One of my favourite motivational videos of all time asks, how bad do you want it? Accompanied by a spoken word sermon by Eric Thomas (AKA the Hip Hop Preacher), the footage showing Giavanni Ruffin training in the NFL off-season gives insight into the pain, suffering, and overpowering desire to succeed that professional athletes must bear.
I watch this whenever I need a boost for my motivation, because this desire to become proficient in any field comes with a similar level of both sacrifice and hunger for success. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, a contractor, or a creative; the struggle is real.
I have this crazy dream, that one day I’ll be a professional artist and arts educator. In this dream, I’m able to travel all over the world with my camera – shooting landscapes, people, and wild animals – and bringing the world back into my studio to translate it into a painting. In this dream, when I’m not traveling, I’ll be teaching, working with local groups and schools, helping students find that same sense of satisfaction and empowerment that I feel whenever I realize that my painting is actually going well.
This month, I actually took the leap to make this dream a reality. I found a space, rented it, and spent the past few weeks painting and preparing so that it feels like a professional art studio. When I walk into my studio, it feels calm, serene, and so beautiful.
Despite this, on the first day that I was going to go in to work on a painting, I was gripped with anxiety and fear. What if I had put in all this effort to create a studio space, only to realize that I’m actually a terrible painter? Had I overestimated my abilities? With the acquisition of a studio, failure was no longer an abstract concept; it was very real, and very possible. Until I had taken the leap to pay for my own space, there was no real risk to my art practice if I didn’t sell any paintings or book any commissions. But now, if I don’t keep income steadily streaming through the door, I will lose my studio.
So that morning, I pushed against the desire to stay at home and stew over my worries and cycled to the studio. There are few things in the world that I cannot solve after a bike ride, although some problems require longer distances than others. As a grounding method, I highly recommend it.
Upon arriving, I sat in front of my easel, and tried to calm myself. I can’t screw this up, I can’t be bad, I can’t have put all this effort into perfecting the space only to be terrible…
Athletes train their bodies so that when push comes to shove, instinct takes over, and their muscles fire on their own. Artists can do the same, and this is precisely what happened. A little voice, which sounded suspiciously like Olaf Schneider’s, started to take over and tell me what to do.
You’re wasting time. Time is commission money. Stop fussing and start mixing your colours. Take the time; get them right. Hm, that’s too purple, lots of chroma in there. You need to tone it down, add a little burnt sienna. Closer. Good. Keep your brush clean.
I let autopilot completely take over. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what happened over those two hours. Part of that was due to the fact that I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on audio book (more on this later), but I zoned out and painted in a state of flow, guided by instinct and training. And my god, it felt good. Rather than worrying, I switched the anxiety-ridden part of my brain off and simply worked for two hours. I gave myself permission to enjoy the process.
Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order for anyone to find true mastery in their chosen field, they must put in 10,000 hours of conscientious, good practice. However, most people are unwilling to devote that much of their lives to study, as 10,000 hours broken down works out to be 20 hours a week over the course of a decade. I myself am perhaps around the 500 hour mark. But for comparison’s sake, I want to show you two paintings, separated by 14 months. The first was painted using dollar store paints, and the second was a commissioned piece using Golden acrylics.
Anyone with eyeballs can see the level of improvement. But it’s not just the hours that I spend in front of the easel. It’s also the time I invest training with professionals (Arlie Hoffman and Olaf), while positioning myself so that opportunity can be seized. This is critical to Gladwell’s theories of success; talent and genius are not enough, decisive action and self-positioning are critical to reaching peak potential. Even so, innate ability isn’t necessary to attain success; even someone of ordinary ability can push themselves to reach elevated status in their vocation through hard work, practice, and a willingness to learn. I find this completely reassuring. It’s so easy to look at professional artists and credit their success to their talent, which makes their work appear effortless. But talent is random, part of the genetic lottery we all play while in utero, while the hard work and dedication that leads to mastery is not.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question, how bad do you want it? Badly enough that you’re willing to train, slog through the tough projects, put in the time, face the prospect of failure, and endure the critics?
My answer to that question: yes. To achieve mastery in visual art is a dream, one I’m willing to make sacrifices for.
500 hours down, 9,500 left to go. I can’t wait to see where I am in a year.
Are you working towards achieving mastery in your field? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.