself.
“…So, what do you want to do?”
I paused for a moment, slightly off-put at having to answer a question that I thought I’d already answered several times in the context of our conversation, and started in to my spiel about wanting to be a successful (if not recognizable) writer/actor that maybe also did some producing but maybe there’s also room for some directing work even though that’s not really my thing and—
“No,” Jack interjected, “focus on one.”
Focus on one. Not the advice I was expecting. Through a very in-depth soliloquy that I won’t even attempt to do justice to here, he explained that the multi-tasking, multi-hyphenate one-man-band schtick might work for Tina Fey, Conan O’Brien, Steve Martin types, but that the only chance of the uninitiated newcomer was to do one thing, and to do it well enough and long enough that its caliber of quality could be expected — relied upon, even. Maybe down the road — if circumstances and opportunities and talents aligned — one might add some additional roles, but the foundational key was to focus on one.
Slightly stunned, I looked at Britnie (or maybe Brittini) with the sort of look that can only mean “I have a coupon for 20% off select menu items, with qualifying purchase” and contemplated what Jack had shared with me. What I had initially thought would increase my chances of employability by broadening my career-path options was actually set to inhibit my long-term success. Jack relayed stories — both his own and those he’d observed over the years — illustrating and clarifying his point…proving him to be the consummate storyteller, even when the stage was no grander than table 28 at Skyline Chili.
Well, I followed Jack’s advice, and I’m happy to say that many years later, I’m a self-sustaining artist with a full body of work that’s both respected and profitable, and that I’m making a living doing what I love and sharing it with others. …Ha, just kidding! I work at a mall. But what I can say is the advice Jack Gilbert imparted to me that day has helped in many areas of my life far beyond just the pursuit of a career in the entertainment industry, and continues to help me hone-in on the most important aspects of my professional and personal development. Whatever my adult life is, one of the few things I’m sure of is that it would be significantly less-accomplished (both personally and professionally) if I hadn’t been encouraged early on to focus on one. The value of this one statement can’t be emphasized enough. Think about your life (or, if you have your life much more together than I do, think of someone you know) and how thinly spread we are between all the things/activities vying for our attention. Socially, professionally, personally, (even physically) we’re scattered all over the place. And while it’s folly to pretend that some division of our attention won’t always be necessary in today’s society, observation proves that one of the biggest inhibitors to the success of a given endeavor is the attempt of multiple, simultaneous endeavors. Whether it’s a smaller, simpler project like redoing your garden — or a larger, more robust project like redoing your career — the key remains to focus on the single, most important element to the success of your undertaking, and to make that your priority. Take what you’re best at and make it central to how you approach the task at hand. Focus on one. For Jack, it was focus on his written works through the lens of his intelligent, observant, and kind demeanor — something he became so well-known for that it made his judgment as a writer and a person a resource to many. And it made him a successful and respected artist despite being in an industry that doesn’t take kindly to the kindly. Not many can say that…but then, not many have the wisdom to discern between the important and the insignificant. To hone in on the essential. To focus on one.
All pretense aside, my successes and defeats as a semi-professional artist weigh for nothing unless the ability to focus on what’s essential remains. And of the many happy things I’ll take with me from Jack’s tutelage and friendship, if I had to focus on one, it would be the advice he imparted at table 28 in Skyline Chili that day — the reminder that one needn’t identify every possible fork in the road as long as you’re able to pinpoint the best step to take next.
Maybe that sounds overly simple to you, or silly, or untrue. But for me it has made all the difference, and continues to convict me in areas of my life where I struggle to ignore the clamor of the unimportant. For that, I will be ever grateful. Maybe I’ll even track down our Skyline waitress on facebook and ask her if Jack Gilbert’s wisdom impacted her life-view as much as it impacted mine…if I can figure out how to spell her name.
Postscript: Among Jack’s many accolades, he was a cornerstone for a writing co-op called Act One, an organization whose one focus is to produce working storytellers in mainstream Hollywood that also share Jack’s values in relationship with and consideration to one’s fellow man. I can’t recommend it highly enough to the aspiring screenwriter — though it’s worth noting that I’m not an alum, just a big fan of the house that Jack built.
Postscript the second: Though I’d never dishonor Jack’s accomplishments by comparing them to my own, limited body of work, I have had the happy successes of being a published writer, a nationally-televised commercial actor, and a paid musician — I say this not just to be braggadocios (although it would be untrue to say I don’t enjoy that aspect of it), but merely to give the deserved amount of credit to Jack’s advice and display how focusing on the most essential part of what you’re trying to accomplish can still lead to success in multiple avenues. Jack wouldn’t want anyone to sacrifice one set of their hobbies, passions, or interests for another — his admonition to focus is not as much to a monk-like devotion to a single practice forever as it is being able to identify the ever-changing area of the Venn diagram where what one most wants overlaps with where one has the most God-given talent.