As part of the Friends of Rachel journal assignment, I will be posting some of my thoughts here.
When people meet for the first time, they tend to exchange the most predictable of pleasantries. Inevitably, the go-to question becomes "So, what do you do?". It's a strange thing, to ask someone what they do. We do a lot. We're conditioned to come up with the appropriate response. "I'm a teacher", I'll reply, and, like a trained monkey, I'll counter with "How about you?" We tend to define ourselves with labels. One of the most important decisions a student can make is to transcend labels, categories, restrictions and limitations. Be a lifelong learner. Open yourself up to whatever excites you and makes you a more complex person.
I'll give you an example. I built a deck on the back of my house. I have no experience with construction but I was willing to learn. My father in-law guided me through the process; it was refreshing to be a student again. Besides the occasional minor injury or setback, I finished it. Now, I plan on building Declan and Mackennah a custom treehouse with all the bells and whistles. I can now apply the knowledge I gained from the deck to a variety of projects.
I draw almost every day. Art is also a fine example of a perpetual path of study. It's tailor made for the lifelong learner. Artists are rarely satisfied with their work. When other people look at my paintings, they often point out the things they like. When I look at my own paintings, my eyes are drawn immediately to the flaws. Every approach, every stroke, every hue, every decision accumulates over time and the artist progresses. The creative search is never-ending, which is at once disheartening and invigorating. Michelangelo Buonoratti said “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all.” I think talent is a rare phenomenon; we use the word “talent” too liberally.
It is important to remember that almost every man-made item in our lives began as a conceptual drawing at the hands of an artist. Your shirt began as a design, so did your car. The logo of your favorite sports team is the work of an artist. Art, particularly drawing and painting, can elicit what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (quite a name, eh?) labels as “flow”, or: the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Athletes sometimes refer to the flow state as “the zone”. It doesn’t necessarily happen every day, but when I am immersed in a painting or drawing, all of my senses are channeled toward the activity; I have no awareness of the passage of time. Sometimes, after working on a drawing or painting for hours and driving home, I have to stop my car and focus or I might float off into the forest. Studies have revealed that people who consistently experience flow are happier. Assembly line workers even develop subconscious systems of flow through which they turn mundane tasks into mental games or rhythms.
To quote Michelangelo again, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” Artists do not have magical hands. They see “better” than non-artists. When I look at someone’s face, I notice how the light source hits the planes of the head. I notice that most often the contrast begins to pronounce itself at the point at which the frontal plate meets the parietal and temporal bones. This is important to the artist because exaggerating the form shadow which results from this physicality is essential to the depiction of the human head in space. When I drive to and from work, I enjoy the views from the highway. I scan the woods and sky and find endless sources of beauty- the misty, cracked, ochre earth of winter; the fleeting electric reds of the sunrise; the walls of spindly trees lined up like giant frozen hairs on the scalp of the earth. Without my interest in painting, I don’t think I would appreciate the world around me as consistently or vigorously. I thank art for making my daily commute, which could consume up to 7,000 hours of my life, more enjoyable.
Figure out which activities put you in the flow state, and surround your life with these activities.