In 1971 – the year I was born – Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics to a song that would one day become an inspiration for me, in the workplace and in life.
The song’s called “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It was first recorded by The Band, and if you’re familiar with it, that’s likely the version you’ve heard.
Here’s the phrase that gets me: “She promised she’d be there with me, when I paint my masterpiece.”
I was drawn to that shortly after meeting the woman who would become my wife. It seemed to perfectly capture the desire many have to achieve something great in life and to have someone beside them to share in that success.
I’m not an artist. Most people aren’t. But the idea of painting a masterpiece goes well beyond oils on canvas. It’s a construct, a goal that one day we might create something in the swirl of our lives that we can look on with pride.
For Steve Jobs, that masterpiece might have been the iPhone, if not his company as a whole. But it’s a goal that’s there for everyone – a Web designer, a waiter, an accountant, a lawyer, a teacher, a clerk.
The masterpiece, I believe, is a career led well, a family raised right, a life enjoyed. You don’t have to invent the next iPhone or paint the next “Starry Night.”
In his wonderful book “The Icarus Deception,” Seth Godin writes:
Art isn’t pretty.
Art isn’t painting.
Art isn’t something you hang on the wall.
Art is what we do when we’re truly alive.
If you’ve already decided that you’re not an artist, it’s worth considering why you made that decision and what it might take to unmake it.
If you’ve announced that you have no talent (in anything!) then you’re hiding.
Art might scare you.
Art might bust you.
But art is who we are and what we do and what we need.
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those we seek to connect with) personally.
Art isn’t a result; it’s a journey. The challenge of our time is to find a journey worthy of your heart and your soul.
Whatever the masterpiece you aim to create – whether it’s actual art, or an innovation, or a good reputation – it won’t come easy.
In the book “Every Leader Is an Artist,” authors Michael O’Malley and William F. Baker highlight the pragmatic steps successful artists have taken and relate them to the workplace.
Describing French sculptor Auguste Rodin, they wrote: “Whatever Rodin’s natural gifts may have been, he honed them over a very lengthy period of study. He did not miraculously become a great sculptor. … Leaders who understand that they are engaged in an occupation that requires study are ones who find mentors, learn from their own mistakes, test new methods, speak to others about their approaches, take classes, read books and improve over the years as a result.”
In a Harvard Business Review blog post published last year, Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the French graduate business school Insead, wrote: “First, you need a foundation of knowledge and skills. You can’t be Picasso if you can’t handle brushes.”
I believe a flaw in many people’s quest for success is failing to recognize the work it takes. Again, the definition of success doesn’t matter – but to be a great parent or a great receptionist or a great social media manager, you must put in the work.
Our workplaces can help us along this path, first by managers recognizing and appreciating that everyone has goals. Petriglieri also suggested that people seek out or create “identity workspaces.”
“They are groups or organizations where we can both acquire valuable expertise from others and also address fundamental questions with others,” he wrote. “Identity workspaces are communities that help us discover who we are, where we belong, what we can do and how we are meant to do it.”
These could exist in a company or outside, a space where people can gather and talk about their passions and ideas, hopefully deriving some guidance or inspiration as they work toward their masterpiece.
I asked Petriglieri via e-mail whether he believes identity workspaces would be helpful even for people in fields that aren’t traditionally considered creative.
“I think those ideas apply to any job, whether those traditionally labeled as ‘creative’ and those who aren’t,” he wrote. “Artistry – the disciplined expression of oneself in one’s work – is not the preserve of artists or professionals for that matter. Undoubtedly in some jobs – say columnist, professor, architect or Web designer – the opportunity and demand to be ‘creative’ are most apparent. However, the ability to produce something that is unique, useful and appealing within the constraints of one’s genre is a conduit to great performance in any job. And it is what makes us experience our work as meaningful.”
Despite my love for the idea of painting a masterpiece, I can’t tell you what mine will be. It could be the moment I see my children graduate from college. It could be something I write that, if I’m lucky, makes a difference in people’s lives. Or it may just be sitting back with my wife and reflecting on a good life.
The masterpiece is in the eyes of the artist, and the artist is you. The masterpiece is the goal, the thing that keeps us driven.
Enjoy your painting.