No, Madam, It Took Me My Whole Life

You have probably heard the story.

Picasso is sketching at a park. A woman walks by, recognizes him, and begs for her portrait. Somehow, he agrees. A few minutes later, he hands her the sketch. She is elated, excited about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “5000 francs, madam,” says Picasso. The woman is incredulous, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

This is the nature of mastery. “Mastery is an asymptote. You can approach it. You can home in on it. You can get really, really close to it,”  explains Dan Pink in his book Drive. “The mastery asymptote is a source of frustration. Why reach for something you can never fully attain? But it’s also a source of allure. Why not reach for it? The joy is in the pursuit more than the realization. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes…”

Could Picasso be as good if he did not paint and paint some more and experiment and then try even more? Talent alone is never enough. And mastery is not doing 1000 things at once but one thing 1000 times so you get better at it. Repetition is the mother of skill.  Lance Armstrong’s fierce resolve (in spite of the steroids accusation) has shone light to this sort of perseverance and determination.  “I knew I could be the best in the world if I got one second better every day,” he has said about his daily goals.

One tiny frigging second – that’s all it takes for the gold – even if  it takes your whole life. Isn’t it worth the try?

PS: Thanks to Maria Popova’s elegant Brain Pickings blog, a discovery engine for “interestingness” for the inspiration and reminder that in life “you don’t necessarily know you are interested in some things you didn’t know you were interested in, until you are.”


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