Yesterday, I read this New York Times feature on “Dear Evan Hansen” star Ben Platt. It discusses Platt’s background immersed in musical theater, growing up in Beverly Hills as the son of Marc Platt, the producer of “Wicked” and “La La Land.” It describes his incredible excellence in performance, with “Dear Evan Hansen” playwright Steven Levenson quoted as saying, “I’ve never met an actor who has such emotional access…He’s technically perfect, every time. I find it a mystery. He really is a unicorn.” It tells of his warmth, friendliness, and humility. But what struck me the most was Platt’s focus and attitude towards his job:
“But I feel as long as I’m doing this role, everything I do has to be in the service of that. I don’t want there to be a single performance where people leave feeling like they didn’t get the best I could offer. If that means denying myself some things, that’s O.K. I don’t think anything can be genuinely fulfilling or powerful if it’s not taking some kind of a toll. For now, I’m definitely willing to let that toll be taken.”
And the toll? Beyond “[losing] 30 pounds to more convincingly play the part of an anxiety-crippled 17-year-old (he’s 23),” the article reports:
On the purely physical, he sleeps nine or 10 hours a night, eats no gluten or dairy and goes for long stretches each day in silence to rest his voice. He takes zinc and oregano supplements and constantly hydrates. He has two physical therapy sessions a week, “to make sure I don’t develop tree-trunk neck and to keep my posture from becoming too much like Evan’s.” He adds: “It’s a losing battle, though. My posture’s horrible now.” (He also bites his nails and cracks his knuckles obsessively, in a way he never did before, he said.)
The physical and emotional intensity of the performance itself is incredible:
It’s a gesture you see him repeat in the show, most notably in the second-act aria, “Words Fail,” in which he confesses to the Murphys that everything he’s told them is a lie. He’s standing before them, hunched and sobbing. It seems an impossible posture from which to project a song, but he’s incorporated the leg-lifting into his character so that it reads to the audience like a bodily expression of intolerable emotion. “There are all these other little places where I lean back and fill my diaphragm, and then go back into it,” he said. “Or, because I’m crying so hard, spaces where I know I can swallow the mucus that’s coming down. We put all these little things in place, and now they’re just there, they’re second nature, so I can just let it fly.”
I had listened to Dear Evan Hansen at the peak of its popularity1 and enjoyed it, but this article, coupled with a greater appreciation for emotional complexity and intensity in storytelling2, gave me a new appreciation for the show.
More impactfully, though, I was left in awe at Ben Platt. Upon reading his story, I experienced an element of “this man is a god among men,” like the feeling evoked when watching Olympic athletes. But perhaps due to the relatability of Platt’s character, or the description of him living in New York, or his humble demeanor, brought his image down to earth and closer to me in a powerful way. Platt’s dedication to the show, putting aside everything else in his life to play his part as well as he can, is more admirable to me than anything else. It’s what I seek in life, to find something this meaningful and fulfilling, and approach Platt’s level of pure focus and self-described “monkishness.” “This is who I want to be,” I thought.
I was reminded of a quote from Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air: “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” The book tells of another story that exemplifies dedication, purpose, willpower, and sacrifice. On the way to focus and passion, however, there is this idea of excellence and perfection, implicit in Platt’s casting and performance and explicit in Kalanithi’s reflections on his work and life. At their most meaningful, excellence and perfection are determined by each individual for themselves, but inevitably informed by externalities: a person is most excellent if they are better than any other, perfect if there are no flaws that others can discern.
In a discussion with a friend recently, I reflected on my own experiences with excellence, or the lack thereof. “I’ve never really been good at anything,” I said. There were many things that I am passionate about and invested in: I had played piano since childhood and once competed in competitions; today I enjoy the musicality, the expressiveness, the virtuosity, but I haven’t performed a piece without a major mistake in years, not even a Concerto movement I spent an entire summer practicing as rigorously as I could. Filmmaking was something I fell in love with, how indie filmmakers crafted intricate stories and worlds with minimal resources. I watched, I learned, I tried, but I could never replicate this artistry in my own work, never produced anything I could take seriously. Competitive math, too, I spent my childhood preparing for, doing problems, attending programs, but I didn’t score well on the AMC or even make my middle school’s Mathcounts team. These efforts had their payouts, for sure: my filmmaking experience led me to The Phillipian, where I discovered journalism and a whole new purpose and community. My math training is what allows me to excel in STEM classes and standardized tests. But it felt like there was always something wrong with how I did things, almost from the moment I picked up my pencil: I remember comparing my drawings to my best friend’s in middle school, noting how with minimal effort his pencil lines were crisp and clean, as if by default, while mine were rough, wavering, and uncertain.
“Imposter syndrome?” my friend questioned. While definitely something I’ve experienced, I don’t think that was it. All of the failures I listed above resulted from a combination of factors. Had my parents pushed me harder, had I had a better curriculum to follow, had I focused more and stuck with it, maybe I would have crested the hill of achievement and reached excellence. Pushing back against this, however, is the thought that so many people did more with less: filmmakers with nothing but a phone, artists and writers with nothing but a pencil and their school notebook.
Regardless of the causes, my lack of excellence is the way it was, and I’ve been able to reconcile myself with it: there’s nothing I can do but keep trying, keep striving to do the best I can, then do better, and perhaps one day reach excellence. I’m reminded of an old classmate’s advice about the skill plateau, how the only way to move past your self-perceived failures is by continuing to practice and attempt to improve:
I’m reminded also of a well-known Ira Glass quote about improving as a creative:
Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?
I’m extending this framework beyond creative work, almost to all of life, where in some ways it begins to break down, but I still find it to be a helpful framework. I’m disappointed in myself because I have high standards for myself. To hit those high standards, there’s nothing I can do but keep pushing myself towards them, to embrace my failures and perceived shortcomings and just keep going.
In the course of my discussion, I realized that there was one thing in which I felt I had achieved some level of excellence: running. When I joined my old school’s Cross Country team in 9th grade and Andover’s in 10th grade, it was another thing that I wasn’t even good at, with a 24 minute 5K PR. In my junior year, I dropped twenty pounds and three minutes off of my PR. The cutoff for JV was around 19 minutes, a target I mostly dismissed as beyond me, but another goal appeared to be within reach, that of running a half-marathon before I finished high school. I googled half-marathon training plans and adapted them for my own use, finding routes through the streets of Hong Kong, Ningbo, and Xuxhang, getting up at or before sunrise to beat the Chinese heat or the lethargy of the day in New York. I ramped up the mileage week after week, one day a week also running a 10K (one full loop of Central Park) as fast as I could, using this as a metric of my fitness. In August, I did it, completing two loops of Central Park and hitting the 13.1 mile mark in less than an hour and 45 minutes.
It turns out that nothing improves 5K times like mileage. My 10K pace dropped beneath my previous 5K PR. My senior season back on the team, I PR’d at just about 18 flat, consistently finishing as our second or third JV runner. At an early season invitational, I finished third out of the entire JV race, winning a pumpkin; at the championships, I finished in the top twenty of all the league’s JV runners.
Something felt so right about running: the fact that I could throw my entire body into it, my entire being into it; the purity, the competition, the comrardrie, the physical intensity. On a college application, I wrote:
For the past three years I’ve been a member of Andover’s Cross Country team. Every day after classes in the fall I put on running shoes and joined the team on the lawn to warm up for the day’s workout. Whether it’s a hard track workout in the pouring rain, a pre-sunrise long run on a summer day, or fueled by adrenaline, charging off the line at the crack of a gunshot, when I run I feel liberated: empowering and empowered by the teammates by my side, pushing ourselves to our limits and setting them ever higher.
Ironically, I feel most liberated and empowered when I’m charging down a set path, ultimately going in a circle, with no goal other than to end up exactly where I started in as little time as possible. But this liberation, I believe, is the closest I’ve ever gotten to Ben Platt’s dedication, to Paul Kalanithi’s perfection, to what I desire in all my other pursuits and eventually in life: a sense of extreme focus, purpose, and excellence. I got here not from any special talent, or advice, or program, but just from my own perseverance; in fact, it came from forgetting about excellence (5K time) entirely and just focusing on mileage, improving through volume and repetition as Ira Glass says, refusing to stop plodding down the time-skill curve plateau until I reach the next rise. I don’t know what lies ahead or how I’ll get there, but I believe that the road goes on, and I just have to keep journeying, fighting through the plateaus or even regressions until I can eventually enjoy the next rise, the next high, the next view.
This post started as an appreciation post for Ben Platt. It turned into an appreciation for excellence and all that it means, and then for running as a personally poignant experience. It’s a hodgepodge survey of the questions that matter the most to me — how do I find meaning and purpose in life? what do I consider excellence or success? — jumping off of a particularly impactful New York Times article and drawing on a conversation and a meaningful quote. It’s my first big personal blog post, and I hope to explore these ideas and their sources in more posts to come.
Google Play Music records me as having listened through the entire album 5 times, 6 after writing this article. ↩
from personal experience and from books like J. M. Coeztee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. ↩