I've recently become interested in history, which was one of my least favorite subjects in school. Last week I watched a documentary about the Medici family, the rulers of Florence who served as patrons to many of the great Italian artists, including Michelangelo.
When we look at the great works of the old masters, we don't necessarily appreciate the scale of time it took to create each one. David, one of Michelangelo's greatest works, took him four years of near-daily sculpting. Four years for one statue.
Even today, when we see modern greatness being revealed, we often don't see what goes into it. Sprezzatura, the concept of making hard work seem effortless, is in full effect. Success always looks like overnight success, even when it's nothing of the sort. It's a neat trick to pull off, making the creator seem super-human, but it also puts out a dangerous message. If success doesn't come from hard work and time spent in the trenches, what can it come from beyond natural talent and sheer luck? We live in a world where people believe that they're born to be stars, and all it will take is that one American Idol audition to be discovered.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I fell into this trap as well. When teachers told my parents that I had a lot of potential that I wasn't living up to, I took that to mean that I was just so naturally special that effort wasn't required. I told everyone that I would be a millionaire by twenty five. I wasn't. I managed to complete a handful of good quality projects, but I was always disappointed when they weren't immediately world-changing successes.
Over time my view has become more realistic, but no less ambitious. I realize now that my daily goal isn't to build something great-- it's to built a very small piece of something great. For Michelangelo's David to be a great statue, he had to spend a week chipping away at marble to create a toe. It wasn't glorious and probably didn't look like the creation of excellence, but Michaelangelo knew that in any given day, his task was only to create a very small piece of something great. Greatness is a cumulative effort and an attitude, not a single accomplishment.
Some day SETT will be great. I'm not building it to make a buck or to disrupt the blogging industry-- I'm building it because I want to make the internet a better place for communities to form and for communication to happen. If I succeed at that, I will have built something great, at least by my own standards.
That sort of result doesn't come overnight, and it doesn't even come after a year of coding. It will come, I expect, through the daily practice of trying to build a tiny piece of something excellent. I spent all of yesterday reducing the amount of time it takes SETT to render a page from 18 hundredths of a second to 10 hundredths of a second. That doesn't make SETT great, but a great blogging platform will render pages fast, so it's certainly a small component of it.
The challenge of building something great can seem overwhelming, and I suspect that the intimidation it generates dissolves people's ambitions to much lower levels. The remedy is to understand that, like David, all that's required to build something great is chipping away little by little, day after day.
Photo is Gaudi's Casa Vicens in Barcelona, one of his earlier buildings.
I'm going to create a new book that's made of new material as well as some reader-favorite posts. Would you mind going here and telling me which of my posts had an impact on you? It would really help me out.
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You have written about two topics close to my heart. First, I am a sculptor. I don't use stone though, I use wood. Second, I'm currently going on to my MA in history this August. I might add that many cathedrals took several centuries to build. They were started by people who knew they would never see the completed work. Now that's commitment!
Another anecdote are the oak beams in the refectory at Oxford college. At the time they were built, they estimated it would take about five hundred years before they were weakened by rot. To make sure there was wood for the project, they planted some oaks not far from there, estimating they would be large enough to be used for new beams when the time came. A few years ago, the time came to replace the old beams, so they cut down the trees that were planted for the purpose and put in the new ones. (They also planted new trees.)
One of my professors likes to say that a sign of a healthy society is that idea of "transcendence." That is, people believe in things that will not even happen in there own life. This need not be religious. He cited the example of his grandfather planting grape vines, knowing that it would be his grand children who would (literally) see the fruits of his labor.
Our fixation with immediate gratification could be seen as a sign that we see the future as dangerous, and so, unwilling to work for something that is so uncertain, we work for immediate results.
On the other hand, no one could deny that modern societies get s&*t done, and fast. I know that if I do not work quickly on my sculpture, I make about $5.00 an hour. :) I'm constantly trying ways and means to make it go faster. That means using lots of power tool and laminating wood rather than try to find those perfect pieces of giant specimens. It's either that or go back to waiting tables. Returning to college was something I did even though I may not directly benefit. Teachers don't make a lot of money, and history teaching jobs are fairly scarce. But it's the right thing to do--for me.
Great, thoughtful post, Tynan. Thanks.
I think that building your skill base is certainly an incremental process. You must try and make progress every day. I'm wondering when you will realize that you have created something great. Do you have a criteria? From what I understand, great scientists, inventors, and artists don't tend to spend much time looking back and marveling at their work. They become so engrossed in the process, that they lose sense of what they've already done. And, of course, there's always something more to achieve. Is there any value in looking back at what you've achieved.
Personally I find myself drawn to hard projects because I want to know what's it's like to do them. I have relatively little interest at all in being in a state of achievement. I just want to understand, and experience as much as life as possible. What do you guys think about this? I've kinda changed the topic of the post a bit, but I'd like to know your thoughts on what value you put on actually looking back at your achievements.
Awesome Post Tynan. I think we're on the same wave length some how as most than any other blog I can really relate to what you talk about. I was also one of those students that did well and my teachers liked me so I somehow assumed everything would just work out and I would be great. But greatness, as you say, is built one very small piece at a time. Everyday, I try to make sure I'm taking steps towards my end goal. They usually aren't as big of steps as I want nor as many, but I feel as long as I consistently improve and move towards my goal; I'll get there. Keep Rocking man.
This is a concept that is very easily forgotten. I remember Will Smith saying that when he was a child his dad told him to build a brick wall as a lesson in patience and dedication. The point being that you don't try to build the best wall you can. You try to lay the perfect brick, and slowly you will end up building the perfect wall.
I recently joined hands with people who are co-creating to build something great....... freedom from physical and financial pain. We need to understand we cannot build alone. And as you say, it only happens by chipping away little by little, day after day that we truly build the foundation. Tynan....we need have to have a passion, a burning desire for what we are doing and it has to benefit others as well. It is only in giving that we receive. That propels our motivation and focus.
Check out Don Justo, a former monk who has been building a cathedral outside of Madrid since 1961. Talk about commitment.
What's the name of the documentary on the Medici family and where did you watch it? I'd like to see if Netflix carries it.
I am not kept from greatness by knowing it's a long, hard journey. Rather, what keeps me from greatness is the need to plod through the wide deserts of tedium that separate the fun parts that made me interested in the project to begin with.
I got into programming because I like making computers do things. I've often started programming projects and pushed forward at full speed until I had something that loosely resembled my vision. However, my interest fades when the project is complete enough that I no longer get the quick wins of seeing whole features appear before my eyes, and instead spend entire days rewriting code just to make something appear in two places instead of one. My fickle brain tells me that's too much work to put in to make almost nothing happen, when I could go start that shiny new project over there, and make lots of things happen for the same amount of work.
I am (very slowly) working through my persistance deficiency, through practices like karate (training myself to keep going, even when the novelty has worn off and it's much less fun) and brain-training techniques like you mentioned in a recent post. Perhaps someday I will be able to build my own piece of greatness.
I'm just wondering, what do you think you're going to achieve after the long, hard journey? I have a theory that a lack of persistence is caused by not really knowing what the ultimate goal is. It seems to me that you still may be searching for that big goal, and that's why you are changing projects. Then again, I could be completely wrong. Just a thought.
I always write about habits after they're done, but I thought that it would be interesting to write about one before it starts, to get really specific about the actual process of creating a new habit.
For my entire life, I've been messy. Battles were waged over my unwillingness to keep my room tidy as a kid. My RV is very easy to clean, but somehow my four forks and spoons live in the sink instead of their drawer. Even when I stay with friends while traveling, where I know it's extremely important to be respectful of their space and keep my stuff as low-impact as possible, I find myself being careless about leaving power cords and shoes around.
A useful first step towards changing a big lifelong habit like this is to build up a healthy contempt for your previous execution. This isn't self loathing or anything like that, just the attitude where you say, "This is completely unacceptable and ridiculous."
I remember about two years ago when I went to the dentist, I asked her what the most important thing I could do for my teeth was. She said it was flossing every day. I already knew that, of course, but I asked the question in a subconscious hope that she would say that it was something I was already doing. At that moment, I thought, "How insane is it that I'm unable to just floss my teeth every day, and that I need to ask a dentist for some justification not to do it?"
A few days ago, I wrote an open letter to a good friend of mine - "I Think Greatness is Something You Are, Not Something You Do" - I said to him, I'm not a great man, just a normal man working on great things. Greatness is something you do, not something you are.
To give you some background, my friend Brendon is just one of the most amazingly good people in the world. He takes care of everyone around him, his mind, body, and spirit are sharp. He's a black belt, an excellent programmer, a philosopher, a Shodan in Go (actually, even stronger than that - he's a Shodan under the Asian rankings, so probably even higher in America), a hard worker, extremely loyal, a clear and free thinker, widely read and knowledgeable, and again - an amazingly good guy. I've learned a lot from him (notably, he taught me how to play Go, sysadmin Linux, understand basketball at a very high level, improve at martial arts, improve my fitness, and other good stuff - we'd usually go drink green tea and play Go at Samurai Restaurant in Boston, go fight in the park, talk philosophy out at nightclubs, do stuff like that).
He wrote back to me about greatness and humility. I think this is a really beautiful piece, so I asked him if I could gently edit it and put it up. He graciously agreed. It's long, but go ahead and just start it and give it whatever time you have - there's a lot of amazing insight in here.
A Quick Favor Request - if you learn from this or it helps you, please send Brendon a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org - he was actually a little gun-shy about having such a personal piece put up with such raw power in it. He only agreed when I told him how many people it could help - so please, drop him a short line to say thanks if this teaches you as much as it did me.
Without further ado...