The task of art

Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.

~ Marcel Proust


Sometimes I weep

What focus means is saying no to something that you, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea and you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.

~ Jonny Ive from,

I have a lot of ideas. (Perhaps your experience is similar?) For most of my life I thought all of my ideas where good ones. Sure, there were some insane bicycle accidents and spectacular snow-tubing disasters, but in the minutes following an incident, I still thought it was a good idea. Poorly planned, poorly executed, or both, sure. But life seemed to be an endless parade of good ideas each affording an opportunity to grab life by the choose-your-own-metaphor. In hindsight, I think it was all simply poor—or, if I’m honest, a complete absence of—impulse control.

In recent years it has become apparent my time on Earth is limited. (Perhaps your experience is similar?) These days that stream of ideas continues. What if I installed a motion-activated auto-targeting water sprinkler filled with Capsaicin-laced water to keep the squirrels away? (Yes, really.) …and okay, well, the ideas don’t all seem like good ideas anymore. Fine. I’m cool with having limited time, limited resources, and possibly some added social awareness.

But every once in a while, I have an idea which is blindingly awesome. Even if I have one such idea only once in a while, that still means I have more than I can try, and then I have to choose. I have to choose some, and say no to others.


How does this even exist?

In fact, now I’m wondering if that’s one way you know something is great? When you say: “How does this even exist?”

~ Austin Kleon from,

Yes, that’s definitely one way.

In about ten weeks I’m making my annual journey to Boston and neighboring Somerville for a parkour event. Much has changed over the years I’ve been going. It’s moved from Septembers to Junes. The size has waxed and waned. A few of the same people are usually there, and there is an endless banquet of new forever-friends.

If you get into doing this thing, and you start going to play and train with others, you soon have a very unusual problem: The more you run into a particular someone, the more it happens in different places. You start to have this precious view of who this person is separated from where that person normally is. Sometimes you know someone well, but have no idea where you know them from. It’s weird. It’s awesome. How does this even exist?


Talent is bullshit

Marty is a death camp survivor. He’s got the tattoo. He never speaks about the experience directly (I only know through my friend Pablo, who originally introduced me to Marty) but he’ll make remarks from time to time whose gist is, “Appreciate life. Never complain. Work hard and do your best.”

Marty has one other mantra: “Talent is bullshit.”

~ Steven Pressfield from,

It’s worth reading simply because Pressfield wrote it; He doesn’t write that much on his blog and so I make time to read it all. Marty (who is a fictionalized version of a real person Pressfield knew) consuls a tidy, four points. I was gut-punched to realize that while I excel at the last two, “Work hard and do your best,” and I suck at the first two, “Appreciate life. Never complain.” The complaining bit I have made reasonable progress on. These days I don’t often complain, and when I do complain I am able to see it’s ridiculous indignation at its core. But that first one, “Appreciate life,”… yikes! I seriously suck at that.


Heart work

So much of the job is more emotion and ‘heart work’ than it is ‘head work.’ The head comes in after, to look at what the heart has presented and to organize it. But the initial inspiration comes from a different place, and it’s not the head, and it’s not an intellectual activity.

~ Rick Rubin



I think people want things that are really passionate, and often, the best version they could be is not for everybody… The best art divides the audience. If you put out a record, and half the people who hear it absolutely love it, and half the people who hear it absolutely hate it, you’ve done well, because it’s pushing that boundary.

~ Rick Rubin


Step 2

People – especially really smart people – have a tendency to attempt solving big problems (like earning a profit) without first solving more basic ones (like how you’ll get there). This is why the “Step 1, Step 3” joke resonates. And it’s why understanding the hierarchy of earning profit is so important.

~ Morgan Housel from,

Oh, crikey! That’d be me. I too–frequently get frustrated when my “awesome idea” isn’t received the way I’d like it to be. I think it’s exactly the same step–two problem that Housel points out. I’m jumping over step 2. But in cases where I try to figure out step 2… *crickets* It occurs to me that there’s another way to address the issue: Stop chasing ideas that solve a problem that I have, and instead try to chase an idea that solves a problem someone else has.


The gap

The Wrights’ story shows something more common than we realize: There’s often a big gap between changing the world and convincing people that you changed the world.

~ Morgan Housel from,

On one hand, we could simply define “changed the world” to be when people have actually noticed, or when the change is wide-spread. On the other hand, it’d be much more interesting to acknowledge that the change happens at the moment of the advance—the moment the Wright Brothers figured out controlled, powered flight. (It’s the “controlled” part that really made them first.) The challenge for us creatives… for those of us out trying to change the world… is how do we act during the gap. Do we keep working, quietly changing the world further? Do we stop working and start marketing? Or… something else? To quote William Gibson: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”



The world is filled with overconfident people. Overconfidence leads to malpractice, to fraud, and to broken promises. Overconfidence is arrogance. You don’t want an overconfident surgeon or even an overconfident bus driver. By definition, overconfidence leads to risky behavior and inadequate preparation. But the practice requires us to do our work without becoming attached to the outcome. It’s not overconfidence, it’s a practice of experiments that respect the pitfalls of hubris.

~ Seth Godin


Culture, passion, curiosity

If culture is sufficient to establish what we eat, how we speak, and ten thousand other societal norms, why isn’t it able to teach us a process to make art? Isn’t it possible for the culture to normalize goal setting and passion and curiosity and the ability to persuade? It can. And you don’t have to wait for it to happen. You can begin now.

~ Seth Godin


And being on the hook is hard

So people are getting what they asked for. Autonomy. Responsibility instead of authority. The chance to speak up and be heard. Most of all, the opportunity to be on the hook.

Not surprisingly, some people, particularly if they’ve been indoctrinated into the industrial mindset, don’t like this.

They can’t ask, “just tell me what to do.” The search for an A, the hope to be picked by someone in charge, the desire for perfect–it’s gone. So is the deniability that comes with following instructions.

~ Seth Godin from,

I don’t know if what Godin points out is a common problem. I’m wondering if those who can’t make the shift mentioned by Godin are simply surrendering too soon. Modern life is complicated—the most clever thing the devil ever did was convince people the Internet was easy! The more time you spend knee-deep in technology the sooner you learn that you have to be able to throw your arms up and tap-out. That’s useful in some situations (all of life that touches technology) but would look exactly like idunnoitis in a business setting.


The danger of plans

It is essential to get lost and jam up your plans every now and then. It’s a source of creativity and perspective. The danger of maps, capable assistants, and planning is that you may end up living your life as planned. If you do, your potential cannot possibly exceed your expectations.

~ Scott Belsky


Learning to see

Most people to this day think of [the sciences and the arts] as so radically different from each other. But I want to posit a different way to look at it. It comes from what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of art on the part of most people. Because they think of art as learning to draw or learning a certain kind of self-expression. But in fact, what artists do is they learn to see.

~ Ed Catmull



To be a successful creator, you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, clients, or fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only 1,000 true fans.

~ Kevin Kelly