phoning it in

"Everything I do is the most important thing I do," the actor Mads Mikkelsen told an interviewer, continuing:

Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something—a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.

The writers and artists I admire most exhibit this Zen-like attitude toward their craft. Dig up their most minor and obscure work and you'll still see them delivering with the same care and intensity even when they must have suspected few would see the resulting effort. These creators never calibrate their effort or emotional investment based on the perceived potential of a project. Even when they're surrounded by dilettantes, they show up, hit their marks, and do the job as well as they can because, to them, everything is important.

Back in college, I helped produce a video for a student group. A number of famous alumni and alumni parents—a famous anchor, a famous director, etc.—had been asked to contribute short clips for a sketch and I edited it all together. This was well before YouTube. This was one and done. At most, a few hundred students these people had never met would see the end result. The pros delivered. I was kind of astonished. At the time, I couldn't imagine being rich and famous and putting that kind of effort in for stakes as small as these.

I didn't understand who they were doing it for.

In a classic Saturday Night Live sketch, Tom Hanks is inducted into the Five-Timers Club. Because he's hosting the show for the fifth time, he's invited, mid-monologue, to enjoy a special, members-only lounge. There, waited on by the likes of Jon Lovitz and Conan O'Brien, Hanks rubs shoulders with fellow Five-Timers like Elliot Gould and Paul Simon.

"I better head out, I gotta finish my monologue," Hanks finally says.

"What are you talking about, Tom?" Gould says. "You can do it from here."

"You're a Five-Timer," Steve Martin adds. "You can phone it in." Hanks is then handed a special red phone to finish the monologue from the comfort of the couch.

The irony here, of course, is that the Five-Timers are members of the club precisely because they never phone it in. Hanks has hosted the show five times since that episode, most recently for the "at home" episode at the start of the COVID pandemic. Even when he was literally phoning in his monologue, he didn't phone it in.

This is how creative longevity happens. While they're happening, most breakthrough projects look anything but extraordinary. Rarely does the Universe tap you on the shoulder and say, "Dot your i's and cross your t's here because this is the one." Either every piece of work is special or none of them are.  As Mikkelsen says, there are no stepping stones.

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