Work that Matters: Creating your Masterpiece
*written for "Choices" magazine/ summer 2019 edition
There's nothing like a milestone to make you take inventory of your life's accomplishments (or lack thereof). My twentieth high school reunion is approaching this summer, and while I see a few fine lines in the mirror that confirm this fact, it's still hard to believe that my small class of twenty-two is standing on the brink of our fourth decade. In the midst of planning this occasion, a former classmate made the amusing observation that "none of us struck it rich or became famous."
It didn't take me long to personalize this observation, not that fame was ever this introvert's ambition. Accomplishment was/is, and I'll be the first to admit that I haven't produced as many written works as I've wanted. While it's fine to recognize if you haven't obtained out goals, it's more important to analyze that which you value and start putting your efforts in that direction. Your personal masterpiece doesn't have to be renowned to have importance.
While works of art, literature, and musical compositions are not perceived the same by everyone, you'll notice certain pieces branded with such recognition that there's no denying their widespread "masterpiece" status. Think Michelangelo's David. Mozart's Requiem. Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone. Anthony Doerr's recent Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical Hamilton. While the majority of us won't generate works of this caliber, we can admire those who have and set our sights on applying ourselves to work that matters.
Talent is easy to come by, but hard work is not. Before he created his fourteen-foot statue in the early 1500's, Michelangelo was recognized as an incredibly gifted sculptor, but other people's knowledge of that fact didn't prevent the intense toil before him. "As he worked, he would let the level of the water drop, and using different chisels, sculpted what he could see emerging. He slept sporadically, and when he did he slept with his clothes and even in his boots still on, and rarely ate," his biographer Condivi reports.
While we might not have commissioned work before us, those hoping to see a project through must adopt intentional work habits that allow us to declare our work complete. Those habits might include (but aren't limited to): getting up an hour earlier, saying "no" to as many social outings as we'd like, minimizing time on social media, continuing even when it's tempting to put down the brush, the pen or the music sheet, calling on a mentor for advice, and telling ourselves that we will see whatever we're working on to completion. When the going gets tough and the "muse" isn't showing up, we still show up after collecting our thoughts or taking a short break. Works of art aren't completed by accident. So often they require sweat, tears, and a few hours of lost sleep.
Silencing the Critic
In presenting anything to the public, we open ourselves to criticism. While some people shirk off harsh words, many of us bite our nails at the knowing that as soon as our new book is released, we are under scrutiny for entering the arena. Research professor Brene Brown interrupts our natural inclination to self-protect with the reminder that, "Not caring what people think is its own kind of hustle." Or if we are paying attention to oppositional /corrective words in order to learn, we can at least say, "I see you. I hear you. But I'm going to do this anyway." We can't let the opinions of other people override our own opinion of our work. After all, isn't it more painful to shove a completed manuscript in a drawer than allowing several critics to grant our novel two stars on Goodreads?
Valuing the Process
When you look back on all that was required of you to teach a class, construct or build a home, or start a non profit organization, you'll realize it was all the effort required that made it so meaningful to you. When I published my debut novel Swiftwater two years ago, it wasn't the intimate book release that meant the most to me--though that was important too--it was the series of revisions and rewriting that gave the book its particular value. No one else will experience the final product the way that you do. Before you walk away from it, you'll have acquired more patience, more perseverance, and hopefully more respect for others invested in demanding processes as well. You learn that even if you're the one whose name is on the cover, it wouldn't have happened without your own determination and the supportive people who cared enough to inspire and lead you.
Perhaps you can easily identify your own personal masterpiece. If so, congratulations! I want to hear more of your process. Or perhaps you're like me, realizing that while you're making strides, there are a few daily practices you can brush up on to help clear your path. I'm one that believes that no matter where you are today, you are only a few steps away from making a greater difference both to yourself and others. You don't have to be famous in order to do so. Hardly anyone knows they're creating a masterpiece while in the midst of it; it's a beautiful occurrence that happens after an artist has had the courage and tenacity to see a work through to completion.