plan your career like a divo

The opera singer Farinelli (1705–1782) sang comfortably in all vocal registers, tenor through soprano. He was a European celebrity of the highest order, an 18th-century Beyoncé, and while Her Beyness can sing across four octaves to Farinelli’s three, I doubt she can hold a note for a full minute as he was said to have done. (Although, really, did they even have clocks back then? They probably just did one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, glanced at a sun dial, and rounded it up. Rest assured, Bey continues to reign supreme across the centuries.)

Today, we can only imagine the supposed “purity of tone” of a true castrato—the sound must have been pretty special to, you know, apply for the gig. That said, with the resurgence of interest in traditional techniques—farm-to-table food, vinyl records, medieval combat—it’s only a matter of time before some hipster Millennial is like, “Timmy, you know how we need a few more impressive extracurriculars if you’re going to get into an Ivy League school?” In the meantime, however, the closest approximation to the voice of a castrato is that of a countertenor, a man with the range of a female mezzo-soprano.

Good opera singers are rare. Good countertenors, very. When one crops up, it can cause an international stir. (This is why I volunteered to play soprano clarinet in high school, a.k.a. “The Devil’s Migraine.” Why practice harder when you can just specialize in something weird?)

The New Yorker profiles Polish opera singer Jakub Józef Orliński, who is not only a good countertenor but also, like Farinelli was said to be in his day, easy on the eyes: “[If] Michelangelo’s statue of David were to come to life, he would look and sound like Orliński.” (Rebecca Mead calls this the consensus of fans. Sure, Rebecca. His fans thought that comparison up.)

Orliński rose to worldwide prominence right after his debut performance in 2017. An ensemble scheduled to perform on a French radio show dropped out and Orliński was tapped as a last-minute replacement. Unaware the performance would also be streamed on Facebook Live, the living statue rolled out of bed and arrived at the venue grungy, unshaven, and hungover. Twist: he nailed it anyway. Nearly 4 million YouTube views later, Orliński is an opera superstar.

Hard work, talent, opportunity, and luck. It’s a nice story, as sudden infamations (?) go. In an era when so many success stories feel more orchestrated than the origin stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Orliński’s rise is a refreshing change of pace. There is no way a PR firm would have risked dressing a talented countertenor like a frat boy if this were some shadowy viral marketing scheme—this only happened because Jakub Orliński is a frat boy.

Orliński’s story got me thinking about the unusual lives of opera singers in general. Their careers run along lines similar to those of professional athletes: a relatively short physical prime that must be leveraged to the hilt. That said, they also have to work within the constraints of the international opera world, where productions at the major houses are cast years in advance. Thus, an in-demand singer is in the privileged position of looking at the entire span of their singing career and mapping it out, to a certain extent.

It strikes me that any one of us could take the long view of our own careers this way, if only we chose to do so. Sure, there might be more guesswork involved. Orliński and his teachers can draw on centuries of operatic knowledge to estimate how long he will be able to perform at the highest levels. Writing talent, on the other hand, waxes and wanes much more unpredictably, judging from the careers of nearly any set of writers you might select. Still, I bet you could make an educated guess, and that would be far better than making no guess at all.

Why even make a plan when there are so many unknown variables? Beyond the benefits often ascribed to goal-setting in general, writers who haven’t broken through yet are impatient: they’re so eager to have written a great book that they can barely bring themselves to start writing anything. In contrast, established writers often display remarkable, even preternatural patience in developing their projects.

People who have yet to achieve recognition are in a hurry because they can’t help but compare themselves to successful writers. We look at those careers through the highly compressed lens of hindsight. We see how prolific a writer like Dave Eggers appears to be over the span of decades and overlook the fact that a single project—his recent, excellent work of nonfiction The Monk of Mokha, for example—took a full three years or more to write. We see the brief periods of exciting acclaim and recognition after publication and ignore the long stretches of solitary work that constitute most of an author’s waking life. To an outsider, it’s just a huge list of books—fiction, nonfiction, memoir, young adult, let alone, in Eggers’s case, his work with McSweeney’s and 826 Valencia.

All of this comparison is enough to bring any non-famous author to the brink of despair, particularly after spending an entire morning toiling away on a manuscript only to delete the handful of paragraphs you’ve managed to assemble in that time.

Thanks to the combination of in-demand talent with limited competition, the world-class opera singer is given the gift of patience. He knows there will be enough jobs, enough acclaim, enough money. The fact of a career is never in question. It’s only a question of how, the execution of that career. Which productions? Which albums? Which American Express ads?

Chicken-and-egg-like, patience offers profound economic benefits just as it seems to arise from economic success. In fact, it might be a successful writer’s most powerful advantage over the rest of us, the true distinguishing element. Patience allows you to invest the appropriate amount of time and effort in every project and to give each task its due. By acting as if you will be successful and planning out the course of your entire writing career with the steady confidence of a divo like Jakub Józef Orliński, you are empowered to commit to what you’re doing in a new way. And only through complete commitment to our work can we ever bring it to its full potential.

So, just for fun, sit back and imagine what you might begin, how you might work, what you might accomplish—if you knew for certain that you had a long and successful creative career ahead of you. That you no longer had to wonder whether anyone wanted what you have to share, but simply had to decide what to make and when to make it. Then, as an exercise, map it out. What would you do with the next three years of your life? The next three after that?

The days are short but the years are long. Don’t wait on success to plan for it.

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