The Explosive Growth of MasterClass and the Need for Belonging

MasterClass dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to ever-elusive success.

— Carina Chocano, The Atlantic

Deep down we all long for belonging – to be known, accepted, included, valued, and loved. Unfortunately, we live in a deeply fractured, culturally heterogeneous society where belonging is hard to come by, and so, our need for belonging often gets transmuted into a lust for fame. We feel like fame or at least professional achievement and recognition will give us that sense of fulfillment that in earlier, more cohesive, more tribal societies we would have had through communal belonging. The weaker our communal bonds become, the more we have a tendency to seek out fame – the more we clamor for evermore attention and public adoration – a tendency only exacerbated by social media. As Zadie Smith writes in Feel Free, “To walk into the world and meet love, from everyone, everywhere – this is a rational dream.”

The problem with fame is not only that it is an inherently fickle and faithless mistress, but that it is extremely hard to come by in a society of 328 million people. If you lived in a small town, say of 8,000 people, in an age before TV, YouTube, social media, radio, even the printing press –that is, before any kind of mass media – then it wouldn’t be that hard to find your niche – an island of confidence, a sphere of expertise, that would allow you to feel appreciated and valued for whatever you have to offer. You could play your songs or write your articles or sew your sweaters or bake your homemade pies and everyone in town would know that you were the person who was good at X. This kind of appreciation is actually one thing that healthy church communities often provide – everyone has their part to play in the well-being of the whole.

But in a society of 328 million rather than 8,000, mass media sucks up all of our attention, so that the glory and acclaim and money that is to be had goes overwhelmingly to the top 1% (or less) of achievers in any field, particularly the arts, and everyone else is left feeling unfulfilled and desperately clamoring for a tiny piece of the fame pie. This desire for fame, for recognition, only drives our cult-like obsession with celebrity, rewarding the lucky and extremely talented few at the expense of the only somewhat talented many, thus making the whole problem even worse.

It is also what I think is driving the recent success of the MasterClass series of supposedly-educational-but-really-more-inspirational online courses. This was made clear to me in a fascinating recent article from The Atlantic called “What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?” by Carina Chocano. Here’s a heavily abridged version of the article:

… A title card appears: “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter that I’d never read a book by [James] Patterson before—I was hooked. What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. MasterClass dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to ever-elusive success.

MasterClass launched in 2015 with just three classes… Since then the company has grown exponentially, raising $135 million in venture capital from 2012 to 2018. It now has more than 85 classes across nine categories. … After the pandemic hit, as people started spending more time at home, its subscriptions surged, some weeks increasing tenfold over the average in 2019; subscribers spent twice as much time on the platform as they did earlier this year. …

Masterclass’s mission, as it was originally defined, was to “democratize access to genius.” But the service actually offers something different—although what that is, exactly, is hard to put your finger on. Strictly speaking, a master class is a small class for very advanced students taught by a master in their field. But very advanced students in particular subject areas are vanishingly small cohorts—certainly not enough to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. And so, MasterClass courses are not really designed for a specific skill level, but instead are aimed at the most general of general audiences. …

As an educational platform, MasterClass is limited by its instructors’ inaccessibility. But as a repository for career advice … it’s a gold mine. When you are just starting out… it can be helpful to hear how other people “did it,” what obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. You might get a hit of encouragement or see yourself reflected for the first time in a field you thought was off-limits to you. The ballet dancer Misty Copeland says MasterClass was a way of doing this. Copeland’s class is typical of MasterClass’s more inspirational offerings. It’s a mix of instruction and aspiration

As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has proved unexpectedly good for some—specifically billionaires, yeast manufacturers, and streaming services, of which MasterClass is now one. For a certain cohort of people looking to pass the hours at home, namely those with leisure time and money, the new courses in cooking, mixology, and gardening arrived at the perfect homesteading moment. But the fact that MasterClass is so popular now also speaks to people’s fears, especially economic uncertainties that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Tens of millions of jobs have been lost, and many newly unemployed people are looking for a different direction. And if they’ve kept their jobs, they are dealing with a whole new way of navigating work, which is stressful and confusing. In a way, MasterClass seems ideally suited to frustrated 30-somethings for whom education has not necessarily resulted in upward mobility or even a job, who feel stuck in their career without a clear path to success. …

In fact, the company refers to its target customers as CATS: “curious, aspiring 30-somethings.” CATS are old enough not to be planning to return to school, but young enough, in theory, that they need help advancing in their career. A CAT is a person whose life has become complicated, who has had to put aside some of the things they loved to do, who isn’t exactly doing the thing they dreamed of doing…

To understand where we are right now, and why MasterClass seems to slot in so perfectly with the moment, it’s useful to think about how it has evolved over time.

MasterClass launched after the early hype around online education had already fizzled. Filmed university lectures seemed to be even less thrilling than the real thing. MOOCs (massive open online courses) had poor retention rates, and still structurally favored people of means. At first, MasterClass focused on specific skill sets, and providing an educational journey from beginning to end. But its data revealed that people weren’t necessarily consuming the courses from start to finish, nor was this really necessary to benefit from the content. “What we were finding was that when people were allowed the freedom to jump from lesson to lesson based on their interest, it was just a much more freeing experience,” Nekisa Cooper, MasterClass’s vice president of content, told me. What people seemed to want was a fun mix of short-form inspirational content.

Lately, MasterClass has started presenting its offerings less as classroom education and more as part of a learning lifestyle built around a community of people with common interests and concerns. It reminds me of a kind of Spotify for careerist inspiration, a platform for dispensing assorted self-help and personal-development bonbons for the young capitalist striver. “And we’re not just offering classes or education,” Cooper said. “We’re also offering escape.” …

Silicon Valley has talked about changing the world and people’s lives for a long time, and it’s safe to say that it has succeeded. … Tech has “disrupted” almost every aspect of modern living.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence, then, that we find ourselves in a golden age of self-help and self-development, of “how I did it” podcasts and conferences and workshops. We’re encouraged to optimize ourselves at all times, and told to look upon this as fun, albeit compulsory. But although you can get a lot out of these activities, you can waste time looking for the answer, when what these stories all reveal is that great success is a combination of doing the work and getting (or perhaps starting out) really, really lucky.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how prospectors in the California Gold Rush rarely struck it rich. In 1849, the ones who did well were those who supplied prospectors with shovels, tents, and jeans—they kept the dream alive. Samuel Brannan, who sold shovels and other goods, was considered California’s first millionaire. Levi Strauss, who co-invented blue jeans, died with a fortune of $6 million, worth $175 million today. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with supplying people with what they need to pursue their dreams, but it seems that during this time of growing wealth and social inequality, the jeans and shovels have become largely symbolic, and the prospecting they facilitate, the endless panning for something, anything, ever more intangible. There is no goal, really. The panning is the goal.

There’s something sad in all of this. The comparison to the Gold Rush is apt: since at least the mid-1800s the American Dream has surely been as much about the prospect of wealth as gaining access to the middle class. We haven’t just dreamed of owning our own homes and securing stability and opportunity for our families. Instead, Americans have all too often set their sights on something much higher: wealth, fame, elite status. MasterClass gives us that little hit of inspiration we crave, that momentary thrill that maybe we too could someday access the upper echelons of society. If we think too hard about it, get too much in the weeds of what it would actually take, the thrill of the dream would dissipate. Those who gave up everything to go in search of gold out west didn’t really want to know their chances of striking it rich – they wanted to believe in the dream of striking it rich. No ones wants to know the real odds of winning the lottery when they buy a ticket. In the same way, we don’t really want practical information on how to play guitar or hit a tennis ball. We want to hang on to the dream of becoming one of the greats, of, to paraphrase Zadie Smith, someday walking through the world and meeting love, from everyone, everywhere. I admit that I recognize some of that same impulse, that lust for fame or recognition, in myself. It’s undoubtedly one reason I decided to take this sabbatical, which will, almost certainly, not live up to my expectations in the end.

Of course, this all suggests that, for the sake of our own happiness, we really ought to be prioritizing social belonging over achievement — connection over success. We’d all best be served by putting down roots in some kind of neighborhood or small community where we can, over time, gain a sense of belonging and find our niche. But this is also a matter in which I find it helps to have faith, to see one’s place in the cosmic order. What we do in our often pathetic little lives may not matter much to those outside our little circle of friends, family, and acquaintances, but it matters. It means something, irrespective of the recognition the world offers us. We are players in a great cosmic drama. God sees us and knows us better than we know ourselves, and in spite of everything, loves us for who we are. I find that deeply comforting. It’s a sentiment perhaps best expressed by Czeslaw Milosz at the end of one of my all-time favorite poems:  

I was left with many unwritten odes in honor
of men and women.

Their incomparable bravery, devotion,
self-sacrifice passed away with them, and nobody knows of it.
Nobody knows for all eternity.

When I think this, I need an immortal Witness
so that he alone knows and remembers.

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