After surviving for five months in space, astronaut Chris Hadfield has a new, tougher challenge: teaching me, a grown man whose only qualifications are narrowly passing 10th-grade science and usually keeping motion sickness at bay when commuting, to be a space explorer.
“It will be a great moment of introspection for humanity if you’re the person who finds that one little fossilized flower on Mars,” he says over rousing music. He points at the viewer when he says “you.” That viewer, not the first or even the millionth, is me as I watch the trailer for his MasterClass.
MasterClass burst onto the scene in 2015 with more star power than Love, Actually. Its pitch was simple: Famous people teach you about the thing that made them famous. For $90, you’d get access to the instructional videos and workbooks that made up each course. Students could also interact with one another and maybe their star instructor. Serena Williams reportedly invited one of her students to play tennis. James Patterson published a novel with one of his pupils.
2015 was a heady time for online learning. It was only a few years after the New York Times announced the “Year of the MOOC (massive open online course).” Universities had started putting lectures by their star instructors online. In 2013, the video e-learning platforms CreativeLive and Coursera completed Series B rounds of $21.5 million and $63 million, respectively. MasterClass appeared to synthesize all these developments, with the addition of copious stardust.
While much of e-learning matured into mundanity, MasterClass has doubled down on celebrity glitz. It now focuses on selling annual, all-access subscriptions. As with other such services, like Netflix, that means an ever-growing library to keep subscribers around. If “Aaron Sorkin teaches screenwriting” is good, one viewing should suffice. MasterClass’s library has grown from 34 to 51 in 2018. It completed an $80 million funding round in October to support continued growth. Dan Brown and Margaret Atwood are now part of its stable of novelists. Thomas Keller and Dominique Ansel now appear alongside Gordon Ramsay — the first person with two MasterClasses — in the “culinary arts” section.
The company is also branching out into more fields: political messaging with Karl Rove and David Axelrod; game design with Sims creator Will Wright; economics with Nobel laureate Paul Krugman; and, yes, space exploration with Chris Hadfield.
The promise of Hadfield’s class has a clarifying effect. You can talk yourself into the practical dimension of most MasterClasses: Even if the dream of playing tennis like Serena Williams or collecting Michelin stars like Gordon Ramsay doesn’t come true — and it won’t — you can still fall back on playing tennis and maybe hosting some dinner parties. There are fewer “cans” and “maybes” when it comes to space; space exploration-lite isn’t a thing. That you’ll never exit Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t stopped MasterClass from having Hadfield’s course alongside its chess and poker lessons. If using or mastering the titular skill can be taken off the table, what is MasterClass selling?
Every MasterClass follows the same formula. Bathed in soft light, the instructor delivers 15 to 30 brief lectures. If the instructor does something inherently visual for a living, like cooking or sports, those lessons include demonstrations. The writers just talk. Each lesson comes with a PDF workbook containing a summary and links to further reading. Students can record questions for instructors, who periodically post video replies during “office hours.” The formula extends all the way to course titles: Person Teaches Skill. Deadmau5 Teaches Electronic Music Production. Frank Gehry Teaches Design and Architecture. James Suckling Teaches Wine Appreciation. Teaches.
“Discusses” might be a more accurate verb. Hans Zimmer talks about what went into scoring The Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes, but that’s not quite the same thing as teaching film scoring. Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of why his stories work can be instructive, but it’s not what you’d think of as a writing course. “Make sure you get the racket under the ball,” Serena Williams says in a MasterClass that is just technical enough to be useless to a novice and inane to anyone who has taken a tennis lesson. That’s hardly her fault. MasterClasses exist in the uncanny valley between first principles and technical details. Its form of teaching is a grab bag of tips and reflections.
That is largely by design. “If you want to learn how to use your DSLR camera, this is not the place for you,” MasterClass co-founder and CEO David Rogier tells me. “That’s not what you should learn from Annie Leibovitz.”
That’s what YouTube is for, and good luck to anyone competing with their billions of free videos. Doing so, Rogier says, would require producing “tons of stuff every single year.” Leibovitz is presumably too busy to record updates every time camera specs change. With the exception of entries with Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, which have not been available since the actors were accused of sexual assault, MasterClasses are frozen in time. This sometimes result in amusing artifacts. “I’m not good at anything else,” Serena Williams confesses in one of MasterClass’s initial courses, “especially not relationships.” Four years after its release, she’s married with a child.
Part of MasterClass’s draw is that its teachers — Gordon Ramsay notwithstanding — are too famous to produce new videos all the time. That’s what makes their lessons and occasional “office hour” videos so exclusive. Besides, Rogier says, other people can help you learn the prosaic stuff.
Dividing educational labor in this way leaves a few possible roles for MasterClass instructions. Occasionally, they impart discrete skills. I made Gordon Ramsay’s scrambled eggs. They were good, even without the suggested white truffle shavings that cost more than the class itself. Other classes teach you about fields without preparing you to participate in them. Hans Zimmer didn’t teach me how to score a film, but he gave me some new language for discussing music. I caught myself using a fact from Chris Hadfield, who didn’t actually prepare me to be a space explorer, in conversation.
Rogier suggests there’s a third, more ineffable dimension to what MasterClass teaches: “I think there’s just stuff you can learn from the absolute best that you can apply to whatever part of your own life.”
MasterClass can hardly be credited with pioneering the idea that the rich and famous know something about success that extends beyond their chosen discipline. The existence of such generalized wisdom is a foundational belief in capitalist cultures. It’s also a proven business model.
Publishing houses have milked this idea for all it’s worth. It’s the titular promise of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: These successful people have it figured out, so be more like them. Business advice texts follow this script most aggressively, but they’re hardly the only ones. In sports, the celebrity instructional text has also proven to be a reliable product. “The most we can ask of ourselves is to give it our best shot, knowing that sometimes we will fail,” Tiger Woods wrote in his 2001 book, How I Play Golf. Ostensibly an instructional text, it freely mixes tips with biographical sketches and motivational pabulum. If MasterClass had been around at Woods’s peak, one imagines this content would have become one of its classes. In a sense, the genre has pivoted to video.
MasterClass is also reminiscent of the financial advice circuit. Speakers like Tony Robbins long ago obviated any distinction between practical advice and inspirational paeans. (Once you’re successful, selling the secret to your success can be as lucrative as the thing that made you big.)
Financial events have also provided an opportunity for actors, musicians, and athletes — some of MasterClass’s favorite professionals — to branch out into motivational teaching. At Toronto’s 2018 Real Estate Wealth Expo, part of a traveling series of such events, Robbins was joined by Alex Rodriguez, Sylvester Stallone, and Pitbull. Rodriguez doled out catchphrases like “attitude determines altitude.” Stallone advised against spending on a therapist. This might not sound like real estate investing advice, but the presence of these men is consistent with the idea that we can all learn from the experiences of very successful people.
Pitbull making extended analogies about cocaine in 1980s Miami, as he reportedly did in Toronto, is rather outré. One of MasterClass’s accomplishments is repackaging the combination of motivational speaking, celebrity access, and pedagogy into something with less baggage. Lessons stay on topic. Presenters don’t awkwardly vamp to fill their allotted time. Not being a live product allows for every last hint of amateurism or chaos to be edited or polished away. When Chris Hadfield talks about bettering yourself, as he frequently does, he’s sitting at a desk that supports a collection of model rockets. He speaks softly and in full paragraphs while wearing sensible knitwear. Nobody’s about to yell at you that now’s the time to spend your retirement savings on gold or penny stocks.
This is a stylistic innovation more than a substantive one — a TED talk stretches to five hours with no clapping. Motivational speaking is associated with large, impersonal conference halls: ceiling tiles, stackable chairs, patterned carpets that hide stains. Some MasterClasses, on the other hand, are just a person sitting in a small room. “The impression that we’re trying to create is that you’re sitting on a couch with that person and they’re going to share everything they know,” Rogier says. “There’s something about the intimacy and bond with that person that excites me.”
Malcolm Gladwell talking at you for 24 lessons may be the least visual video series conceivable — it’s a podcast or audiobook where you can see the man talking — but it creates a very specific mood. That may be of value to users who feel like motivational speaking is for rubes, but the underlying idea remains unchanged.
MasterClass doesn’t need a host to hype up stars as they arrive onstage or fill the dead air between presentation. It seamlessly transitions between speakers, condensing bon mots from their courses into thematic playlists. In a brisk 15 minutes, Judy Blume, Armin van Buuren, Malcolm Gladwell, Judd Apatow, Herbie Hancock, and Helen Mirren all discuss coping with criticism. They cop to reading comments and reviews — they’re only human. With various degrees of name-dropping, all six find their way to agreeing that you shouldn’t let criticism stop you. Go for it!
Playlists are the apotheosis of the MasterClass phenomenon, bringing together a remarkable amount of star power to add heft to a simple point — and then triple-underlining it for good measure. The playlist on “Motivation” deploys an Oscar winner with 11 other nominations, a different Oscar nominee, a three-time NBA champion, a perennial best-selling author, a five-time Womenswear Designer of the Year, a winner of 50 DJ awards, and an astronaut to tell you that it’s important to enjoy what you do. Similar forms of credential overkill can be found in playlists on the importance of “Communication” and “Leadership” and “Taking a Healthy Amount of Risk.”
Contrary to the lesson of that last playlist, MasterClass appears unwilling to accept the risk that you’ll find a point delivered by a single speaker unconvincing. Instead, its playlists pile up the names and credentials in an attempt to make the argument irrefutable.
In the absence of the practical instructions and examples that make up the bulk of most MasterClasses, playlists come to feel nearly indistinguishable from motivational seminars. The presenters’ expertise, whether it’s Pitbull at a Real Estate Wealth Expo or Deadmau5 in a MasterClass playlist, only matters as a prerequisite. It is proof that they have succeeded at something and are therefore wise enough to give all sorts of vague advice. Playlists suggest that MasterClass’s vaguely practical elements, while entertaining and occasionally informative, exist as delivery vehicles for discussing the mindset of very successful bits.
If you take enough MasterClasses, which is the point of the all-access model, you’ll quickly start hearing talking points just waiting to be plucked out of their courses and aggregated into playlists. “Find a passion because everything else falls into place once you’ve got that track set,” Gordon Ramsay will tell you. “When people ask me what I do for a living,” Dominique Ansel will say, “I always tell them I do what I love.” Hans Zimmer will say everything comes down to “this crazy, burning desire to do something.” Serena Williams will concur, declaring “you’re only going to do great and be great if you enjoy what you’re doing.” And then Chris Hadfield will chime in to note: “Every single step I think that you take in the direction of your dreams is one that will make you happier and more satisfied with yourself.”
“Follow your dreams” is an unironic idea that goes unquestioned in the world of MasterClass. Its teachers, after all, are the people who have successfully done just that. They’re at great pains to reassure viewers they too have experienced setbacks, but things are clearly working out. The narrative arc of every MasterClass biography ends in success. The protagonist’s risks and struggles were worth it.
The same risks and struggles may not be worth it for others. Lots of people chase their dreams to minimal effect; they just don’t teach MasterClasses. Selling lessons from Very Successful People is inevitably an exercise in selection bias. While MasterClass instructors diligently acknowledge people who have helped them along the way, their narratives have a decidedly micro-level perspective. There’s rarely the sense that larger societal forces may determine one’s success.
Despite MasterClass’s best efforts, the world at large can still be felt lurking around every corner. When Dominique Ansel talks about coming to work in America, it’s hard not to think about who gets let in. When Gordon Ramsay talks about selling his house to finance his dream, it’s hard not to think about the economics of risk-taking. When Chris Hadfield urges the viewer to never turn down a shot at free education, it’s hard not to think about student debt and the rarity of such opportunities. (His MasterClass costs $90. An all-access pass costs $180.) Passion and determination are not nothing, but they can hardly be expected to make up for structural disadvantages.
The existence of forces out of the individual’s control complicates MasterClass’s implicit argument. If some people have higher chances of succeeding than others, the knowledge of those who make it to the top is less transferable. (Many Congress Members Teach Being Born on Third Base doesn’t have the same ring to it.) At the end of 2018, about three-quarters of MasterClass instructors were male. Nearly 80 percent were white. Did they just follow their dreams more?
This dissonance does not appear to be holding MasterClass back. The company says its clientele is omnivorous. A quarter of all-access users who take a sports class go on to take one in writing. Maybe there’s just a tremendous overlap between these interests, in which case we should all prepare for the Air Bud reboot boom of 2025. It seems likelier, though, that viewers are interested in something more abstract that isn’t entirely about sport or film: a vision of success that transcends structural and vocational barriers.
MasterClass has already announced that Neil Gaiman, Timbaland, Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, and David Lynch will join the fold in 2019. There’s no problem with having multiple stars from the same field, Rogier told me, because they each have different methods: “If you look at the classes on filmmaking with Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese,” he says, “they are different kinds of classes.”
Insofar as there are many ways of doing and teaching the same thing, he’s right. That may, however, overstate the importance of differentiation. Much of the appeal of MasterClass comes from so many stars, across so many fields and so many hours of videos, saying the same thing. Their journeys, mindsets, and suggestions start to bleed into one another, forming a unified theory of success. Stars may not be like us, but it turns out that they are like one another.
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