How To Fail Successfully: When to give up on our ambitions? Glenn Kurtz learned the answer the hard way

Monday, June 18, 2007

It’s not that Glenn Kurtz coulda been a contender. He was one, contending more in his little finger than most of us do in our lives, and then it all came apart.

OK, not one little finger but 10. At an age when the rest of us were mastering shoelaces, Kurtz was setting out to become a classical concert guitarist. As best I can calculate, this is statistically like setting out to become a seven-foot-tall lottery winner who gets struck by lightning every few weeks.

“The number of people who make a living as concert guitarists of the kind I was trying to be is extraordinarily small. I can think of at most 10 people who make their living exclusively by performing classical guitar. And that’s what I wanted to do,” Kurtz, a longtime San Franciscan-turned-New Yorker told me over the phone the other day.

As a child prodigy in upper-middle-class Long Island — he started taking lessons at six or seven — he said guitar came easy. His parents did not pressure him, he just loved to play. He played for several hours a day, and when he wasn’t playing, he was often cultivating his musical career: While other kids grooved to the AM radio hits, he made a pilgrimage to see Andrés Segovia play. While other kids watched TV, he found himself on the “Merv Griffin Show,” playing with Dizzy Gillespie. While other teens were at the football game, he was winning Long Island’s 1981 Teen Talent Competition.

It would be misleading to speak of Kurtz’s dedication to the classical guitar — to do so would suggest it was somehow a thing separate from him. He and his music and his pursuit of it were all one. When it came time to apply for college, there was no doubt. He enrolled at the New England Conservatory.

Was Kurtz aware that his path was a chancy one? That truly making it, professionally, as a concert guitarist happened almost never — and that a failed concert guitarist does not have a readily apparent back-up career? In a sense, these questions are irrelevant. He was a classical guitarist, and there was nothing else but to charge ahead.

Kurtz’s is a story many of us know at some neurotic level, whether we’re musicians, ball players, painters, writers or tightrope walkers. Owing to a confluence of doting parents, late capitalism and a vague cloud of nurturing in the air, we’re told to pursue our ambitious passions, or maybe our passionate ambitions. Follow our hearts and we’ll eventually prevail, we’re told from an early age; over and over the movie music swells and the plucky hero beats the odds, and we drive home and think, “What does Ralph Macchio have that I don’t?”

Nothing, in Kurtz’s case. After music school, he moved to Vienna, the mecca of classical music, and began performing in small venues with a friend — clubs, though, not concert halls. The playing went well enough, but something was off. Slowly, it started to become clear that Kurtz was moving more laterally than upward. Now that he was beginning to be a musician out in the real world, the real world didn’t look right.

“We were getting some recognition,” he says, “but I think the reality of the life was confronting the idealism of my dream. The career I was starting to have was not the one I had dreamed of.”

It happened suddenly, a “crystallizing moment,” he says: On a train ride back from a gig in Graz, he asked his then-girlfriend how he’d played. Good, she said — but like a musician who didn’t practice enough.

And so, in a moment, a lifelong dream was punctured. It was not what she said, it was the inherent dangers of following one’s passions all the way to a career. Surely we can’t all beat the odds — I’m pretty sure that’s not how odds work. But do we keep at it anyway? Hang it up? Huge questions for a person facing either professional satisfaction or abject disappointment. The enlightened thing might be to keep painting or typing or playing simply because we enjoy it. But, as Kurtz points out, enjoyment is one of the first things to go out the window in the pursuit of a serious passion.

“[That comment on the train] touched this fear that every young artist has,” Kurtz says. “You can devote yourself as thoroughly as Beethoven and still not be good enough. Reality bore so little relation to what I had imagined that I just didn’t want it anymore.”

And that was the end, at the age of 25. All at once Kurtz saw that his lifelong fantasy was just that, and the reality of his life could not intersect it. He quit the thing that he’d built nearly his entire life around.

“I stopped playing. I stopped listening. When [hearing music] was unavoidable, it was like seeing your old girlfriend out having a good time with someone else. You can’t say, ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ You have to stare straight ahead and keep walking. So that’s what I did.”

Kurtz calls it “the most painful thing that had happened in my life.” He moved to New York and got his first nine-to-five job, “punching a time clock and typing memos” in the publishing world. It felt like jail, he says, and after a while he made that familiar escape: graduate school. He moved to San Francisco and got a Ph.D. in comparative literature. He liked it, he says. It wasn’t love, but he liked it.

For 10 years, he avoided anything having to do with what had been the center of his world. It sounds bleak, and it was.

“Your idea of what it means to succeed can destroy your pleasure, more profoundly than any kind of actual failure,” he says. “Because if you continue to believe in that pleasure, your joy in it is what drives you. But if it’s an external goal — if ‘winning’ is the goal — then even if you enjoy it, it’ll get destroyed.”

Grim stuff. Not the stuff we’re taught when first swing a bat or paint a painting. But what Kurtz found is that succeeding can happen through, not in spite of, failure. In thoroughly destroying your goal, he says, a funny liberation can set in. One day, a decade after burying it in his closet, he reached again for his guitar.

“I started thinking, ‘This used to mean so much to me.’ I guess I became curious: ‘What happened to that? I used to spend eight hours a day practicing!’ It started to nag at me — this thing I’d cared so much about was so absent from my life,” he says.

The playing came back to him. In fact, it came back fast enough that he briefly relapsed. “Great! I’m so much older now,” he recalls thinking. “I’m really going to succeed as a concert guitarist!”

That lasted a week. Soon enough, he realized this was missing the point. The struggle was not to try to repeat his earlier story or recover his earlier skill, he says, but to let it become something new.

“You have to readjust your expectations for yourself and your pleasure threshold — the level at which it becomes enjoyable to do,” he says. “As an aspiring concert guitarist, that threshold is quite high. There were all these levels that I had to achieve for it to feel good. But when just playing felt good again, the way it did when I was a kid, that allowed it to be fun. I was just so grateful to be playing again, without a larger goal.”

Kurtz says he encounters similar stories everywhere: golfers, dancers, anyone who nursed along a dream for years and then woke abruptly. Beware your idealism, he advises. That doesn’t mean don’t have any — maybe just understand its perfectionist roots.

I should mention that Kurtz is a kind, unpresumptuous kind of guy — hardly the sort to go around peddling advice. I solicited it because of the ironic new situation in which he finds himself. In coming to terms with his story, Kurtz has now slipped from his lifelong fantasy into someone else’s: His first book, “Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music,” comes out this week with Knopf and has already been hailed for its candor and insight. Having tried for so many years to find success as one kind of artist, he is suddenly in the midst of it as another.

In the book, Kurtz tells the story of his dismal retreat from all he’d loved — and then of that unexpected development 10 years later: Having finally killed his dream, he found himself oddly free to take the old guitar from its case again — not as a man who would make a living in concert halls but as a man who simply liked the sounds of Beethoven and Mozart.

He does not play for hours on end each day now. But he plays. And more surprising to him, he enjoys it. In his writing, practicing emerges as the ultimate antidote to ungrounded ambition — it is the thing divorced from the fantasy. The book is a poignant, and at times wrenching, account of hope, loss and, as Kurtz puts it, “how to fail more successfully.”

Chris Colin was a writer-editor at Salon, and before that a busboy, a bread deliverer and a bike messenger, among other things. He’s the author of “What Really Happened to the Class of ’93,” about the lives of his former high school classmates, and co-author of The Blue Pages, a directory of companies rated by their politics and social practices. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the New York Observer, McSweeney’s Quarterly and several anthologies. He lives in San Francisco.