Most striking to me was the breadth of material available: art, music, writing, design and style, sports, wellness, community, government and business. And the caliber of my teachers: Jodie Foster and Martin Scorsese (filmmaking), former Disney boss Bob Iger (leadership), Penn & Teller (magic), Natalie Portman (acting), Annie Leibovitz (photography) and many more.
Which brings me back to my living room, which has been temporarily christened center court and 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams, who is going to teach me how to become a tennis champion.
Because you’re good at everything, you have to be really committed to doing it, and you have to be willing to put the work in, Williams says. I don’t disagree, I say back to TV. You just don’t wake up one day and be the best in the world, that’s not going to happen. Wait. I press pause. Not Which what have I signed up for?
How exactly a tennis lesson translates from a real court to the living room is a legitimate question, and in a less COVID-aware moment, I could have taken my teacher to the nearest tennis court on a tablet. As a child growing up The Brady BunchI know better than anyone the dangers of playing ball at home.
But what is revealed when I delve deeper into the layers of MasterClass Fashion editor-in-chief and Conde Nast artistic director Anna Wintours course in creativity and leadership and seven Michelin-star chef Gordon Ramsay’s introduction to cooking in quick succession is that you don’t have to be on the tennis court or in the editorial room. Fashion, or even your own kitchen.
Winning in tennis is as good as conquering the fashion world and learning to cook, as much a mental game as it is a physical game. Which means that while this is not an activity tied to a bank, the richness of the experience comes mainly from stepping into the minds of these masters and listening. (Pro tip: print out the pdf course book and take notes.)
In the case of my up and coming tennis game, instead of starting with the basics, this is the court, this is where you stand, and so on, happily Williams makes some guesses of understanding. We instantly dive into fundamentals, check the course, advanced net game and build the mental game to win. Before long I consider changing my name to Michaelatina Navratiladato.
Depending on how deeply you want to engage, the master classes serve as deep dive quasi-documentaries, or real lessons where you can learn the difference between the eastern and continental fore grip, for example (and why Serena prefers the eastern one: it brings the strings in more direct contact with the ball), the difference between kick services and slice services, and how to turn your wrist by doing both.
Then we come to eating and writing, where MasterClass seems to be reaching its peak. Those fields are dense, with chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Massimo Bottura, Wolfgang Puck and Ramsay teaching skills and cooking classes, and writers Roxane Gay, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Shonda Rhimes, Aaron Sorkin, and others teach their trade.
What have I signed up for?
MasterClass was founded in 2014 by David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen, but Rogier, the company’s CEO, said in an interview last year that it took a long time for leading instructors to be willing to get filmed.
The first to sign up was author James Patterson, who agreed to an unsolicited email. Rogier said they made it appealing to Patterson by giving him the finishing touches on the course videos and by using production crews he knew. At that level, it’s never money, you have to rely on everything else, Rogier said.
The courses are made up of both an audience research that identifies what subscribers want, and a curriculum prepared by the masterclass teacher himself. We then merge those two worlds, Rogier said.
That strategy has paid off. After initially paying for each course separately, the app now has an annual fee for unlimited access, much like its snazzy cousin, the meditation and wellness app Calm. As a result, MasterClass is now worth about a quarter of a billion dollars.
In many ways, the most important takeaway isn’t whether someone would sign up. I did, admittedly fueled by the prospect of spending my weekends indoors for most of last year, but whether, after spending so much a year of access, they would bite back for a second.
The economy seems reasonable. I defended myself like this: I would have paid $ 180 to listen to Serena Williams for a few hours, let alone get me on the pitch and get into her match mindset. I will never be a tennis champion, even with Serena as my teacher, but I came out of the course with confidence in my game and maybe even more confidence in my life.
For others, it could be courses with ballerina Misty Copeland, US presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, US political strategists David Axelrod and Karl Rove, or former hostage negotiator Chris Voss sealing the deal.
One of the reasons I enjoy teaching people how to negotiate is because I hate bullies, Voss says as I dive into his course. Protecting people is important. Protecting and serving law enforcement has always meant something to me. The chance to get the bad guys has always meant a lot to me. And this gives people power in the face of a bully.
Yes, I’m going back in. Sign me up.
Need some good news?
Michael Idato is the general culture editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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