The Goldilocks Principle


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.