Thursday, August 5, 2010

The First Five Thousand

Ten thousand hours.

That's how long it takes just to get good enough to keep doing it. The first five thousand pass quickly, but you know when you've reached the midway point. When you put forth your best effort - a result of the First Five Thousand - and it falls flat. When you wonder "Why on Earth am I doing this?" When you start doing the mental economic calculus of investment vs. long-term payoff, and its associated probabilities.

And herein lies one of the cruelties of the arts: the closer you get to your ten thousand mark, the more appealing the choice to abandon it altogether will appear. It gets easier to quit. To throw it all away. All obstacles become barriers.

"I need a studio to work in" becomes "I can't work without a studio."
"I need a budget" becomes "I'm so broke I just can't do anything."

The psychological fortitude and vigilance required to keep these Demons of Doubt at bay is one of the skills developed in the First Five Thousand. It's the same tenacity that allows you to migrate from the soft cocoon of your approving friends and family and into the 'real world' where people who don't know you are asking why they should care about what you do.

I wish I could tell you I had answers or knew the secrets. I can only tell you I know there are no secrets, and probably no real answers either. At best, only better questions.

In my heart, I want every artist to find their way - to connect not only with themselves, but the Universe, and by proxy, people around them. But not everyone can, or will, be able to do this. There are too many variables. A successful career in the arts requires a million things to go right - a tilting of odds and probabilities in your favor that's only accomplished by dedicating so much time - tens of thousands of hours - to your craft that you lost sight of all else but your Art.


I want to talk about ploughs, because I think it makes a good metaphor. A plough is built of the hardiest steel, and whether pushed or pulled, will fracture apart whatever is in front of it. While it may be of the toughest alloy in the front, it also takes care to arrange what it leaves behind in the most fertile arrangement possible. By design.

And this is your big insight today: the best thing you can do is keep doing! And no matter how desperate or angry or alienated you feel in that latter five thousand hours, you still need to cultivate everything you pass with the same care and enthusiasm as the First Five Thousand. Learn to reconcile the idea that you can feel like death on the inside and still smile with your fans like you just shit a million dollars.

It will not be easy, and often the decision to persevere will border on insanity. Such is our clarion call.

PHOTO BY Flickr's eflon.