Every minute of creativity you consume takes a lifetime of experience to produce.
A reflection on the illusion of effortless mastery.
One of the most fascinating qualities of creativity is its ability to bend time.
The rate at which we consume a creative product is rarely on a 1-to-1 basis with the time it takes to create it. Consider the following examples:
An hour-long orchestral masterpiece that we delight in takes days (if not months) to construct. That amazing meal we wolf down in minutes takes the chef countless hours to brainstorm, prepare, and create. A captivating painting we muse about for a minute or two may be the result of an artist toiling for years at the manifestation of his vision.
The latter example reminds me of a brilliant story about Picasso, as told by best-selling author Robin Sharma:
One day a woman spotted [Picasso] in the market and pulled out a piece of paper.
“Mr. Picasso,” she said excitedly. “I’m a big fan. Please, could you do a little drawing for me?”
Picasso happily complied and quickly etched out a piece of art for her on the paper provided. He then smiled as he handed it back to her.
“That will be a million dollars,” [Picasso said].
“But Mr. Picasso,” the woman replied, flustered. “It only took you thirty seconds to do this little masterpiece.”
“My good woman,” Picasso laughed. “It took me thirty years to do that masterpiece in thirty seconds.”
This story illuminates a powerful point: the closer a masterful work is created within that coveted 1-to-1 time ratio of consumption-to-production, the longer the creator worked to tirelessly build, hone, and refine that craft.
Here’s a ridiculously oversimplified hand-drawn graph to help illustrate Picasso’s line of thinking:
For other masterful artists, it might look like the below graph instead (one example of this would be Cai Guo-Qiang, who took on increasingly time-intensive projects throughout the course of his career):
But rarely does anything sensible come out of this:
For the people that subscribe to the above graph, they’re living in a fantasy land designed to encourage raw, unpolished talent over focused, dedicated work.
This is the illusion of “effortless mastery.” In more detail:
Effortless Mastery: The belief that a line of work can be mastered by an overabundance of natural talent. Focused work and prolonged exposure to the endeavor are considered to be secondary factors.
Effortless mastery is the byproduct of a culture that encourages the blind pursuit of passion over periods of deep, sustained work. With the advent of social media, it’s easy to see why this is the case.
Rarely do we see the drudgery of the year-long process behind the construction of a beautiful album or the sculpting of an awe-inspiring statue. Instead, it’s the musician’s amazing tour footage or a beautiful image of the completed monument that is distributed to our eyes, ears, and minds.
It’s easy to fall in love with the end result. And it’s even easier to consume it.
But it takes a tremendous amount of effort to tirelessly partake in its creation.
Cal Newport defines this tireless effort as the craftsman mindset, in which you must build and cultivate enough career capital to become “so good they can’t ignore you.” He endorses this line of thinking over the passion mindset, which instead focuses solely on finding what you love. He summarizes:
“Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.”
When focus is placed outside the desires of your own ego, the willingness to engage in every spectrum of the creative process (including the hours and hours of mundane repetition) will become apparent. This is the beauty of the craftsman mindset. Every accomplishment is earned by the fuel of lifelong, focused work, and not the allure of temporary, ethereal passion.
Effortless mastery is a mirage. It is a device used to discredit the dedication of the creator and inflate the ego of the consumer.
“If I had the natural talent to play the piano like he does, then I’d be able to do that too.”
“Cooking comes so easy for her. She’s lucky to just know what ingredients work well together.”
These statements come from those that subscribe to the belief of effortless mastery. It comes from those that are quick to attribute one’s mastery to innate fortune, rather than dedicating their own time into the craft themselves.
Awareness of this will redefine the way we consume creativity. It will make us more mindful and more grateful of the creative products that exist everywhere around us.
Everything we have done up to this point is a byproduct of our past experiences, learnings, and most importantly, our presence of mind. When one extends their creative spirit into a work of art, a mixture of every life experience goes into that one brushstroke of paint, one sentence of writing, or one minute of music.
But the only way to properly channel that spirit is through focused dedication and merciless consistency. Only then will the illusion of effortless mastery wither and crumble.
Only an avid consumer believes a piece of work to be easy.
A creator knows that effortlessness is an unintended illusion brought forth by a lifetime of effort.
Here’s the great thing. You already have a lifetime of experience ready to be channeled into a work of unimaginable creativity.
Are you scared that you might not have the innate talent for it? Afraid of what the result may be or what people will think?
Well, then you’re on the right track:
“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” -Steven Pressfield
All that matters is that you consistently show up and put in the time.
When you saturate yourself with a deep presence of mind, the reward of meaningful work closely follows.
Ultimately, it’s this accumulation of dedicated effort that paves the road to true and everlasting mastery.