What does it mean to master a skill – drawing, dancing or driving – and how do you actually do it? That is the question New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik asks in The Real Work, and it becomes the springboard for a discussion of art, family, empathy, mortality. Via memoir, analysis and criticism he assembles a celebration of the flaws that make us human.
The “real work” is a term used by stage magicians to describe “the accumulated craft, savvy and technical mastery that makes a great magic trick great”. The magician credited with having achieved the “real work” for a given trick, Gopnik explains, isn’t necessarily the one who invented it, but rather the first to master every detail of its performance. The book is structured round Gopnik’s interactions with practitioners of various crafts, from baking to boxing: he becomes an apprentice of sorts, learning just enough of each skill to develop an understanding of what mastery may mean.
In the process, he picks up on three themes: first, that mastery is the “slow carpentering of fragments into a harmonious whole”. The expert creates the illusion of something unified by learning each tiny step – whether those steps are the small melodic ideas of a jazz pianist or the rhythmic pattern of a boxer’s jabs.
Second, mastery is about humanity, not perfection. “We never really love an artist’s virtuosity, or if we do, it feels empty,” Gopnik writes. “We love their vibrato, their … way of entangling their learned virtuosity within their unique vulnerability.”
Third, it’s not about “life rules, but real lives”. Gopnik thinks mastery can be found everywhere, from his mother’s kitchen to his driving teacher’s car. “We always overestimate the space between very good and uniquely good,” Gopnik says: we know the names of the Michael Jordans and the Leonardos, but there are countless people who are nearly, if not quite equally, brilliant. And even if most of us won’t become household names, “we are all more varied and capable than we are often allowed to seem”.
Gopnik studies drawing with an artist who takes a strict realist approach; he learns to combine the fragments of a whole, and deploys tools of the trade – certain shapes and techniques, the endless utility of an eraser. It’s also an opportunity for him, as an art critic, to discuss the concept of representational art, pulling from the work of psychologists and historians as he considers why “collections of shrewdly borrowed shapes and broken lines strike us as real”.
Elsewhere, he discusses magic with David Copperfield, David Blaine and the normally mute Teller, partner of Penn. He learns to drive with an instructor who repeatedly urges him to “become the noodle”, meaning to fully relax into the task – mastering driving, Gopnik notes, is about learning to pretend what you’re doing isn’t incredibly dangerous. Baking with his mother leads to reflections on childhood and ageing, and what children owe their parents.
In one revealing chapter, Gopnik describes his struggle with paruresis, or shy-bladder syndrome – an inability to urinate in public toilets. In late middle age, he begins cognitive behavioural therapy, touring the city’s public toilets on his bike with his therapist as he practises peeing in increasingly stressful situations. Thus, he masters an elusive target: his own mind.
Gopnik is at his most moving when addressing the limited time we have on Earth; the roughly established number of heartbeats we are given to achieve whatever means most to us. In this context, he writes, mastery may have nothing to do with impressing some great portion of the public; instead, what counts is ourselves and a few people close to us. Mastery, he concludes, is “emphatically not transcendent”. Instead, in Gopnik’s conception it is thoroughly democratic – something we all can achieve, and in many cases already have.
• The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery by Adam Gopnik is published by Quercus (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.