Discipline — What does it mean?

Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981) is one of the most inspiring films ever made, telling the story of young men who display great discipline and courage to live out their dreams and uphold their principles.

“Right discipline consists, not in external compulsion, but in the habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities.” — Bertrand Russell, Writer

When people hear the word “discipline” they often associate it with something arduous, time-consuming and painful. The same thing can be applied to the ethics of work — an onerous virtue linked to duty (and punishment) that is to be avoided as often as possible. This is rather unfortunate because the thing is, human beings are designed to work, just as our feet are designed for walking.

But there is more to it than that — discipline is required for true fulfillment as a human being.

“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha

The word discipline actually finds its roots from “discipulus,” the Latin word for pupil, and is also the source word for disciple. So discipline actually refers to the practice or code for the acquisition of knowledge and skill — a route towards higher personal development. In fact, it is a core component to mastery,  along with concentration, patience and commitment. There is no easy prescription to excellence, happiness or fulfillment, only practices that enable its becoming.

“One might think that nothing is easier to learn for modern man than discipline… (yet) modern man has exceedingly little self-discipline outside of the sphere of work (organized labor).” — Erich Fromm, Psychologist

Without discipline, nothing is ever accomplished that needs to be accomplished. If it’s so obviously important, then why do we dread it so? Why can’t we overcome our laziness or fatigue and bear down and just do it (as that famous shoe brand tell us)?

These two infographics show what hours of sitting and a sedentary lifestyle do to us. The human body is designed for a minimum of 2 hours of physical exertion everyday— that’s less than 10% of the day. Yet how many of us give even 2 % of our day (less than 30 minutes) to caring for the body, our vessel, that carries us throughout this long journey called life?

Perhaps it’s because far too many of us have jobs and/or other external demands that “obligate us” to do to labor that is unsatisfactory, uninteresting, non-creative or simply incompatible with our being. Worn out from eight or more hours of the day, both working and commuting to work on something that has no meaning or joy in doing will do that to us. In other words, being an automaton creates resentment and bitterness, which in turn adds to the fatigue of an already taxing routine. Some of us can escape this mindless drain with work that more closely resembles careers — employment that offers greater mental and creative stimulation — but even then, the long hours, stressful deadlines and office politics could be enough to offset any feelings of true satisfaction or fulfillment. At best, it seems we sacrifice one thing for another; namely, time for money, or meaning for time.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher

As a result, the idea of any kind of discipline to be practiced (post work hours) becomes too high a concept for the mind/body to accept. There is simply no will power left over to work on our own person, or spend time with family or nature. It would take discipline just to schedule time off for rest alone. Therefore, it’s almost inevitable that, once the work day is over, we want to  engage in the most rebellious activity possible; to participate in a sort of infantile self-indulgence, as psychologist Erich Fromm noted, such as the excessive browsing of the internet, playing video games or watching TV or worse — damaging activities like hard drinking or drugs to fill our emptiness. Study, exercise or eat a plate of raw veggies? “You got to be kidding me!” would be the most likely reaction to any such suggestion.

But we all have to make a living don’t we? Not many of us were trust fun babies or have lives that resemble celebrities. What then should we do while we still live in a world that aims to maximize production-consumption?

Traditional Japanese culture honors deep principles in “how” to do things, and none more so is this code for living more fully expressed than in Bushido, the way of the warrior as emblemized by the life of the Samurai.

If we’ve got a job to do needed to pay the bills, then we must be more than just aware of that fact. Whether it’s an ideal job or not is irrelevant. It’s a choice we make. And if it’s a lucid choice, and we’ve decided to take or keep such a job, we can no longer approach it like a burden. The issue is a matter of perspective. Once we view one thing as a burden, we begin to view other things as burdens. If we create an environment (either internally or externally) that is poor, we become poor.

“Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious of their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence.” — Carl Jung, Psychologist

The narrative we give to a situation alters our entire experience of it, for “one’s man pain is another man’s joy.” So if we’re gonna do the job anyway, we mind as well do it well and be respectful of the workplace — the people we work with, the company we work for, and the work itself. That’s what taking a professional approach and attitude means. And we’d be surprised at how much we can learn from the experience and, more importantly, how much we can learn about ourselves. Learning any craft is a process. In participating in that process, we discover knowledge and build respect. And it is with respect that we learn to appreciate and then love something, anything.

Muhammed Ai, seen here alone doing the classic sit up. All the “glorious” careers (sports, drama, music, art, etc.) come with the requirement of practicing the less sexy stuff behind the scenes. If we learn to accept or even love the process required, we begin to love the job.

“It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” — John Wooden, Record-winning UCLA Basketball Coach

Now, if the work is truly absolute torture with no relief in sight, a job that causes immense strain and robs us of not only all the time that we’ve got but our passion to live, then it should be clear that we have to make a serious change. There’s always an option. We cannot be afraid to be free. Most people are. It takes courage to be free — and ironically, discipline — to listen to your intuitive self.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl, Writer & Holocaust survivor

Choosing Yourself

Rembrandt Self-Portrait completed 4 years before his death in 1665. Rembrandt may have died blind, poverty-stricken and largely ignored, but his work lives on 350 years after his death, his name now synonymous with the word genius. That’s not such bad a deal in the grand scheme of things.

“What you need is to free yourself from your own preconceived ideas about yourself. It will take a revolution to do it, and many times you will think yourself on the road only to find that the old habit has possessed you again with a new preconception. But if you can at least to a degree free yourself, take your head off your heart and give the latter a chance, something may come of it. The results will not be what you expect, but they will be like you and it will be the best that can come from you.” — Robert Henri

Here, we talk a lot about discipline, preparation, and balance. The reason is because it’s through such means that we make the life we lead truly our own. It is, as Robert Henri states, no easy proposition. But is there a better alternative? Would you prefer someone else tell you how you should live? We all know that governments and private industry are more than happy to fulfill such a role. If we want freedom, know that it comes attached to personal responsibility.

I was visiting a boxing gym recently and came across the above quote on the window. It’s true, if it isn’t hard it isn’t worth doing.

Positive change is hard. We all know it. But to be yourself, to live honestly, requires full consciousness and awareness. We must look and see, listen and hear. The senses are our tools and they must be well-maintained and our usage of them must be practiced. We cannot, unlike the majority of society, afford to be lost in the noise. It’s not healthy nor natural for the artist to chase things. Instead he pays attention, contemplates, and then responds. This ritualistic practice is what allows him to see and create beyond what is common or mundane.

As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the fusion of the physical and biological spheres with that of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics — we shall witness a dramatic altering of our social and economic fabric. It’s a time when our artistic awareness is more valuable than ever. Our sensibilities to our environment and humanity allows us to see and adapt to change, even foretell the future so to speak. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t the scientists or industrialists who foresaw how technology would change how we live but the writers and filmmakers of science fiction.

A harrowing scene from Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking and prescient 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film created almost 50 years ago. 

Technology has always altered the world as it entered it. But modern technology has taken a giant leap from the cantilever or printing press; the power of digital media and its emergence as a way of working, living and socializing has altered the entire consciousness of our species. Or, as stalwart historian and media expert Marshall McLuhan states from his seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it appears that only creatives have a chance at even accurately acknowledging what is happening:

“The effects of technology do not occur at the levels of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” — Marshall McLuhan

The city at night in current Shanghai, China.

The city at night from the movie Blade Runner (1982). Ridley Scott’s and Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian future world is not quite here nor are its flying cars, but the themes in question are becoming very much pertinent in our times. What will become of our world? What is it to be human?

Times are changing. The world in front of us, already doesn’t look much like the world we’re leaving behind. In a short 150 years, and more substantially, since the advent of computers and the internet, change is expanding in both size and speed — automation will bring unprecedented and even unforeseeable change. Even the great poets have acknowledged this transformation of our world:

“The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” — W. B. Yeats

Hence the artist carries a very important role in society and in mankind’s evolution. Not only do we record our history more comprehensively (i.e. being inclusive of direct human experience versus just pure facts or data), but we can, at times, predict our own future and more importantly, even shape it. So it becomes paramount that any creative remain true and pure as he can be. He must be faithful to himself. This is what we want from him.

Study of a Horse by Leonardo da Vinci. Can you imagine our world without the great contributions from the artists of the Renaissance? Leonardi da Vinci’s contributions go beyond science or art because his work encompassed both.

It’s also important to maintain an optimistic outlook. Yes, it’s frightening what advancing digital technology will mean for jobs, social security and survival. But for every crisis, there lies great opportunity. If we, as artists, develop and access our acuity in our sensory perception, we won’t become “machines.” We may work with them or alongside them, but we can remain aware and sensitive to the social and emotional impact that our changing environment brings. Instead, we look for beauty, both in joy and in sadness. It’s the reason why this blog refuses to fall towards despair or complaint despite co-existing in an unfair world that is becoming more and more machine-like everyday. The business and scientific world is obsessed with numbers. The artist’s abilities and responsibilities lie in the intangibles, in the humane. We must continue to value and develop our very human sensibilities.

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” — John F. Kennedy

But if we give away our freedom or our individuality, we kill what is the most human part of us — our unconscious and our soul — things that sense and see with greater precision than the rational mind. It’s well known, for instance in psychology, that a repressed soul leads to neurosis. Our society needs its writers, artists and poets to be healthy, free and true. The sane and lucid artist is one who chooses himself. He must ignore society’s current opinion of him. He serves it best by being imaginative and honestly expressive in his work. That’s where his generosity lies. He has to make a choice to be happy.

“Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.” — Immanuel Kant

Even this humble blog has to make choices. It wouldn’t be hard to post daily quick anecdotes or secret tricks of the trade that will “vastly” improve skills or lead to “creative success.” That would certainly garner far more followers or “hits” to the website — to make it short and easy to read, a place that lures and promises with fast answers and quick witted humor surrounded by strategically placed advertisements to “monetize” my efforts. That’s what our society currently values, accepts, and expects. It’d certainly be easier to produce and less time-consuming than spending the many hours to put together what I have done here. Why write 1000 or 2000 word essays when 100 word excerpts would suffice? But then, the generosity and spirit of what I want to share wouldn’t surface. I’d be like everyone else — after a quick buck, chasing immediate attention to satisfy an insecure ego. To be different means to take a risk. To be true to oneself means to be different.*

“I think real artists are too busy with just being and growing and acting (on canvas or however) like themselves to worry about the end. The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living (and) fulfillment” — Robert Henri

*In the same generous spirit of this blog, I ask that you multiply the contributions here by sharing this free blog, whenever you can, on your own sites or social media platforms.


Harold Lloyd, seen in his 1923 B/W classic “Safety Last” was a master pantomime actor/director who thrilled his audiences with his story scenarios and mind-blowing stunts (no green screen technology!)

“I’m a big fan of pantomime storytelling, being an animator.” — John Lasseter

Pantomime — the art or technique of conveying emotions, actions, and feelings by gestures without speech— is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in human history. For thousands of years, it has helped tell stories, build our imagination and make us laugh. It has made its home in family rooms and on Shakespearean stages. It has graced film and television since their inception. It’s the quintessence of visual storytelling.

“Pantomime is a big thing in the cultural calendar of my country…” — Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming (seen here with the late Natasha Richardson on the set of Cabaret) is an extraordinarily talented actor/singer/writer whose physical performances make him the star of any show or scene he’s in.

Unfortunately, with the dominance of quick access information, flashy action and snappy punchlines in entertainment today, this craft has lost a bit of its glamor and respect. Except on Broadway stages or standup comedy acts, directors and performers, both in live action and animation, are favoring stiffer choices complemented by dialogue heavy exposition and more extensive camera work (i.e. highly convoluted and often overlong action sequences). Times and tastes may have changed, but wordless performance still has its place in the craft of fine acting and storytelling. In fact, the best acting is often between the lines. Physical action, which constitutes both pose and movement, can sometimes convey ideas and emotions with even greater clarity and poignancy than any dialogue or close up shot. It would be a shame for any performer not to study the power of gesture.

Containing less than 1000 words of dialogue, Walt Disney’s iconic film “Bambi” is one of the quietest films in history. It’d be hard pressed for any modern day studio to create or even allow for the creation of a film told primarily through imagery, music and action, the original bread and butter of not just animated films but of all films.

To me, pantomime is a beautiful yet phenomenally difficult craft to learn; it requires very specific training and endless preparation. Not unlike animation, extensive exploration into character creation and intense imagination is required, as is patience, both on the part of the creators and the audience. It’s a form of acting that delivers ideas in a way that is both timeless and universal, a wordless language that represents 100,000 years of humanity in the making. It’s an illusion of life told through time, shape and space, and nothing else.

The following limited selection is my small tribute to the magical possibilities of pantomime in film:

Rowan Atkinson is perhaps the finest pantomime actor working today. Originally designed to help him fine tune and explore the depths of acting, his creation “Mr. Bean” has become a worldwide sensation. Watch carefully how he always firmly establishes his character of “Bean” prior to any action or interaction with his environment. Story action and character formation are deeply intertwined and Atkinson, who sports one of the highest IQ’s in Hollywood (178), knows that that’s how we build interest. Executed with superb timing, gesture and clarity, Atkinson’s Bean is always fabulously entertaining.

The best and most iconic of comic pantomimes is Charlie Chaplin.  In “Modern Times” Chaplin creates a masterpiece of comedy and pathos as well as a prescient commentary of the social malaise caused by Taylorism — the economic theory of industrial production and practice that dominates the workplace to this very day. Chaplin’s little Tramp is so carefully constructed from his “stache” down to the flaps of his oversized shoes, that just one look at him tells us who he’s supposed to represent — namely us, the little people. But it’s the Tramp’s never-say-die spirit, inventive adaptability and relentless sense of hope that makes him so likeable and his antics so funny. Despite the fact that his creation is over 100 years old now, Chaplin’s pantomimes are perfectly written, staged and acted and should continue to be studied by actors and animators today.

When people think of pantomime, they usually think only of comedy or full-bodied, high-action performance. Al Pacino may be known predominantly for some of the loudest and most powerful screen characters, but here in Mike Newell’s excellent film “Donnie Brasco” he delivers a most sincere and sophisticated performance. In this last scene from the movie, both the events that are to unfold and the deep feelings inside the character are told with action — highly subdued action. In my humble opinion, Pacino’s portrayal of the aging Lefty, a respectfully loyal but out-of-luck gangster is one of the best and most underrated performances of his career.

In Wong Kar-Wei’s visually sumptuous masterpiece “In The Mood For Love” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his contribution) deliver some of the most beautiful silent performances ever to grace the screen.  The story is one told with minimal dialogue, elegant framing and the most subtle of gestures and glances. Perfectly supported by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and Shigeru Umebayashi’s hypnotic score, the film is achingly beautiful in theme,  movement and performance. It’s one of my favorite films of all time.

A great tribute to the silent era, The Artist (2011) is a tastefully clever and heartwarming story of love and destiny. Starring Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller and the ever-charming Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the movie displays all the joys and wonders of what silent acting can do to enchant the minds and hearts of viewers, even today.

“I like actors that are good with pantomime and that can transmit a lot by their presence and attitude more than through their dialogue.” — Guillermo del Toro

The Work Space

Poorly cared for tools denotes neglect and sloppiness.

When there is both inner and outer cleanliness, it approaches godliness.” — Mahatma Gandhi

One of the things I’ve learned over my career is this: respect your work space. This could mean anything from the environment in which you work, including its people, all the way down to the tools that you use. Even the mind itself is a work space we must keep organized and tidy.

“Cleanliness and order are not matters of instinct; they are matters of education, and like most great things, you must cultivate a taste for them.” — Benjamin Disraeli

The common man underestimates the importance of order and cleanliness. He thinks it’s just a matter of freedom or personal hygienic preference. But every expert, from the field of medicine to the culinary arts all the way to the local plumber, knows the utmost importance of being clean, tidy and organized. It’s part of being prepared for the job and a sign of true professionalism.

We may never have as clean a workstation as minimalist Georgia O’Keefe, but our work spaces have a huge influence on us and our end product (i.e. our art).

To have a clear mind and  properly prepared work space is key to good performance. How can we possibly perform our best in the absence of an environment that induces excellence? How can we succeed using sub-par tools? Would we want our dentist to use unsanitized equipment in our mouths? The common artist is often caught so much less prepared than his counterparts in other fields of occupation. The site of the messy painter or digital artist with crap all over his desk or studio is a flashing sign of disorder and chaos. We mistake this for creativity and spontaneity but the reality, despite such fanciful notions, is that the state of our immediate environment (along with our creations) is always the most accurate reflection of our state of mind. We are defined by how we do things.

Cluttered workstations invite not only physical germs and confusion, they invite judgement from colleagues, and quite possibly, your superiors. Please don’t confuse garbage with genius!

Marie Kondo, the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, speaks with great wisdom when she notes that in order to get our lives in order, we must first get our houses in order. And the key to that she says is by first clearing out things that clutter both our physical space and our inner mind:

“By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space much more peaceful and comfortable.”

We are bombarded today with visual noise, and working in a visual medium, we need the utmost clairvoyance when it comes to the artistic ability to see and discern. Clutter and chaos robs us of focus. It complicates what is already a very complicated and difficult thing to do. To create something new and something of value requires top notch conditions.

Toulouse Lautrec, the marvelous 19th century Bohemian impressionist from Paris, was poor and physically disadvantaged, but painted with deep passion and dedication. He also kept a very orderly working environment.

Kondo also hints that we gain greater usefulness and joy from taking care of our work space and tools:

When you treat your belongings well, they will always respond in kind.”

I know this to be true. And this applies both to my digital work space as well as my physical painting space. If I don’t make a routine of premixing my colors thoughtfully and carefully, I run out during the process of painting or find myself frustrated with the quality of my preparation. Same things applies to me keeping my brushes and palettes clean.

I also keep the digital work space as minimalist as possible, keeping only those windows open that were crucial to my work — no chat boxes, Youtube videos or other kinds of nonsense that might detract from the state of mind of full-on concentration. When I was directing, I always had an order to the day; who I was going to see, what needed to be done, and what deadlines needed to be met. I met with my assistant and animation leads regularly and on schedule. I could not proceed otherwise. I always laid everything out in front of me, so I can see as clearly as possible.

Similar to the attitude that makes a method actor, I get very frustrated when disturbed out of my creative state. I’m in a dance with the muses here and any interruption will not do. The bottom line is performance.

From The Machinest (2004) to Batman Begins (2005), method actor Christian Bale’s unbelievable transformations between projects indicate his mind-blowing devotion to his craft.

Another crucial concept Kondo eludes to is that by making the choice to eliminate the inessential we improve our ability to make choices:

“… one of the magical effects of tidying is confidence in your decision-making capacity.”

Decision-making, like anything else, is an activity that needs to be practiced. When we avoid dealing with clutter or inconveniences, we build a habit of avoiding problems and dealing with issues. If we can’t even clear out some simple garbage in front our desk or workstation, how can we possibly deal with matters much more substantial? Building a strong mind takes effort and organizing one’s immediate environment is the simplest way to turn the bad into the good. Doing that, life becomes interesting because different forces have entered into the equation. And just like that, we create a change for the better.

“The good things grow better. There is always a new surprise each time you see them.” — Robert Henri

Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s muse and lover, seen here in the master’s studio. Despite his renown spontaneity, Pablo Picasso always had sketches and references (in this case, the model herself) nearby and ready.

So, take care of your tools; keep your work space clean, organized and ready for use. Making art is hard enough on its own, why risk further difficulty and disarray? A prepared and clean work environment denotes a clean and prepared mind. As they say, order begets more order.

“The brain can prove to be a wonderful tool, can be a willing slave, as have been evidenced by some men, but of course it works poorly when it has not the habit of usage.” — Robert Henri

If you’re a mess or your work’s a mess. Look at your environment first and foremost.

“If you’re gonna put your house in order, do it now.” — Marie Kondo

3 Principles to Performance

A self-portrait by the King of Line, Al Hirshfield.

I know of no other reason for failure by artists than the failure to follow these three simple principles of performance.

  1. Purpose
  2. Preparation
  3. Participation

“…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Aristotle

Child painting might be cute and therapeutic but the notion of genius and creativity is pure wishful thinking. A child’s work in the arts, especially that of the visual arts like painting and acting, is merely a movement of the tools and is typical of the work of all beginners — it’s without any introspection, skill or real risk. Image from Parents Magazine.

Failure can happen at anytime and at all levels of competence. The beginner fails because he lacks the knowledge, skill and experience. He’s simply not aware of the steps required and fumbles his way through the process. He has ideas but knows not how or what to do with them. He participates — that is, he attempts to do — but does so without purpose or plans. He lacks knowledge, training and ability. This is why education either through schooling or apprenticeship is often required. Very few can learn on their own without any guidance. That said,  those who lack resources for formal education yet have the passion and will, find a way — even if it’s by way of books, imitation and/or deep personal exploration into life and himself.

Photography is fun, creative and requires focus and knowledge. It’s easy to get hooked into the latest technology and all that expensive equipment. Many of us make photography a hobby, only a few take it on professionally.

The amateur fails to make the next step due to the lack of deep desire and discipline (which is contrary to the belief that it has solely to do with the lack of talent). He knows what he should do but lacks the will and drive to turn those principles into habits, into routine behavior. It’s common among the average performer, despite owning potential, to struggle to embrace the life of a true craftsman. To him “art” is a mere hobby — a sometimes fun and cool activity that’s not quite interesting enough to encourage further commitment of either time or energy. He might have great ideas but does limited preparation and won’t hone the skills necessary in daily practice. Participation is enthusiastic but irregular. He will not submit to the pain and disappointment that comes with proceeding to the next level. It is okay to be a hobbyist. Most people are hobbyists at one thing or another because no one can be a pro after everything. That said, one cannot call himself an artist without a devotion to the principles of the creative process. On the other hand, even if someone’s never been paid for his art he can still be a true artist — Van Gogh is the most obvious example. Public approval or financial compensation isn’t always the best assessment of the worth of a piece of art or the artist.

Sidney Lumet (seen here with Al Pacino on set of Dog Day Afternoon) is one of the consummate filmmakers of our time. He never won any Oscars for his movies, but he also made over 50 films, many of them outstanding. In every one of them, there was a commitment to excellence, a commitment to the craft.

The professional, on the other hand, is committed to his craft. To achieve professional status is to reach a high watermark of performance and reliability; someone who always meets the standard, retains high levels of skills and has a work process that is both effective and efficient. The true professional knows the tools, understands the creative process and performs without extreme highs and lows. He is reliable and well-respected among his peers. When professionals do fail, it’s more often due to the interference of ego or the comfort achieved thru success, which leads him to complacency and sometimes sloppiness. In the worse case scenario, the craft becomes a career or just plain work — a place to be near colleagues and to earn a living. He no longer strives to push himself further because he’s plateaued, so he’ll keep doing what he’s been doing even as lowered expectations of himself bring both despondence and insecurity. A professional’s level of skill and reliability make him a valuable contributor to society but he’s almost always at risk of losing his passion and be distracted by social or hedonistic goals. The solid professional has to be very selective about his activities.

Master animator Eric Goldberg, seen here with another master of line, Al Hirshfield — his inspiration for the Genie in Walt Disney’s Aladdin.

The top flight artist or master is one who is beyond standards — beyond mere professionalism. Commitment and consistency are his trademarks. Day in, day out, he runs thru the process. He avoids all distractions that might hinder him or his craft. He pontificates, dutifully prepares and performs with full concentration. He takes risks, pushing himself outside comfort zones. He takes the time to reflect and makes tiny adjustments which is constantly required to adapt to changing circumstances. To him, there is no longer any ego attached to the work, nor is there pride or worry about competition or what other people think of himself or his work. He just simply and regularly participates in the pure process of creation. He uses his experiences but makes no assumptions — he aims exclusively for excellence without expectation.

Laird Hamilton (seen here training with a cement ball underwater) is one of only two athletes (Bruce Lee is the other) who never competed professionally but was recognized by Sports Illustrated (2014 edition) as one of top fifty athletes of all-time. His contribution to the sport of surfing is simply undeniable — a maverick and innovator who pushed the sport in unfathomable ways.

The true master’s work is also deeply personal. And although his source of reference and inspiration can come from anywhere, he most often finds purpose from within and that is what drives him. The daily life of a master looks the same to any outsider (i.e. boring) but to himself, each day is an entirely new experience. And in his deep wisdom, it’s an acknowledged opportunity to create and discover. It’s easy to confuse mastery with natural talent or mind-blowing skill, but it’s the attitude and way of life that defines the master.

So what about those principles that make the artist?

Purpose: Making A Decision

The less decisive we are, the more stressful and elusive the process. Deciding where to go is the key to a good start and finish. Image from Forbes.

In the beginning of any creative adventure is an idea. We all have them. More often than not, we have too many. There’s too much information out there, too many options. If we’re animating a scene, we should know who the character is and why its doing what its doing. If we’re telling a story, we must determine why and what it is we want to say or share. If a solid decision isn’t made, confusion and lack of commitment will ensue. An artist must know where he’s heading before he proceeds on the journey of creation.

Preparation: Planning & Practice

Thumbnail sketches by the marvelous Norm Ferguson show the exploration and creativity involved in finding the best possible bit of business for Pluto.

Once we’ve come to a decision on why and what we’re about to embark on, we need a plan. We need to gather, explore and experiment. Here reference, thumbnails, tests and feedback ensure that all avenues have been explored, every mine completely excavated for any treasures that may have lay hidden. Following the laying out of a rough but proper road map, the artist must also commit to a schedule of skill development. Only with daily dedication to his craft will he learn to master the tools and acquire the skills necessary to carry out his vision. The artist that only does what’s required plateaus and, if no further effort is made to push himself beyond comfortable boundaries, those barriers to higher achievement will remain and strengthen.

Participation: Diving Into Action

Ahead of his time, Picasso is seen here painting with light. One thing that is undeniable about Picasso; he was always creative and always creating. It’s the hallmark of a true artist. Image from Life magazine.

At the end of the day, the artist only gets better by doing, by dealing with the real thing. For the athlete, he must compete. For the artist, he must take out that brush and commit to the canvas. He must drive thru any fears and live with the outcomes both good and bad. Here, he relies on faith and trust that he’s about as prepared as he can be and now’s the time for performance, win or lose. Intuition is key here; he must respond to the work, to the situation in front of him. He must be aware, be able to make changes on the fly, yet at the same time not deviate from the journey, no matter how hard it may become.

This entire exercise is then to be rinsed (reflected upon) and repeated. The more this virtuous cycle of excellence is practiced, the more likely excellent results will appear. As we gain traction and make more decisions, the better we get at making tough decisions — we start to separate knowledge from the noise. The same goes with preparation; the more regularly we plan, the more it becomes part of how we work naturally. Practice, too, becomes habitual. Skills will be refined, muscles (both mental and physical) are strengthened. Working without a vision or proceeding haphazardly becomes a rarer and rarer occurrence reserved for sick days and unforeseen circumstances. We might still play and explore in the midst of battle, but any good result is the result of much brewing and building of thoughts and feelings deep behind our consciousness. Intuition is able to work well because we’ve done the homework.

Since it usually takes a long time to achieve mastery, masters in the making often remain unknown or out of the spotlight for extended periods of time. Master sushi chef Jiro Ono had been making sushi for many decades before being recognized for triple Michelin Stardom. From David Gelb’s marvelous little documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Purpose, preparation and participation are the keys to the creative process but they may also be the keys to success in any area of life.

“A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.” ― Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings