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Can MasterClass Teach You Everything?

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Can MasterClass Teach You Everything?

We turn to the Internet for answers. We want to connect, or understand, or simply appreciate something—even if it’s only Joe Rogan. It’s a fraught pursuit. As the Web keeps expanding faster and faster, it’s become saturated with lies and errors and loathsome ideas. It’s a Pacific Ocean that washes up skeevy wonders from its Great Garbage Patch. We long for a respite, a cove where simple rules are inscribed in the sand.

You may have seen one advertised online, among the “weird tricks” to erase your tummy fat and your student loans. It’s MasterClass, a site that promises to disclose the secrets of everything from photography to comedy to wilderness survival. The company’s recent ad, “Lessons on Greatness. Gretzky,” encapsulates the pitch: a class taught by the greatest hockey player ever, full of insights not just for aspiring players but for anyone eager to achieve extraordinary things. In the seminar, Wayne Gretzky tells us that as a kid he’d watch games and diagram the puck’s movements on a sketch of a rink, which taught him to “skate to where the puck is gonna be.” Likewise, Martin Scorsese says in his class that he used to storyboard scenes from movies he admired, such as the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.” The idea that mastery can be achieved by attentive emulation of the masters is the site’s foundational promise. James Cameron, in his class, suggests that the path to glory consists of only one small step. “There’s a moment when you’re just a fan, and there’s a moment when you’re a filmmaker,” he assures us. “All you have to do is pick up a camera and start shooting.”

Early Newspaper

When MasterClass launched, in 2015, it offered three courses: Dustin Hoffman on acting, James Patterson on writing, and Serena Williams on tennis. Today, there are a hundred and thirty, in categories from business to wellness. During the pandemic lockdown, demand was up as much as tenfold from the previous year; last fall, when the site had a back-to-school promotion, selling an annual subscription for a dollar instead of a hundred and eighty dollars, two hundred thousand college students signed up in a day. MasterClass will double in size this year, to six hundred employees, as it launches in the U.K., France, Germany, and Spain. It’s a Silicon Valley investor’s dream, a rolling juggernaut of flywheels and network effects dedicated to helping you, as the instructor Garry Kasparov puts it, “upgrade your software.”

The classes are crammed with pro tips and are often highly entertaining. Neil Gaiman explains the comfort and tedium of genre fiction by noting that, in such stories, the plot exists only to prevent all the shoot-outs and cattle stampedes from happening at the same time. Serena Williams advises playing the backhands of big-chested women, because “larger boobs” hinder shoulder rotation. And the singer St. Vincent observes that the artist’s job is to metabolize shame. The classes draw inspiration from the Learning Annex, TED talks, the great-books canon, shouty Peloton instructors, even Netflix-and-chill. Yet MasterClass’s bespoke self-care embodies our time, as cigar stores and feng-shui embodied theirs. It incarnates the screen-dependent YOLO FOMO of those the company calls CATS—the curious, aspiring thirtysomethings who constitute a plurality of its audience.

Although MasterClass has 1.5 million subscribers, its adherents pride themselves on possessing secrets vouchsafed only to the élite. The halo of self-satisfaction has inspired a recurrent bit on “Saturday Night Live,” and has been parodied by Kevin Bacon (“Even if you’re playing a baby, or the Pope, or a woman, it’s necessary to have some facial hair”). MasterClass is easy to mock, because it traffics in our lordliest tropes. The musicians wear porkpie hats; the writers wield fountain pens; Aaron Sorkin walks at length and talks at greater length. The site’s vaunting ambition echoes the boast of Cyrano de Bergerac: “I’m going to take the simplest approach to life of all. . . . I’ve decided to excel in everything.” We privately long to be ennobled, but we doubt that most people have the stuff of genius—anyone who’s looked around a first-grade gym class knows that. Mastery can be measured only against a vast backdrop of bungling.

In May, eleven MasterClass managers met on Zoom for a monthly “content review” of recent classes. David Rogier, the company’s founder and C.E.O., listened as the team went over subscribers’ feedback on Amy Tan’s class (some found it too easy) and Questlove’s (some found it too hard). He tilted his head to his favorite angle: interrogative. “How can we help steer people to the right skill level of class?” he asked. “Difficulty doesn’t necessarily turn people off. It can be, like, ‘Oh, wow, I don’t understand that, but I’m seeing mastery and craft, and it’s really interesting.’ So how do we figure that out?”

Silence. Rogier chuckled and said, “I know you’ve been working on it.” An irrepressibly curious man of thirty-eight, he has a cherubic smile and a stammer that can close his eyes in struggle. “I stutter when I’m vulnerable,” he told me. “My ex-girlfriends would see it and go, ‘Ooh!’ ” A self-proclaimed dork (“I’d have to be better at math or engineering to be a nerd”), Rogier went so far as to take notes on Shonda Rhimes’s maxims on the set of her MasterClass on writing for television, even though she was being filmed for his own Web site. The company has a polling account with SurveyMonkey, but Rogier maintains his own account, so that he can canvass people about, say, their experiences with education (most people hate school but love learning, as he does).

Rogier’s immediate goal with MasterClass is to rebuild the Library of Alexandria in digital form. This ancient Egyptian athenaeum is a totem of the tech world—Jeff Bezos named Amazon’s Alexa after it—so it’s unsurprising that Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Spotify offer MasterClasses to their workers. The site epitomizes Big Tech’s ethos of levelling itself up as it waits impatiently for the world to follow.

His deeper mission is to disseminate expertise. “My ultimate dream is that somebody who’d never have access to these masters takes one of the classes and becomes a master,” he told me. It depresses him that to go deeper into his latest hobby, aquascaping, in which you build underwater worlds, he must contact a specialty shop in Texas or Hungary (“Do you carry assassin snails?”), rather than just clicking on a MasterClass.

His mission is bedevilled by the traditional barriers to education—finding a subject that interests you, finding a teacher who can bring the subject alive, finding time to do the homework—but also by his company’s outsized pedagogic ambitions. It aims to convey not just good-enough-for-a-Twitter-thread adequacy but bona-fide mastery. And it plans to write code to streamline and standardize the whole process. Mark Williamson, the company’s chief operating officer, told me, “I think it’s legitimately possible for us to create an algorithm that builds a personalized catalogue that leads you to become the best person you can be.”

Rogier called up a fresh slide and said, “Ready to go to the impact stuff? All right, I’m excited!” The company recently identified four “pillars” of impact that it wants its subscribers to experience: Think, Feel, Do, and Share or Be Seen. These are moments that change the way you think or the way you feel, that motivate you to do something, or that prompt you to share a discovery with friends. They are, Rogier hopes, the beginnings of a blueprint for how to teach.

Rena Ferrick, one of the site’s creative directors, explained that a focus group had identified numerous Do impacts in a class by the thriller writer Dan Brown. She played a clip of Brown explaining how to build suspense—by, for instance, ending a chapter before its action resolves, or on a character crying, “Eureka!” Ferrick said, “He broke it down into its discrete parts so that ‘I feel like I can do that now.’ We want to deliver on this Do every time, with every new instructor.”

Ferrick then played a clip in which James Cameron explained how the actors in “Avatar” were filmed making the faces that their blue avatars would display onscreen—and how difficult it was to get his algorithm to re-create those human micro-expressions in the digital beings’ “pseudo-muscles.”

“O.K., so that rated high on Be Seen?” Rogier said, his face scrunched in puzzlement. Be Seen is the site’s inconvenient impact, the one least obviously conducive to mastery and most obviously conducive to mansplaining.

A department head said, “It makes you look like you know how x, y, z works.”

“One day, you’ll look back on all your youthful mistakes and remember how adorable you were while making them.”
Cartoon by Carolita Johnson

“It’s fucking awesome,” Rogier agreed, “but I’m just trying to grok it.”

Ferrick suggested, “It’s something you want to talk about and share regardless of whether the person you’re talking with is also interested in the same topic.” Rogier frowned. Isn’t that the definition of a bore?

The group studied a class taught by Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. In a clip from the end, Blakely gave a Feel-laden synopsis of her journey: “With five thousand dollars, I created a product that didn’t exist, but I then also launched a brand that became a global brand, that women around the world love.” For three days of filming, Blakely had been plucky and self-deprecating; now she began to get emotional. The crew whooped encouragement, and the director said, “Amazing!” “I’m, like, about to cry,” Blakely said, blinking away tears, “because I’m, like, Holy shit, how did I do that?”

Most of the people in the meeting were dabbing their eyes. “It’s the best part of the class,” Rogier said. He tried to speak, then said, “Sorry, it is emotional.”

The department head said, “Our next step is understanding how the pillars correlate with one another.”

Rogier declared, “I bet you that once we finish this work there will be an optimal mix between the four pillars!” His smile began to fade. “The problem will be, how do you not make it canned?”

Just about every expert in mastery invokes Mozart, each to his own purpose. Was Mozart, who composed his first concerto at five, a born genius? Or was he the product of gruelling years of tutelage from his father? MasterClass instructors often suggest that expertise is available to all. Christina Aguilera tells us, “You are special, you are so talented”; Sheila E. declares that everyone has rhythm; Howard Schultz, the former C.E.O. of Starbucks, assures us that we all have what it takes to lead a company through a crisis.

Yet many of the instructors believe that you need some talent. Aguilera says that she can’t tell us anything about rhythm, because “it’s a gut feeling.” Aaron Sorkin says that dialogue is “the least teachable part of writing.” (Screenplays are mostly dialogue.) Timbaland, who teaches producing and beat-making, told me, “Everybody can do everything—but you’re not going to be good at it. Some people are just gifted.” MasterClass is careful not to alienate viewers with inimitability. Williamson, the C.O.O., told me, “We didn’t do Shaq on basketball, because you look at Shaq and think, If you’re not seven foot one and don’t weigh three hundred pounds, you can’t do it. Steph Curry is a lanky six-three guy—he makes it clear that you can, but that hard work is super important.” As Curry says, in his class’s final message, “You need to get in the gym and get to work. Time’s ticking.”

St. Vincent told me, “The implicit assumption in every MasterClass is ‘Just work really hard.’ Oh, and also ‘Work really hard!’ ” Studies suggest that there is a “ten-year rule”: it takes at least a decade of apprenticeship to become world class in a discipline. You must advance from unconscious incompetence (not knowing how bad you are) to conscious incompetence (being all too aware) to conscious competence (keeping your goals firmly in mind) to unconscious competence (being in the zone, or in “flow”). In the book “Talent Is Overrated,” Geoff Colvin writes about deliberate practice, which is “designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it pushes the practicer just beyond, but not way beyond, his or her current limits; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally.” Also, he notes, “it isn’t much fun.”

Deliberate practice requires accepting criticism and feeling clumsy as you train for at least an hour a day, neither of which applies to someone watching a video seminar on her couch. Daniel Pink, who teaches a MasterClass on sales and persuasion, acknowledges that the site can take you only so far. To achieve mastery, he told me, “you’re talking about a totally different service, where for x amount of money Steph Curry will come to your house and summon you from bed at 5 a.m. and force you to shoot one thousand jumpers and then do suicides for an hour. You’re talking about a concierge service—MasterCoach.”

Meetings at MasterClass are festive, like classes held outdoors. Employees unmute on Zoom to applaud one another’s successes or the company’s big sales days or the “member of the month”—a subscriber who talks about, say, being inspired by Sara Blakely to start her own skin-care brand. Paul Bankhead, the chief product officer, said, “I find myself crying almost every other week at the videos of users responding to our classes, or at the marketing trailers. All companies make Kool-Aid and feed it to their employees, but ours is the best I’ve ever drunk.”

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to come in two flavors of self-involvement: Mark Zuckerberg wannabes and Mark Zuckerberg. Rogier is neither. He told me, “I worked with assholes before, and I vowed never to work with assholes again.” Erica Kammann, the company’s chief of staff, started doing research for Rogier as a TaskRabbiter, “and after a month or so I was spending more time with him on his business than I was on my own startup. David has a way of reeling people in.”

Rogier grew up in Los Angeles, in a house where learning was a torch against the darkness. His father’s parents met in Auschwitz. His mother’s mother, Janina, escaped the Nazis because she was on vacation when they invaded Kraków; her father wasn’t so lucky. When David was in second grade, Janina, whom everyone called Yanka, told him that she’d come to America with nothing and managed to become a pediatrician. “Education,” she declared, “is the only thing that can’t be taken away from you.” He named MasterClass’s holding company after her: Yanka Industries.

Rogier’s father was a divorce lawyer who became an abstract painter, his mother a corporate lawyer who became a textile artist. He and his younger brother, Andrew, both stuttered, but his parents insisted that they read the Los Angeles Times and give a précis of one article’s contents over dinner. When balked by an obstinate word, Rogier vowed never to opt for an easier synonym. He told me, “Not always being able to say what I wanted, to express myself, shaped my empathy. And it taught me that people are cruel—but don’t let that get in your way.”

As a kid, Rogier made Lego cities with complex social networks, chatted up visiting repairmen about their work, and idolized the basketball player Reggie Miller: “Reggie made me want to learn how to shoot from behind the three-point line.” When he was fourteen, he and a friend built a search engine called Brainfind and sold it for five hundred dollars. At Washington University, in St. Louis, he hosted a show on the college TV station, where he’d interview professors; later, in business school at Stanford, he ran “Lunch and Learn” chats with Silicon Valley luminaries.

After graduating from Stanford, in 2011, Rogier worked at the venture-capital firm Harrison Metal. “I learned that I probably wasn’t a great investor,” he said. “I had too much of an itch to build.” The firm’s founder gave him four hundred thousand dollars to start a company. Rogier considered tackling the supply chain for mom-and-pop restaurants, then focussed on a device for people with allergies; he has a peanut allergy and carries an EpiPen. But his technology could detect the gluten in food only eight times out of ten.

He kept being nagged by the idea of improving adult education. In 2013, he ran an ad on Craigslist and paid a dozen responders to tell him about their experience of continuing education, and about the sort of job training they’d like. He included the results in a pitch deck that contained three “universal observations”: people made career decisions using “horrible” information, skills training is a ripoff, and people “crave learning more about their dream professions.”

Aaron Rasmussen, who had joined Rogier as a technical co-founder, said, “We were talking about doing either ‘the crazy idea,’ in which we’d get the best people in the world to film classes, or just doing better online classes. The crazy idea was much harder to model financially, because there was no analogy to a ‘famous person teaching a class’ company. But that was the one we both wanted to do.”

Rogier was determined to have James Patterson, Serena Williams, and Dustin Hoffman as the first three instructors. The pitch wasn’t easy. One investor told me, “Whenever he’d go to C.A.A. or another talent agency, they’d say, ‘He’s not available, but what about the B team?’ ” Rogier, undeterred, would tell his A-team targets that he had looked at the polling, and people wanted to hear from them. He’d say that filming would require only four or five hours (a significant underestimate) and that they wouldn’t necessarily be included in promotional material (their contracts would say otherwise). He’d promise that they’d be in the company only of “legends, heroes, and world experts,” and show ersatz screenshots of classes taught by Aaron Sorkin, Phil Jackson, and Jeff Gordon. He hadn’t even approached Sorkin et al., he told me, but “you have to increase the trust factor, and I hadn’t exactly created Instagram.”

Rogier had secured an additional $1.5 million in funding, but it still took three years to launch. “It was a dark time,” he recalled. He finally got a commitment from Dustin Hoffman by persuading Jay Roach, who’d directed Hoffman in “Meet the Fockers,” to direct the class. Then he got James Patterson to sit for a three-day shoot. “Patterson had twelve things he wanted to teach, and we were with him on all of them, except that we had to push him to do an ‘overcoming writer’s block’ chapter.” (Patterson, who has written or co-written three hundred and twenty-five books, was unfamiliar with the concept.)

In May, 2015, MasterClass went live, with the three classes available for ninety dollars each. “Our first day, we sold only about a hundred and fifty classes. I thought, How do a hundred thousand people not want this instantly?” Rogier said. “I went home and cried into my pillow, and I’m not a crier. I called my parents and said, ‘We are fucked.’ I was thinking, Am I a bad entrepreneur? Did I just waste the last three and a half years of my life? They said that I had to go to the office and put on a brave face. And then someone at work told me, ‘This is going to be a huge business!’ Five dollars’ worth of our ads on Facebook and YouTube was bringing in ten dollars in sales, and he could see, when people became aware of us, they were responding at really high rates.” It helped enormously that Rogier could use Williams and Hoffman in ads.

Four months later, Rogier was on set for Christina Aguilera’s class. “All of a sudden, she breaks out singing ‘Beautiful’ to demonstrate one of her points,” he remembered. “And then I thought, This is going to work!”

In June, eight MasterClass employees gathered on Zoom to assess new instructors. Candidates are graded in twelve categories, including their appeal, their values, the breadth of the subject, and diversity considerations (forty-two per cent of the site’s instructors are minorities, and thirty-six per cent are women). The group also considers both timeliness (“How much is this person participating in culture today?”) and timelessness (“How much will this class mean to people in a hundred years?”). The process has left the new Library of Alexandria a bit lumpy, with twenty classes on writing, sixteen on cooking, and four on science and tech. Not only does no one understand string theory, no one wants to.

The meeting was run by the company’s chief marketing officer, David Schriber, a long-haired dude with a skater vibe who spent fourteen years at Nike. Schriber and Rogier admire each other but view the site differently. Rogier aims to impart singular mastery; Schriber is more interested in widespread proficiency. Two weeks after joining the company, in 2019, he proposed a class in negotiation, which led to the site’s first course from a non-famous person teaching a lunch-pail topic.

The class, led by a former F.B.I. hostage negotiator named Chris Voss, focusses on the uses of tactical empathy. Voss tells you to mirror your interlocutor’s body language, and to parrot her last few words as a question. If she says, “We can’t possibly raise the money this quarter!,” you say, “This quarter?,” prompting her to explain further. Voss suggests phrasing requests so that the other person gets to say no—“Is it crazy to think we could make this deal happen this week?”—which makes her feel powerful, even as she’s giving you the answer you want. All of this may seem manipulative, but Voss, who became a negotiator because he’d been bullied as a child and wanted to help others who felt powerless, frames it as a matter of fighting back. He told me, “We’re all battered children who’ve been hit by a Goliath.” During the pandemic, Voss’s class cracked the site’s Top Ten, a group that averages more than four hundred thousand viewers—and it solidified the role of CATS’ needs in shaping content.

Schriber told me that CATS want to learn in three specific, socially attuned ways: “They want to engage in something that makes them feel passionate. They get all choked up in these interviews about not having access to a passion, or about not being able to engage in it as much as their friends seem to be on social media—‘How do my friends know about red wine from Italy?’ Second, they want practical life skills. Because partly they feel, ‘I can’t get to my passion because I can’t sleep, or because my finances aren’t in order and I’m embarrassed to ask my boss for a raise.’ They want to learn about personal finance, real estate, nutrition, public speaking, and running for local office. Third is learning life lessons: when people see Steph Curry bounce a tennis ball and a basketball, they instantly transform the lesson to juggling work and kids while staying home during COVID.”

In the meeting, a producer named Erin Murphy shared a slide of potential instructors for hosting and entertaining. The first candidate, she said, “has a really good background in tablecloths and food and menu preparation, but she takes it a step further, into the anthropological aspects at the core of any gathering.” The next candidate required less explanation: Martha Stewart. Murphy said, “We really felt we couldn’t have a list without Martha on it.”

One factor in any assessment is a “commercial score.” How many new subscribers will the combination of topic and instructor bring in? The site’s highest level of name recognition is “Hall of Famer.” MasterClass has standing offers out to such Hall of Famers as Stephen King, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Elon Musk. (The Pope and Queen Elizabeth are also perennially on the wish list, but Schriber terms their inclusion “non-actionable.”) The more attainable levels range from diamond to bronze. Warren Buffett, whom MasterClass has courted, would be a diamond. Metallica, which has a class coming out soon, was a gold. Chris Hadfield, a former astronaut, was a bronze—but Hadfield’s class is the kind that subscribers love to discover, and thus the kind that drives renewals.

“He loves her, but he’s not in love with her.”
Cartoon by Suerynn Lee

People sign up for the site to learn from Alicia Keys or Gordon Ramsay, but they renew their subscriptions for the lessons in adulting. Of course, staying on top of daily life can itself be a form of virtuosity. In the book “Mastery,” George Leonard, an aikido master, notes how much trouble we have just vacuuming a room without banging into furniture or getting frustrated by all the unplugging and replugging. “The person who can vacuum an entire house without once losing his or her composure,” he writes, “is a person who knows something about mastery.”

Yet Schriber told me, “We’re not necessarily trying to change a lot of what people do, but more how they see the world. We don’t say, ‘In this class, you’re going to spend a lot of time outlining before you start writing’; we market the James Cameron quote.” He added, “All the classes are subversive of mastery. They’re not ten thousand hours, they’re four. We’re not asking you to give up your life, and we’re not promising that you will become that professional who you’re watching. We’re asking if you love to learn.”

In March, MasterClass filmed the spray-paint and graffiti artist Futura in Brooklyn. The site’s producers seek to shoot instructors where they work or would feel at ease. For David Mamet’s class, they built a set that replicated his writing cabin log for log. For Futura’s class, they filmed him in his studio, as he made a painting called “Tempo Tantrum.” Then they moved to a set built to evoke one of the subway cars where he began tagging, in the nineteen-seventies. Nekisa Cooper, who oversees the content team, and who was on Zoom with me observing the live feed from the set, remarked, “Watching the instructor at work is the gold standard—it makes the other content much, much richer.”

The instructor’s experience during the two- or three-day shoots is akin to a Hollywood star’s. The content team had worked out Futura’s curriculum with him in lengthy conversations, and now a stand-in was ready to spell him when the lighting needed adjusting, and an assistant hovered to get him anything he needed. The crew was forbidden to ask for selfies, and he would have approval rights over the final cut, so he could relax into candor without fear of embarrassment. The writer Roxane Gay, who was flown to Iceland and lodged at a lake house with her wife during her class, told me, “It was the first time I’ve ever felt that my expertise was respected and valued by people who wanted something from me.”

Filming and editing a MasterClass costs a minimum of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and the money is evident onscreen. The sets are elaborate: Walter Mosley is framed by six thousand books, Questlove by ten thousand records. As many as four cameras are at work, and the main one uses an EyeDirect, which facilitates the classes’ distinctive “instructor eye contact”; the instructor sees the interviewer’s face mirrored in front of the lens and responds to it, so that he seems to be talking directly to you. Daniel Pink acknowledges that many of his sales techniques can be had for free on YouTube: “You can find some of the ingredients at grocery stores all over.” But, he says, “this is the full meal, presented to you with perfect service.”

Though MasterClass screens for “teachability,” it often finds that instructors can’t readily explain their process. David Schriber said, “People at dinner parties tell me, ‘Just because you’re the best in the world doesn’t mean you’re the best teacher.’ I say, ‘That’s our superpower—our ability to help you get your message across.’ ” The filmmakers used motion graphics to break down Simone Biles’s tumbling runs and slow-motion cameras to capture Tony Hawk’s skateboarding tricks. And they often script not just the interviewers’ questions but also the instructor’s answers.

On set with Futura, an interviewer named Dara Kell began to ask about his youth, when he was known as Lenny McGurr. Futura kept digressing into stories about running wild as a young man. “Can we just back up?” Kell said patiently. She had a producer and a director in her ear, weighing in from Los Angeles. “How did the discipline of the Navy influence your career?” It was an invitation to expound on how rampant creativity got focussed by martial rigor. Futura smiled under his watch cap. “Did I learn anything in the military as far as discipline?” he said. “Uh, no.”

Kell began to make pointed suggestions. “We need a few specific lines, to lead off the lessons,” she explained. “Feel free to put these into your own words, but something like ‘In this class, I’m going to teach you how to use a spray can, and how to access the world of abstraction.’ ” The opening lesson, filmed at the end, usually lays out the class’s scope. A moment later, Kell added, “And if you could say, ‘I’m going to break down the secrets of my painting skill, and give you a tool kit for expressing yourself through abstraction and symbolism’?” Futura repeated her cue, his expression hangdog but game. “Could you add something about being willing to paint outside of the lines, to make mistakes?” He cradled his head in his hands. “You’re doing great!”

“In this class,” he said, “I’m going to teach you how to paint outside the lines, how to move freely, to let yourself go.”

“If you could say, ‘If you’re a creative person, this class is for you. If you’re a painter, a photographer’—feel free to put it into your own words.” Kell was looking for a trailer line that would arrest idle scrollers—something “thumb-stopping,” in the industry parlance.

“This class is for you”—Futura teared up, dropping his head back into his hands. “I just lost it, Dara.” Eying him empathetically, Nekisa Cooper told me, “There’s a formula and a checklist for these things, but trying to get a marketing line is a challenge, because the instructor is typically emotional as they reflect on the import of it all, the legacy, and you want a sound bite.”

In the end, Futura’s opening chapter was a shrewdly edited montage, interspersing shots of him painting with old footage of graffiti-spangled subway cars, as the artist expressed his thoughts in a stitched-together voice-over. It concludes with him telling us, on camera, that his journey is retraceable if you just remain open to possibility: “I’m sitting here an end result of something I certainly didn’t think I could do.”

After the shoot, I talked to Futura in his studio in Red Hook. “I was so nervous,” he said. “It was weird to have to speak about what I do in a way that’s not really me. I feel like the best way I could teach anyone is to give them physical instruction, to be with them. And, even then, I can’t impart that knowledge of ‘It’s thirty per cent pressure on the nozzle, or sixty per cent mixing the propellant and the color.’ ” He had broken down, he explained, because “I wanted to express something about passion, about how it’s not about getting paid, but I think I got overwhelmed. They’re going to have just me and Jeff Koons to teach painting. . . .” His voice trembled. He was wearing the watch cap and faux-military flight suit that MasterClass had dressed him in for the shoot, and he’d brought most of the subway-car set to his studio. He was becoming MasterClass’s idea of what he should be. “Being in their archive is a Bruce Lee moment. People will say, Oh, you’re like a Jedi, you’re Yoda,” he said. “It’s the most prestigious thing I’ve ever done.”

In MasterClass’s early years, teaching was a speculative venture, a way for instructors who’d written their memoirs, or maxed out on Instagram, to connect with passionate fans. It quickly became an élite guild. Rogier told me, “I said to Steph Curry, ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t need to.’ He said, ‘I saw who you had on the shelf, and I want to be on the shelf with those people.’ ” (The financial incentive is a relatively small part of the appeal; instructors’ fees, which have exceeded a hundred thousand dollars, have dropped as the company’s audience has grown.)

The site is less a schoolhouse than a clubhouse, whose members lend one another prestige. Schriber said, “I always make fun of David for going after people from his youth, like Usher,” who taught an early class. “But people who are actually aware of Usher say they do think of him as an expert—and Usher is a class that a lot of people take.” Rogier told me, “I’m very good, apparently, at figuring out people who other people will think are experts.” It’s the kind of empathetic projection that can win you money on “Family Feud.” “Or it could just be that I’m an average person.”

Tan France, best known for upgrading wardrobes on “Queer Eye,” told me, “People had maybe thought, Ah, he’s a joke, he’s not really doing anything except putting a suit on someone who looks terrible, so of course they look better afterward. MasterClass has been so beneficial—finally, I feel like I’ve been vindicated.” Ron Finley, an urban gardener whose class walks students through making a planter out of a dresser drawer, said that his class instantly changed his profile: “A girlfriend of mine said, ‘You know, the only thing you’re going to be remembered for, the rest of your life, is the dresser drawers.’ And I got all these proposals of marriage on social media: ‘He can plant my garden all day!’ Oh, my God . . .”

Rogier acknowledged that not all of the site’s classes will be Library of Alexandria-worthy: “Tan France’s class, or the dog-training class, I don’t think a lot of people will go back to in a hundred years.” But, he added, “it’s hard to know what will stand the test of time. When the Wright brothers were running a bike with wings off a hill, or whatever, I would not have asked them to teach a MasterClass, because it would have seemed crazy.”

Part of the appeal for teachers is that the site allows them a certain amount of argumentative latitude. Roxane Gay, who in her class torches the “electorally sanctioned white supremacy” of Donald Trump, told me, “I never once felt that I couldn’t speak my mind.” Spike Lee tells his students that “the foundation of the United States of America is the genocide of the Native people and slavery.” And Jane Goodall, though exceedingly genteel, unleashes a critique of bottled Fiji water and industrial agriculture and having too many children and “the Western, greedy, materialistic world” that has destroyed our environment and given rise to, well, MasterClass.

“It’s a platform about craft,” Rogier told me, “but you’re going to miss out on understanding Spike Lee if you don’t understand what drives him. You need to be pushed—learning is uncomfortable.” This discomfort is circumscribed by liberal values: the site’s only overtly conservative instructors are David Mamet, whose class sticks to playwriting, and Karl Rove, whose class, with David Axelrod, is an essentially nonpartisan tutorial on political campaigns. Rogier withdrew Kevin Spacey’s and Dustin Hoffman’s acting classes because of allegations of sexual abuse. (Hoffman and Spacey have both responded to the allegations with a mixture of denials and apologies.) But he was vague about where the cancellation line should fall. When I pressed him, he said, “I would never have a Nazi on the platform. We’ve never thought of having people who’ve killed people on the site.” I wondered whether that wasn’t a nuanced issue, given that Barack Obama, whom he’s pursued for some time, gave orders for drone strikes that killed thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians. Rogier gazed at me, emanating a sense of being profoundly misunderstood.

In 2017, the site switched to an annual subscription, relieving the need to sell classes individually. Schriber said, “There was a very cold business fact that we had to market each new class to a new audience.” When the subscription plan began, though, the site offered just sixteen classes. Investors were concerned that there weren’t enough offerings in any given category to encourage repeated visits. But Rogier, who is interested in business and gardening and basketball, was betting that everyone was as broadly curious as he is.

Other entrepreneurs, who view people differently, have tried to “verticalize” Rogier’s model. Startups routinely attack a successful company by selecting one of its components and building a deeper, narrower version of it. Last fall, Omer Atesmen launched The Skills, a sports-instruction site where you can learn from Megan Rapinoe and Michael Phelps. The Skills shoots classes fast, sometimes in one long day, for less than two hundred thousand dollars—a fraction of MasterClass’s budget. “I feel grateful to MasterClass. They’ve really opened up people’s eyes to this area, from athletes to investors,” Atesmen said. “I jokingly tell people that they’re NBC and we’re ESPN.”

Last summer, Steve Avery launched YesChef, for people who enjoy MasterClass’s cooking classes but want even more. YesChef introduces you to Nancy Silverton, a founder of the artisanal-bread movement, with an hour-long documentary about her expeditions to markets in Umbria and Los Angeles. “MasterClass’s premise is ‘We’re going to give you people who don’t need an introduction,’ ” Avery said. “I don’t know anything more about Gordon Ramsay now than I did before I watched his MasterClass—it could have been anyone teaching. Without the context of knowing what bagna cauda is, or Nancy Silverton’s legacy around salads, she’s just doing a kitchen demo, and you can get that anywhere.” Immersion in the cook’s world also provides another work-around for the problem of tongue-tied experts. “Nancy cannot stand in front of a camera and talk for five hours—it would be awful,” Avery said. “She did do it, on Panna Cooking, and it was awful.”

MasterClass seems unthreatened by the nascent competition. “Will someone do a MasterClass but only for knitting?” Sam Lessin, an investor in the company, said. “Sure, someone always goes hypervertical. We won’t own the entire world of edutainment—but maybe we’re the HBO of it.” Rogier raised two hundred and twenty-five million dollars earlier this year; the site, now valued at just over $2.7 billion, is expected to go public soon.

Once the subscription plan started, classes got more than twenty per cent shorter. With multiple instructors in a category, each class no longer needed to be comprehensive—and, one imagines, the site no longer had to justify its fees with sheer duration. Yet almost all the newer classes are still more than two hours long. Neil Gaiman, whose class runs nearly five hours, told me, “I could probably reduce everything that’s vital to a three-minute lecture: ‘O.K., you have to write, and you have to keep going, and you have to finish.’ But for young writers that feels too simple. So I talk about how you build a comic, and what to do when you get stuck—useful, hard-won stuff, but it’s also there because it’s a MasterClass, and you paid your hundred and eighty dollars.” He added, “The reason people love the idea of a MasterClass is that you’re taking a shortcut—after just six hours, you’re there! Mostly, what any MasterClass is about is making as accessible as possible the idea that there is no shortcut. You have to drive the whole way.”

The world doesn’t lack for programming, so companies like MasterClass often focus on engagement: how do we stop you from leaving? The longer someone stays on your site, the more ads you can show her, and the more likely she is to renew her subscription. That’s why Netflix autoplays the next episode of “Money Heist” before you can even think about getting up to go to the bathroom.

Rogier expects his audience to stick around for a while. “Quibi showed that short form is not the cure for everything,” he told me, referring to the bite-size-content site that blew through $1.4 billion and went out of business in six months. “The longer a class of ours is, the more people will watch of it.” MasterClass is for people who have some free time on their commute home, or before bed. “It’s for medium-sized attention spans,” Jay Roach, who directed several early classes, said. “That’s the niche David figured out.”

MasterClass has an unusually high renewal rate: fifty-two per cent after the first year. But it turns out that the amount of time subscribers spend watching classes has no effect on whether they renew. What they really want remains a mystery. When you trace their pathways on the site, it becomes clear that mastery of a single topic—an ascetic devotion to ten thousand hours of squat jumps or dicing zucchini—isn’t usually it. The typical student takes ten classes and hops around. Unaccountably, those who come for Bobbi Brown’s makeup tips head next to Chris Voss’s class on negotiation, and those who watch Steph Curry proceed to Steve Martin.

MasterClass’s chief product officer, Paul Bankhead, who previously led Google’s app-and-media store, is charged with interpreting and guiding subscriber behavior. “If you’re into writing, it’s easy to show you all the writing classes,” he told me. “But it might be good for you as a human being if we show you another category, like cooking or how to be an astronaut.” He smiled wryly. “My life in building recommendation systems tells me that all humans want more of the same. But we’re in the business of changing lives. Only, it’s hard to figure out how to do that, because human beings struggle to explain their motivations. Asking them why they like a class doesn’t give you very reliable data.”

“Weird. My phone says that there’s only a thirty-per-cent chance of it raining men at 4 P.M.
Cartoon by Karl Stevens

When I told Rogier about Bankhead’s view, he nodded understandingly, then said, “My thirst is not quenched until I understand the why.” He laughed. “And, right now, any hypothesis you might offer about why there’s a high correlation between Bobbi Brown and Chris Voss, I’d have to say, sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense.”

Many subscribers are happy enough watching whatever is on the site’s home page. Mark Williamson told me that he wasn’t surprised by the early success of James Patterson’s class: “A lot of people want to be writers. But Hans Zimmer?” Zimmer is a composer who scored such movies as “The Lion King” and “Inception.” “That class also did incredibly well, even though there aren’t that many people who want to score films. But people do want to learn about things they’re interested in—and they’re entertained by that.”

I have zero interest in becoming a ballet dancer. But the way that Misty Copeland warms up in her MasterClass, the way her hands keep tensely regripping the barre, made me feel in my sinews how hard she’s working just to do her pliés and tendus. “I’m not a master, and I don’t teach ballet,” Copeland told me, “but I wanted people to see the humanity of it.” I could appreciate her craft—the way her airy leaps were rooted in earthbound tasks—without feeling any obligation to emulate it. MasterClass is like “This Old House,” but for people.

The best classes give you a new lens on the world. James Patterson says that the bits of his advice about writing that strike you as the most wrongheaded are the ones you need to incorporate, because “those are the things that are farthest from what you’re doing now.” Matthew Walker, the site’s sleep expert, warns against caffeine, alcohol, and naps—three of my favorite things. “From a biochemical perspective,” he observes, “wakefulness is low-level brain damage.” I preferred world views that felt additive rather than subtractive, such as that of Ron Finley, the urban gardener. “Knowledge is gangsta,” Finley says. “Soil is gangsta. Air is gangsta as fuck. You can’t get no more gangsta than air.” As he told me, his class isn’t really about gardening—“it’s about freedom.” Freedom from the old you.

Last December, MasterClass’s content and insights teams met to discuss test results for a forthcoming class on meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the roostery sage who leads the American mindfulness movement. Several people suggested that the class, which ran more than seven hours, and which featured stretches where Kabat-Zinn simply sat in the lotus position, might not need his recitals of poems by Rumi and Emily Dickinson.

Jess Van Garsse, a creative director, brought up the section on yoga: “He’s not a yoga teacher, and he’s kind of older, and kind of loses his balance at the beginning, and he’s awkward. He looked at that footage and said, ‘Keep it in, I love it.’ But I was really surprised by the lack of cringey comments around that.”

Nekisa Cooper was unconcerned. “We have to harken back to the original mission,” she said. “It’s not ‘How do we teach meditation?’ It’s ‘How do we capture the mastery of this instructor?’ I think we need to just go with this being part of the Jon Kabat-Zinn experience.”

When MasterClass first reached out, Kabat-Zinn told me, he ignored the e-mails for six months, because “I’d never even heard of them.” And then he was dubious: “I didn’t want to do something for the moneyed élite, the glitterati.” He insisted on having lunch with David Rogier to interrogate his values. Rogier was nervous—“Jon Kabat-Zinn can look into your soul!”—but his sincerity shone through, as did his promise that the class would be made available to the meditation community for free. “His intention is to bring good into the world,” Kabat-Zinn said, “and he understands that that requires going beyond their business model.”

Or even undermining it: Kabat-Zinn’s class is a P.S.A. against striving. “You will never be Mother Teresa, you will never be the Dalai Lama,” he says. “The only chance you have is to be yourself.” He adds that “the entire thrust of this MasterClass . . . is that you’re already perfect.” You can’t attain, you can’t complete, you can’t master; you can only recognize who you are. When I spoke with Kabat-Zinn, I suggested that if you really absorbed his class you might not take any more MasterClasses. “You might not!” he agreed, laughing.

Rogier maintains his belief in the power of perfectibility. At the content-review meeting in June, he called up a slide showing which subject categories had provided the most impact. Wellness was out in front, with eighty-nine-per-cent efficacy. “It kinda makes sense—sleep, yoga,” he said. He seemed resigned to the fact that his subscribers weren’t aiming higher. But, as he thinks his way through the maze of Dos and Feels and Be Seens, he still hopes to eventually understand exactly how a nifty bit of technique can produce an epiphany. “It’s going to be a combination of taste and statistics, and it’s messy, but if we can combine it all and push that out into the world—holy shit, we can change the way people learn!” he said. “You’re looking for those mind-bending moments, like when Hans Zimmer says that every musical note asks or answers a question, and then he demonstrates it. Or Garry Kasparov, who made moves that just blew my mind. On set, he asked me to look at the chessboard as he set up some positions. I noticed one combination he planned to point out, and thought, I’m seeing the board like Garry Kasparov! He said, ‘That would be the beginner level.’ ” Rogier cracked up, then went on, “You have to meet expectations for what consumers expect. But my hypothesis is that the magic comes when you also give them other kinds of impacts that they don’t expect.”

Feelings inspire empathy, and empathy can open you to marvels. As the magician Teller explains in his class with Penn, at age five he imprinted on his Howdy Doody Magic Kit, which contained a Mystic Tray that amazed him by multiplying pennies. That made him realize, he tells us movingly, that “something could be a miracle and a trick at the same time.”

The ultimate trick—or miracle—is changing your life. Erica Kammann, Rogier’s chief of staff, told me, “Post-pandemic, David’s going to be back out in the world, and we’re going to find him a wife, and he’s going to have a family.” Yet he already seems bound to a life partner, in MasterClass. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done—I’ve lost friends, put on weight, faced a level of stress and anxiety and lost sleep that I didn’t know existed,” he said. “It’s also the best thing I’ve ever done—having impact on a large number of people is replenishing and addicting.”

At times, the enterprise seems to be escaping his grasp. Rogier watched every MasterClass until about 2018, when he began to fall behind; now, as new classes début nearly every week, he’s even further from completion. I noted, gently, that he’d nonetheless optimized himself in numerous ways. “Does optimization lead to happiness?” he wondered. “I hate the myth of the fully optimized life—if you strive to become fully optimized, you become a robot. To me, it’s just, the more I know, the more I can win against the bullies.”

The site has recently begun to attract instructors, including Amy Tan, Elaine Welteroth, Jake Shimabukuro, and Malala Yousafzai, who were MasterClass subscribers before they taught their classes. “Eventually, it’ll be like the way adults now talk about ‘Sesame Street’ in their childhoods,” David Schriber said. “We’re ‘Sesame Street’ for adults.”

But Rogier told me that “the main goal is still to have somebody use the classes to become a master. We do also hope for the well-rounded person who expands their horizons. And if I had to choose between the two I guess I’d choose lots and lots of well-rounded people.” The set of subscribers on the mastery track is a shrinking minority; MasterClass has perfected the art of beguiling people with an array of delights that distract them from pursuing a single discipline. There is always going to be more money in distraction. But, Rogier said, stubbornly arguing against his own company’s business case, “A master, one master, is worth a lot.” How much, exactly? He focussed, his stutter subdued. “Norman Borlaug”—who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his agricultural innovations—“saved a billion lives. Or look at the people who developed the COVID vaccines.” He did the lonely mental arithmetic. “I’d say a master is worth ten million happy, well-rounded people. Maybe a hundred million.” ♦


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Can MasterClass Teach You Everything?