If you delve into the success stories of anyone who has made it, the emphasis will tend to be on the twists and turns of good fortune, or the ideas that seemingly exploded from nowhere to propel the lucky genius to his or her greatness.
And that’s entirely understandable: those parts of the story provide the juiciness and fireworks that make us raise our eyebrows in wonder and admiration. The thunderbolt moment when certain lines in Hey Jude popped into Paul McCartney’s mind, making no sense until John reassured him of their greatness, are fascinating:
But the days and days when Paul (might have) walked around with shit lyrics swirling around his head, or the hours and hours where he (possibly) fretted over the melody for ‘Nah nah nah na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, Heeeeey Juuuude!’? Boring! Other than perhaps an indication of how long the period between 2/10 shite and 10/10 genius lasted, people will rarely give you an idea of the work and persistence that goes into great creations.
And I think that’s damaging.
When we want to be inspired by great artists, and we read about the one-off moments of chance, the act of creation seems more remote. How can we engineer such thunderclaps of genius? They seem to just appear to the great ones, and if we’re not among the chosen recipients we have to accept our lot and be lesser creative people. And what of those incredible coincidences of fortune that led to the chat with the lady who accidentally said the line that became the great title of the book that sold it to the big publisher etc. etc.? You can’t make those things happen to you, so why bother trying?
Well, (and people generally don’t want to hear this, hence its absence from these tales of brilliance), it’s the long, sometimes boring work that leads to the the great luck or the unexpected visits of the muse. Paul wrote music all the fucking time, for years and years and years. He did those 10,000 hours in Hamburg with the lads. So when, eventually, the lines and melodies for Hey Jude appeared, it wasn’t a result of lying around stoned (well, partly); it was the consequence of the boring old work.
But the great thing is that the boring old work is an option available to literally all of us. You don’t have to be a special person, touched by God, to be a Beatle, or Picasso, or the person three offices down who keeps winning more awards than you. You just have to put the hours in, and if you’re so inclined, an improved set of circumstances will be yours.
The great golfer Gary Player said ‘the more I practice, the luckier I get’. Sorry if that’s boring, but at least it’s possible.
(PS: if you want to see how interesting the story of the ‘work can be, check out Dave Dye’s recent account of the effort it takes to make good work better.)