“Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” That was reviewer Burt Grady’s assessment of Fred Astaire’s 1933 screen test. Fortunately for American movie goers, studio executive David O. Selznick saw something else. “I am a little uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test, and I would be perfectly willing to go ahead with him,” and introduced Astaire in the 1933 musical “Dancing Lady.”
As a tale of perseverance, this is a good one. Fred Astaire would go on to be the definitive dancer of movie’s Golden Era regardless of that initial assessment. He is also credited with shifting the focus of movie choreography to full screen views of partner dancing, much different from the overhead kaleidoscope scenes, and large dancing choruses of early musicals. A good tale of perseverance except for one thing. He had help. Selznick believed in Astaire so much that he stepped up and saw that he had an opportunity to present his case directly to the movie goers. Even without Selznick’s involvement, Astaire would have persevered. By 1933 he had dancing professionally for 29 years, introducing himself to vaudeville audiences in partnership with his sister when he was just 5 years old. So yes, a good tale of perseverance.
We’ve all been there. We know we can do it, whatever the “it” may be, but someone stands in our way. They feel we can’t. A supervisor who feels we are not ready for that project. A parent who feels we aren’t big enough for that sport. A friend who feels we’re not ready for such a big move. All well-intentioned and also all persuasive, so persuasive that we too may feel we aren’t ready enough, aren’t big enough, aren’t committed enough. But then there will be those times when we know we are ready, we are committed, we can make up for lack of size with our strength, the strength to do what we know we were born to do, or at least what we know we are quite capable of doing.
Everybody knows a story of perseverance. Walt Disney was fired from his first writing job because he “lacked imagination.” After an early performance, Elvis Presley was told by the venue manager that he was “better off going back to Memphis and drive trucks.” Isaac Newton failed so miserably at running the family estate that he was sent to Cambridge “where it is better that he serve to wreck havoc there” where he found his passion in mathematics. Sometimes, perseverance stories come with their helpers, ala Fred Astaire’s David O. Selznick. Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected thirty times. He decided to give up and threw away his copy of the manuscript. His wife retrieved it from the trash and convinced him to re-submit it ”one more time.”
Unfortunately some perseverance stories don’t have happy endings except that they made the doer happy. Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting during his lifetime yet he continued to paint and sketch. He turned out over 1,000 drawings, 150 watercolors, and over 900 paintings which have influenced artists ever since. Even though he made no money in his work, it was his work that Van Gogh lived by. He once said, “It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to.... The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.”
The reality is that we will be told many times that we cannot do that. It’s up to us to decide how we will respond to the criticisms, to how others feel about us. Will we find fame as a new Astaire, a present day Disney, or another King (Stephen or of Rick and Roll)? Or maybe nobody will notice our efforts during our lifetimes but we will continue because it is what we do. The reality is we will be told many times we can’t do it but we will try anyway. Succeed or not, we will still try. We try because the realty is we believe in ourselves. And the reality is more important than the feelings.