It may be an apocryphal story, and when the late, great cellist Pablo Casals was asked, at age 95, while he still practiced six hours a day, he answered, “Because I believe I am still improving.”
I love it.
My appreciation of Casals’ statement is based not only in his sharpening his practice and striving to improve more than 80 years after he first picked up the instrument that would ultimately come to define him.
It’s not only about the fact that the man was not only alive at the age I will be exactly half a century, but that he was working hard and actively engaged in meaningful work.
It’s also about his belief in the possibility of practicing his craft better than he had ever done before, of reaching a new level of achievement and virtuosity.
And, at a base level, it’s about his self-evaluation.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
One’s own assessment of one’s talent and performance level can go in all kinds of unanticipated directions and can lead to all kinds of delusions.
Witness the thousands of people who year after year have tried out for American Idol when they have absolutely no chance of advancing to the next round, let alone actually winning.
A number of magazines and books recently have tackled the thorny subject of the “self-esteem” generation in which kids are over praised both for being themselves and for the most minor of achievements, with the result that they have wildly inflated views of their capacity and little understanding of the amount of work necessary to actually accomplish something of substance.
On a side note, to his credit, Aidan is a remarkably level-headed judge of his own and others’ abilities, and repeatedly has nudged me in the direction of offering him a similar brand of authentic feedback, rather than a generic and, on some level, somewhat meaningless type of affirmation.
But Casals was not talking about that.
Rather he was talking about getting to the point in his understanding of his craft that he did not need to consult other people to tell how he was doing.
My brother Jon, who is in Port-au-Prince with people from Doctors Without Borders, has developed a similar level of self-assessment with his photography. He often talks about how he could have made a shot better. By the same token, when he says an image or story of body of work is “pretty fucking strong,” I pay close attention.
While much younger than Casals at the time of his famous utterance, Jon has also made a commitment to strive for timeless standards of excellence that eventually become internalized.
Both men understand that there are no shortcuts to outstanding work, and arrived at the point when to pretend that what one has done is better than it actually is demeans both the creator and the process.
I admire that quality and single-mindedness of focus in both men, and draw strength from their example.
I’m getting ready to do some reading and turn in before I wake up before dawn tomorrow to head to Washington DC for Dart-related activities.
One thing I know for sure.
Jon will be shooting photos in Haiti.
And I’ll be writing.
Thanks, Pablo, for the story, and Jon for your practice.