Control

Atlas was a Titan in Greek mythology who was responsible for holding up the heavens and earth. It can’t be much fun carrying the weight of the entire world on your shoulders.

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” — Albert Einstein

We live in a world today obsessed with growth and addicted to consumption. In newsrooms and boardrooms across the globe, the masses are routinely referred to as consumers rather than persons. Producing, buying and selling dominate almost every aspect of our lives. We’ve forgotten what Vicki Robbin said in her book, Your Money or Your Life, that we’ve lost sight of what the word “consumption” really means. Although “to consume” carries the rather banal definition “to purchase for the sake of ownership” it also means to “absorb, use up, squander, and destroy.” Consumption is an irreversible process and we’ve become a society that’s now constantly tied to the chains of commerce, immersed in the accumulation and disposal of materials and energy leading to incalculable consequences on our planet and our humanity.

“Our lives are so woven into the fabric of the economy that many of us no longer have the other kinds of wealth to fall back on— close knit families and communities, growing our own food, knowing how to make and fix the tools of daily life.” — Vicki Robbins.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s Money Walls. $100,000 worth of used bills—which the 70 year-old artist won for the Hugo Boss Prize normally given to upcoming artists — is displayed at the Guggenheim in New York City. A conceptual stunt or a message about money and art?”

Today, if the art we create isn’t meant to be sold as a product itself, it’s designed to help sell other products. Fine art, theater, TV and film all seem like independent creative outlets but we’d be foolish to think that advertising, corporate sponsorship and merchandising tie-ins aren’t part of the equation. The financial side is a reality no matter how we choose to view the situation. Unfortunately, this truth puts an immense pressure on people — and creatives in particular — as we struggle to maintain some semblance of balance between productivity and personal fulfillment as well as between survival and living in excess.

“Technology is notorious for engrossing people so much that they don’t always focus on balance and enjoy life at the same time.” — Paul Allen, Co-Founder of Microsoft

What makes it even more distressing sometimes is knowing that much of the way things are run seem unfair or at least unreasonable. In the animation industry, for example, quotas are more often than not too high, job security is scant, and the pressures never seem to abate. The often relentless and cumulative strain puts other areas of our lives in jeopardy. Everything seems too busy, too cluttered and too difficult. And so much of it seems out of our control.

Bruce Lee seen here strengthening his abdominal muscles during a break on the set of The Game of Death. If we look for it, there’s always opportunities to practice our craft.

Even for the astute and dedicated artist a sense of helplessness can’t help but ensue. We feel like we’re not producing enough, not learning quickly enough, and not being good enough. We recognize that the system is not conducive to creative growth or even short-term fulfillment. However, we mustn’t forget that the speed at which we succeed or advance is not entirely up to us. Many factors come into play that impact our abilities and execution as creatives. The mind needs freedom, balance and peace to function properly for only an uncluttered mind is a healthy and productive one. We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves — periodic detachment is necessary. 

Egon Schiele was one of the most famous poster boys of struggle, impoverishment and tragedy. In many ways, life was horrible for many artists in history, but each found real joy and truth in one place — their art. And the world is a better place because of their commitment.

Furthermore, the universe might have its own plans for us or at least a schedule that doesn’t coincide with our own. That said, there’s one thing that we can control and that is our attitude. Regardless of our immediate circumstances, we can always choose our level of involvement with money (or consumption) and hence our level of commitment to our art. This in turn raises our overall contentment.

Take your work, but never yourself, seriously.” — Chuck Jones

I believe there is real salvation in the devotion to craftsmanship, whatever our craft may be. When we turn our attention to the big picture and to the intricacies of our artistry, we narrow our focus and expend our most concentrated time and energy on something that we know gives us the most direct and honest response to our actions. We must always remember that how we spend our time is how we spend our lives.

Lucian Freud spent most of his waking hours painting. He was completely devoted to his craft until the final days of his life.

What we have to be weary of, especially in today’s society of mass technological convenience, is our minds being too scattered. I witnessed this regularly among former colleagues and now among the young students and professionals that I take under my wing. A million things both inside and outside our heads are always vying for our attention, each one a potential snare that will take us away from the deep focus required to do our best work. Distraction is the great enemy of creative activity.

A page from Bruce Lee’s book on his craft, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Lee wrote and diagrammed all his thoughts on the philosophy and art of combat. He knew that his experiments with his craft needed to be regularly scheduled and its ideas/results recorded. To be fully committed to excellence, we must set aside time for preparation, practice, execution and reflection.

The best people I know at doing anything, do it with passion but also with a narrowly focused sense of calm. They act quickly, but don’t look rushed. They do things one at a time and make it look easy. When we see such people work, we usually chalk it up to natural talent, unaware of the numerous hours, days and even years of preparation, practice and struggle.

“The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed.” — Carl Jung

An example that has always stood out in my collection of life experiences was playing hockey with this one fella who came in as a substitute for a university teammate of mine (an exchange which I’m sure was illegal). I was told that he was the best player in his league (his team would win Silver at the Nationals) and that I was in for a treat, especially given that he would be my line mate for the evening. Anyhow, watching him play was both intriguing and mesmerizing. He had the “ball on a string” and seemed to glide even when his feet looked to be barely moving. It was bizarre how calm and slow he looked as I witnessed his adversaries desperately trying to check and chase him to no avail. He moved just quickly enough to evade them, never wasting any excess energy.  And given his uncanny vision, I knew that all I had to do was to get open and he’d find me. I scored a hat-trick on the night including the game-tying and overtime game-winning goal — all directly assisted by my new magician-like line mate. Each goal I scored was right in the slot into a wide open net or at least with the goalie caught in the confusion of the moment created by “him” of course. I played the hero, but he was the real star.  The best people always make it look easy and in my case being around that made for one of the most memorable events in those four rather unmemorable years in university.

The masterful Chuck Jones spent most of his life drawing screwy rabbits, wily coyotes and romantic skunks. He never complained despite the fact that he received neither the financial compensation or accolades he deserved — his producers at Warner’s claimed most of the credit and the awards. He focused on what he could control and was happier because of it.

People who perform at the highest level are so completely absorbed in the act of excellence they have no time for distractions — not gossip, politics or appearances. They have the beautiful presence of mind to slow things down, simplify, and focus on what matters most. They are craftsmen and just devote to what they love most, their art. Both the environment and the outcome matter much less.

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” — Bruce Lee

The Goldilocks Principle

bugsthreebears

Mama Bear tricks Bugs Buggy into grabbing the carrot soup in Chuck Jones’ interpretation of the Goldilocks story in Warner Bros’ 1940 short, Bugs Bunny and The Three Bears.

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius

The story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears is an odd fairy tale that illustrates the important principle that the right way forward often lies in finding a middle path between two polar opposites. Or to put it more succinctly; don’t let the perfect get in the way of the better.

Big Hollywood studios, for example, often represent the high watermark for animation artists in the industry but artists shouldn’t let the lack of immediate or eventual achievement of such lofty goals determine their level of happiness and sense of self-worth. What is most important is ALWAYS the process. We mustn’t forget that any destination or material achievement is merely a marker and doesn’t necessarily signify real success or happiness. It’s not wise to put anything on a pedestal.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” — Bruce Lee

When we’re challenged in our lives, both creative and otherwise, we’re often faced with the decision of choosing between two opposing views: this way or that way.  A win/lose mindset becomes apparent and the pressure that mounts before any decision can be made can only be offset by the exaltation from being proven successful. More common than not, unfortunately, is the resulting disappointment and regret that comes from choosing “incorrectly” because a win/lose approach naturally creates with it the blame and shame game that we all play with ourselves from time to time. Living a life in the extremes carries with it tremendous stress, drama and heartache.

homerdecisions

In charge of Springfield Nuclear Safety, Homer Simpson faces too many choices in The Simpsons episode, The Many Jobs of Homer Simpson.

The Goldilocks Rule, on the other hand, says that we can look to a third option; a tempered alternative to otherwise seemingly “all in” alternatives. An updated approach to this kind of thinking is the win-win mindset commonly applauded in business circles and political negotiations. In win-win applications, parties involved come to compromised solutions that satisfy the essential needs of both groups without the necessity of costly confrontation whereby everyone gets hurt. Looking beyond the limitations of two very real and risky extremes is often the best solution when it comes to social and multi-person issues.

Now, how does this apply to us artists?

Artists are often encouraged to swing for the fences. The “Go Big or Go Home” slogan carries with it hefty implications; you’re either a born creative genius or you’re not. In other words, society says that creative people are to deliver brilliance or they shouldn’t be artists at all; it idolizes the genius while condemning the rest. This all or nothing mindset is most surely very romantic and helps to raise the price of established art collections but serves little good in the development of the creative individual. True creative success is always dependent on a solid foundation based on skill, hard work, imagination and persistence — all of which can be developed.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” — William Shakespeare

But when goals are set too lofty and deemed too frightening to approach, we can easily be discouraged from trying or even starting. Paralysis by analysis is a very real phenomenon. Alternatively, if we push ourselves too hard or reach for peaks too far above our current capabilities, we risk the kind of failure that’s irreparable. This has happened to artists, musicians and athletes lost throughout history. The most common thing I see in my time directing and teaching is young artists and students biting off far more than they can chew. They set themselves up for almost guaranteed failure right from the start and what results is them never living up to their potential or giving up their creative careers entirely. Artists have to be mentally and fundamentally ready for the daily grind of being a top flight professional.

bowls-1

The bowls are merely symbols. Under the Goldilocks Rule, the best option in choosing between tasks is the one that encourages us to test our mettle but still be achievable. It’s about choosing the option that’s “just right.”

But it’s not just inexperienced artists who forget to take the proper path. Seasoned professionals often skip essential steps and preparation not because they’re acting on spontaneous insight — which is great — but often because they subconsciously think they know better or even feel themselves above the process. In other words, veterans are always susceptible to complacency or overconfidence, two things that are sure to prevent their ascension towards higher levels of excellence (and fulfillment). Shortcuts aren’t ever the answer, not even for pros. Masters of the craft, on the other hand, do the same “boring” mental and physical preparation each and every time; they find joy, challenge and confidence in the act of doing them and know that it opens them up to real and often new possibilities.

giacometti_photo_alexanderliberman

The great sculptor Alberto Giacometti seen here contemplating deeply about the challenges before him. (Photo by Alexander Liborman)

The Goldilocks Principle is an important reminder that reaching for something in the middle is the best possible way to growth and achievement. If the challenges in front of us are too easy, boredom and lack of enthusiasm results. If the challenges set forth are too difficult, then the probability of success reduces to zero. It’s essentially telling us to do one thing at a time and to take on one level of challenge at a time. And with that, lies the opportunity for real sustainable growth and building a sense of achievement that’s necessary to further our interest and advancement. Small victories build confidence.

steppingstones

The road towards mastery is a long, difficult and unpredictable journey but it’s also incredibly beautiful.

Now sometimes, pushing the boundaries of an artistic or scientific paradigm require us to go much further than the next logical step or the “merely” challenging; it’s important to stretch beyond our apparent limitations. But most of the time, taking smaller incremental steps is a more assured way to success. Repetition of important tasks and establishing solid rituals helps far more than it hinders.

Therefore, by keeping our targets just ahead of us — enough to make us take significant action — we can focus on what’s most important: learning and putting in the time.

“I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” — Steve Martin from his memoir, Born Standing Up.