One thing I forgot to mention about Broadway Melody of 1940: I liked the way they showed the differences in ability between Johnny (Fred Astaire’s character) and King (George Murphy’s character).

Right at the start, they’re dancing together; to my untrained eye, there weren’t obvious differences in the quality of their dancing. (I’ll watch it a bit more closely next time.) But later in the movie, you see them differ in two important ways:

  • Johnny is always coming up with ways to improve the choreography of the dancing.
  • King engages in misguided behavior, sometimes seeming actively self-destructive.

About the first of these: dancing isn’t choreography, so one could imagine that they’re both equally skilled dancers, but Johnny simply happens to be a better choreographer. And that’s probably some of what’s going on. I actually have no idea to what extend dancers are, or should, be thought of as choreographers; Johnny’s explanation of why one of his suggestions was an improvement seemed to make sense, though, and suggested to me that good dancers should, at the least, understand the benefits of local elements of choreography and be able to refine them, even if their grasp of global elements might not be so hot.

But the other thing that’s clear from this is that Johnny thinks about dancing all the time, in a way that King doesn’t. Which is very important: if you want to get good at something, being obsessed with it is a big help. I just finished reading Musashi (quite good, by the way), and there, too, we see Musashi following his art with single-minded determination, constantly trying to improve his art, and applying lessons from all aspects of life to his art.

This is something that I am both good and bad at. I am a fairly obsessive reader, so, for example, I’m the only person in my software group at work who is reading books about programming or managing whenever I go to the bathroom. (Incidentally, I’m kind of running out of good books to read on those subjects. Though I do have books that I’d like to re-read, to be sure. But I also am in a bit of a rut, and should be spending more time broadening my programming, I suspect.) Which is, of course, hardly the only way to improve your skills, but reading definitely helps me.

The flip side, though, is that I will read all sorts of random stuff, and flit from topic to topic. Which can be useful for future career growth (not that one’s career is the measurement of one’s success, to be sure), but it also means that I’m quite unlikely to develop the level of skill that either Fred Astaire or Miyamoto Musashi had in their respective areas of interest. Not that they were necessarily narrow-minded; while Musashi was doubtless a better swordsman than artist, his paintings are lovely. (I wish I could find some good links to show you.)

Anyways, back to the movie: another difference between Johnny and King is that King makes a lot more mistakes, often engaging in what seems like actively self-destructive behavior. I make a lot of mistakes, too; some of them are simply areas that are hard to master, or areas where an expert could show me what I’m doing wrong and, with more or less effort, I could do the right thing. E.g. it took me a while to be able to successfully put the planning game into practice; I think I’m getting there now, but if I had a good XP coach, it probably wouldn’t have taken me nearly as long.

But I’m sure that I also could be seen as engaging in self-destructive behavior; for example, I’m sure that people could point out ways in which my actions while I was trying to be an academic were actively counterproductive. The interesting thing there, though, is that my actions may well have been quite productive/constructive at a higher level – academia wasn’t a good fit for me, so actions that look counter-productive in the context of me getting another academic job may have been ways in which my subconscious was acting productively to get me steered to a better path.

Or maybe not; maybe I just got lucky. (And I’m still very curious to what extent my current job is a good fit for me, and what I’ll be doing ten years from now.) There’s a similar ambiguity in the movie: at some level, it seems like being a dance star perhaps isn’t the best fit or King, so maybe it’s best if he gets out of that now.

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