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The Ballet of Business

“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” — Mikhail Baryshnikov My wife and I aren’t stereotypical Little League parents. We don’t push coaches to put our kids in the first string, and we don’t brawl with opponents’ parents. But this time, we were steaming. We had to do something.

“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” — Mikhail Baryshnikov

My wife and I aren’t stereotypical Little League parents. We don’t push coaches to put our kids in the first string, and we don’t brawl with opponents’ parents. But this time, we were steaming. We had to do something.

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Our 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, was outshining the other girls in her ballet class, and we feared that if Amanda’s teacher didn’t advance her to the next dance level, she would lose interest. So we set up a meeting with the head of her ballet studio, José Mateo.

Mateo started the Ballet Theatre of Boston nearly 15 years ago. Without the funding of the well-established Boston Ballet, he built a professional operation focused on improving self-esteem in an inclusive, caring, and diverse community. His dedication to dance and his students’ well-being helped his troupe earn a reputation as the “other” serious Boston studio.

My wife and I told Mateo about Amanda’s wonderful stage presence and graceful movement. He listened and agreed. But he did not think Amanda should be moved up. Always polite and respectful, he responded, “Amanda moves well and presents herself beautifully, but that is not the discipline of ballet. What we teach is the dancer’s position at the start of each move and at the end of each move. How she gets from Point A to Point B is up to her individuality, her imagination, and her artistry. Amanda needs to improve her focus, her concentration, and the position of her head and eyes before and after moves. That is what she must learn to proceed to the next level.”

My wife and I turned to each other. Our expressions acknowledged the truth of his statement. I had seen the artistry of moving from A to B in ballet performances, but I had not considered the discipline of A and B that separates good from great, the discipline that is ballet.

“We don’t have ideology. We don’t have theology. We dance.” — Shinto priest

Mateo is our Yoda of ballet. But his perspective provides career insight as well. You must know where you are starting from (Point A) and where you need to be at completion (Point B) to succeed. We do that by aligning our individual efforts with specific, desired results. Following are three tips for using the discipline of ballet to build your brand or relaunch a fulfilling career.

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Learn It Before You Leave It: Have You Learned Positions A and B?

“My advice is to go into something and stay with it until you like it. You can’t like it until you obtain expertise in that work. And once you are an expert, it’s a pleasure.” — Milton Garland, America’s oldest wage earner

Mateo’s comment about discipline reminded me of my original academic field, economics. The so-called “dismal science” is often boring until you get a few years under your belt. Once you build a foundation, the fun really starts, because you know enough to interpret opinions, challenge conventions, and develop independent theories.

MBAs from top schools average 18 months in their first jobs. My career-management consulting firm, You&Company, studied MBAs and learned that many people switch jobs four to six times during the first 10 years after graduation. As one product manager at Intel told me, “It takes four to five years to become a good product manager here. These MBAs don’t want to wait that long, so why hire them?”

Impatience means you may not learn how to do a job well; it also means you can’t enjoy a job well done. Lori van Dam, the bright, young president of a corporate division, once told me, “When I joined this division, it took me a year just to get my feet wet, another to practice what I knew, and a third to enjoy the satisfaction of doing the job well. I’m glad I stayed three years. Most people try to move on after one or two.”

Enjoy the Sizzle and Prepare to Eat the Steak: Do You Understand What the Job Requires?

“The artist is nothing without gift, but gift is nothing without work.” — Émile Zola, 19th-century French novelist

One of my favorite Zen expressions is “after ecstasy, the laundry.” Too often we don’t think about where a decision will lead — where the work will take us next.

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In 1990, a friend asked me to write a book with him. Personable, attractive, and socially minded, he was looking forward to getting a big advance and then going on the talk shows. He had no interest in actually writing the book. I declined.

Last year, I wrote my first “popular” book. I loved the writing, but I didn’t really anticipate the work involved. My previous experience with academic books taught me that the question is not whether you enjoy writing but whether you enjoy rewriting. Now the question is not whether I enjoy rewriting but whether I enjoy promoting myself and my book relentlessly.

Like any successful artist, I learned that you pay a price for success. As Francis Ford Coppola said in Fast Company, “People are shocked to hear that I think of The Godfather series with sadness. I see those films almost as a personal failure. They changed my life detrimentally, even though the world treated them as big artistic and commercial successes. Their success led me to make big commercial films — when what I really wanted was to do original films, like those that Woody Allen is able to focus on.”

Focus on Inner Purpose and Outer Form: What Are Your Deepest Aspirations?

“Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” — Marian Wright Edelman, civil-rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund

In the movie Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, finds a kindly, aged doctor named Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and gives him the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. Moonlight nearly played Major League Baseball, but fate intervened. “It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it! God, they’d consider it a tragedy!” Ray Kinsella tells his friend. Moonlight responds, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes … now, that would have been a tragedy.”

Immigrant Nicholas Bercel was a famous and gifted neurologist. A close family friend, he once told me how he got into medicine. He claimed that he stood in the wrong line to apply to law school. He said that when he found out the line was for medical school, “I took a moment to look at my reasoning and thought, Maybe this is a sign. After all, learning law or medicine is similar; they both entail memorization and application. I can serve just as many people as a doctor. Why not try medical school, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll switch?”

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Nicholas was a self-effacing man, so even as a child, I took his story in that light. Like Moonlight Graham, his serendipity was good news for many people he served. It was only years later that I understood the point of his story: There are many ways to serve those in need. It’s not the job or the profession that determines if you will serve others; it’s all up to you.

To read more about building a strong foundation for your career, see “Chapter 7: Build Your Platform and Leap” of Mark Albion’s New York Times best-selling book, Making a Life, Making a Living (2000), now also available in paperback, e-book, audio cassette, and audio download. Chapter excerpts and samples are available here.

Copyright © 2001 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

Read more columns by Mark Albion.