Book Review: Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story (by Lang Lang with David Ritz).
What price, success?
It's apropos that Lang Lang's mother asked him (after he rose to heights as a classical pianist), "'Is success everything you dreamed it would be, Lang Lang?'" (p. 205.)
His mother’s question becomes more revealing in the context of her Herculean sacrifices for his success. As a young lad, Lang Lang and his father left her behind, so Lang Lang could live in Beijing and audition for (and later attend) the conservatory. The good-bye concluded like this: “‘Enough,’ my father told her. ‘It’s time that you go. Let the boy be. All this sentiment makes him weak.’” (p. 1.) Upon his mom’s departure, Lang Lang’s dad instructed: “‘Go practice…. We’ve wasted enough time today.’” (p. 2.)
Sacrifice was the primary ingredient in Lang Lang's recipe for success. Mom sent money, but was mostly banished from seeing or speaking with Lang Lang for fear it would distract him. Lang Lang practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more. Lang Lang and his father lived in squalor in Beijing. “For the six years my dad and I had lived in Beijing, we had known extreme poverty.” (p. 165.) Everyone sacrificed and placed the sacrifices on the altar of Lang Lang’s putative musical career. “Number One” was his father’s incantation. It also became Lang Lang’s. He successfully competed in piano competitions in Asia and Europe, often felling favored competitors.
Once he came to America he studied under a teacher that rejected such competitions (p. 171), so Lang Lang focused on concerts with orchestras.
Experiencing living in America, the book takes on a cultural commentary. (See Part Four; pp. 149-205.) Lang Lang surprisingly enjoyed hip-hop music and lingo (“‘Ya, me,’ meaning ‘Do you know what I mean?’” [p. 167]), a Britney Spears concert (p. 229), and other aspects of popular culture, such as television and movies. (pp. 229-30). In an intriguing contrast, China embraces classical music as pop culture, but in a naive fashion, with many “think[ing] that Mozart is alive and well.” (p. 3.)
Another key ingredient however in Lang Lang’s success was good-fortune, or just plain luck. “I thanked the gods of good fortune”, Lang Lang tellingly wrote. (p. 225.) He was often in the right place in the right time, which is not to discount Lang Lang’s talent or hard work. It simply underscores the message of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (see review on January 19, 2009), which is that success is the often the product of toiling (the “10,000 hour rule”) combined with fortunate timing.
It was somewhat comical for Lang Lang to argue for balance towards the end of his memoir (“I had learned perhaps the most important lesson of my education: that balance is what matters most” [p. 230]), since balance is the very opposite of his path to success as a classical pianist.