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