David Mamet on software development
February 7, 2009
I recently read the book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (1997) by David Mamet. (A gift from Uncle Steve. Thanks!) Mamet’s film The Spanish Prisoner is one of my favorites, and I liked Oleanna, Things Change, and Glengarry Glen Ross a lot too. Wait, looking over his writing credits at IMDb, I see I’d forgotten The Winslow Boy, State and Main, and Wag the Dog, which were good too.
Enough of the fanboyism. This little book of his is packed with what sounds like good advice for actors. Not having been an actor in anything more than a school play or two, I can only imagine, but I was surprised to find myself nodding in agreement during many passages because they applied so well to my field, software development.
I’ve selected a few quotations that seemed especially apt:
I was once at a marriage ceremony where the parties swore “to try to be faithful, to try to be considerate ...” That marriage was, of course, doomed. Any worthwhile goal is difficult to accomplish. To say of it “I’ll try” is to excuse oneself in advance. Those who respond to our requests with “I’ll try” intend to deny us, and call on us to join in the hypocrisy—as if there were some merit in intending anything other than accomplishment. (p. 34)
This reminded me of Richard Stallman’s take on the same subject:
Yoda’s philosophy (“There is no ‘try’”) sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me. I have done most of my work while anxious about whether I could do the job, and unsure that it would be enough to achieve the goal if I did. But I tried anyway, because there was no one but me between the enemy and my city. Surprising myself, I have sometimes succeeded. (from the essay, The GNU Project)
Though they appear to be contradictory, I think both approaches can apply depending on circumstances and I’ve employed each at various times. Whoa, there ... nuance.
I don’t have comments about the rest of these excerpts:
The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called “heroism.” The person who will not be swayed, who perseveres no matter what—that hero has the capacity to inspire us, to suggest that we reexamine our self-imposed limitations and try again. (p. 13)
The middle-class work ethic: “But I did my preparation. It is not my fault if the truth of the moment does not conform.” That ethic is not going to avail. Nobody cares how hard you worked. Nor should they.
Acting, which takes places for an audience, is not as the academic model would have us believe. It is not a test. It is an art, and it requires not tidiness, not paint-by-numbers intellectuality, but immediacy and courage. (p. 32)
Let us learn acceptance. This is one of the greatest tools an actor can have. The capacity to accept: to wish things to happen as they do. It is the root of all happiness in life, and it is the root of wisdom for an actor. Acceptance. Because the capacity to accept derives from the will and the will is the source of character. Applying our intention to use only one meaning for words, character is the same onstage and off. It is habitual action. ...
The habit of cheerful acceptance is an aide in the greater life in the theatre, too, because it induces truthful consideration: “The world is as it is, what can I do about it?” ... (pp. 70-71)
Carve the big tasks up into small tasks and perform these small tasks. (p. 76)
The more you are concerned with yourself, the less you are worthy of note.
The more a person’s concentration is outward, the more naturally interesting that person becomes. ...
The person with attention directed outward becomes various and provocative. The person endeavoring to become various and provocative is stolid and unmoving. (p. 95)
“Luck,” in one’s business dealings, and “talent,” its equivalent onstage, seem to reward those with an active and practicable philosophy. ... [H]ard work and perseverence will be rewarded. (p. 99)
In the theatre, as in other endeavors, correctness in the small is the key to correctness in the large. (p. 101)
Be generous to others. ... There is certainly something you can correct or improve in yourself today—over which you have control. That habit will make you strong. Yearning to correct or amend something in someone else will make you petty. ...
Cultivate the habit of mutuality. Create with your peers, and you are building a true theatre. When you desire and strive to rise from the ranks rather than with the ranks, you are creating divisiveness and loneliness in yourself, in the theatre, and in the world. (pp. 102-103)
It is not a sign of ignorance not to know the answers. But there is great merit in facing the questions. (p. 127)
That’s enough for now, but there’s much more in the book that I found useful and applicable to other areas of life as well. It’s a quick read and I really enjoyed it.