When I was 11, I asked my mom to buy me the CD single of Prince’s song “7.” I’d heard it on the radio and became obsessed, with no real idea of what the song was about. I just thought it was awesome. When Prince died on April 21, he left a legacy of music, artistry and personality that seems impossibly huge. His work is ubiquitous, and I’ve been struck by how much he meant to so many people. His life holds a lot of lessons for other artists.
Here are a few that I’ve been thinking about:
1. True artistry comes from a commitment to craft
Listening to the accounts recently of the amount of time Prince put into crafting new material should teach us that talent alone is not enough. Real artistry is the result of persistent, determined effort — putting of the nose to the proverbial grindstone.Prince was known to hold round-the-clock recording sessions, often resulting in work that would never make its way onto an album. He taught himself new technology, learned to produce, mastered dozens of instruments. He created to create, to push himself, to get better. Rather than sit back and watch the (substantial) royalty checks roll in, he got up every day and did what many artists fail to do: put in the time required to be excellent.
Yes, of course he was naturally talented, but he also clearly knew that talent only counts when it’s met with commitment. Like Prince, none of us should ever get comfortable or settle in our work. We should wake up every day and endeavor to be better today than we were yesterday. Don’t worry about fame. Don’t obsess over the money. Focus on the work. That is the life of a true artist.
2. You have to have the courage to take risks
There are very few artists more willing to take risks than Prince was. He and his work were controversial, difficult and constantly deepening. He followed his true impulses at the risk of alienating fans, critics, record companies and other artists. Instead of fulfilling audience and commercial expectations, he reinvented himself throughout his career, following his artistic whims. Prince was true to Prince.We should all be so willing to follow our true desires and impulses, both in the moment in our work as well as longer term in our careers. So many of us actors spend huge amounts of time worrying about what other people want from us and trying to shape ourselves to fit other people’s expectations. We could all stand to learn to stop worrying so much about pleasing others and spend more time making the choices that are true to us and make us proud in our own work.
3. Be generous in your work and in your life
One of the things that has amazed me most to learn since Prince’s death is how generous he was even while pursuing his craft and singular vision so thoroughly. He brought unknown artists into his band throughout his career and wrote songs for other artists. More than his musical generosity, much has been made of Prince’s quiet philanthropy. It came out last week that Prince donated millions anonymously to various causes and organizations, paying for technology training in underserved communities and hospital expansions. Prince understood that we are in this thing together, connected irrevocably. He gave not for prestige but because he never lost his empathy. It’s so easy as we pursue an actor’s life for the mirror to go up and to become self-absorbed. We can’t forget that all the work we do as artists serves to connect us with one another. That is the artist’s purpose in the world, to reveal through our work a universal humanity. When we are successful, our legacy, like Prince’s, can be profound.