I realize that leaving a job you love and do well can be construed as an act of pointless rebellion, like wearing flip-flops to a wedding or smoking in an airplane bathroom. Who are you making uncomfortable but yourself? But last year, I did exactly that. I'd been a working writer for 20 years. Hundreds of bylines plus two books easily gets me my 10,000 hours of practice. I had achieved mastery, at least by the Gladwell clock. And then, I gave it up. I dropped back to zero.
The person to blame is my friend Alix, who hosts the NPR show Invisibilia. One night late last summer, we went to see a movie together. Afterward, I mentioned a crazy experiment involving an oil rig where they trained the big men to cry and share their feelings and basically behave more like women. Alix said it would be perfect for one of her shows. Then she said: "Leave your job and come work with me."
The movie we'd just seen was Straight Outta Compton. For a moment, standing by the inky, moonlit Potomac, I thought, If Cube and Dre, why not us? I had loved the first season of Invisibilia. And maybe I was restless and needed something new to do. Whatever it was, pretty soon I had an NPR badge and was present at "listening sessions" critiquing radio stories and pretending I knew what to say.
In his new book Late to the Ball, about learning to play serious tennis in his 60s, former New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati asks: "When is the last time you improved at anything?" Let me reframe that for my purposes as: "When is the last time you sucked at something you had to finish on deadline?" When I started, my grasp of basic radio skills was weaker than the average NPR intern's. True, I couldn't hold a microphone properly, but I also didn't know how to write a script, or record narration, or choose music, or pretty much any necessary thing.
Early on, we all sat in a room listening to a taped interview about an old lady and a lion. When the lady said certain things, my colleagues would all light up and write stuff down. It seemed little to do with the content of her words — I had no idea what they were hearing. Sometimes I'd ask the closest person for help, and they would laugh nervously. I think this is because by your 40s, you're supposed to know things. But what else could I do?
Giving up mastery involves a series of humiliations, some of which hit you when you think you're on solid ground. For my first reporting trip, Alix and I went out together to interview some oil men. She showed me how to hold a mic, and I took it from there. I know how to extract information from people. I've been doing it for years. We sat down with a guy who'd worked on the rig. I got the guy to talk and talk and tell us some of the outrageous things the men had done on the job (teaser: foot massages). For me it was a proof-positive interview, the kind that confirms that yes, the story is true. As soon as we got into the rental car, I turned to Alix so we could squeal in mutual victory. "Well," I asked, "how'd I do in my first interview?" "Honestly," she said, "B-."
Worse than losing competence is losing the ability to even tell if you are competent or not. If you give me a draft of a magazine story, I'm pretty sure I can tell you what's wrong with it — if it's too long or too short or underreported or overwritten or if the third paragraph needs to be switched with the 17th. But with radio, my judgment was off. I'd feel delighted with an interview or a draft and then look over and see Alix with her head in her hands. Perhaps I should have been sympathetic, but instead I was cranky and defensive. When Alix said that about the interview with the oil guy, I had no idea what she meant. I told her she was crazy and then listened obsessively to the interview to figure out what was wrong.