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