For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
— SOURCE UNKNOWN—
People fall into two general, visible groups when a storm—often economic—comes rolling in. When things clear up, one group will re-establish a solid foundation for a career in art, making incrementally more ambitious work year after year. The other group will “survive”, but not really have the means to pursue that creative career.
Looking back to 2008 and the market crash, it’s easy to see now how some artists exited and went into another trade altogether. Others took a temporary detour but came back and persisted with the resources still they had. They persevered until they could finally establish equilibrium, and get back on track again.
But a smaller group, a subset of the persistent group, managed to pull off a surprise. This is a group that didn't just persevere but thrived , despite—or in some cases because of—the disadvantage of the proverbial storm.
Beyond the craftsmanship and traditional knowledge needed to make art, a typical list of skills for an artist include time management, a good work-life balance and the ability to establish good relationships with other artists, curators, gallerists and collectors. Most people have each of these skills in tradable enough proportion. There is, however, something else that appears to make a significant difference. It weaves through everything from skills to behavior and it separates the good from the great, and the passable from the excellent.
“The way you do one thing is the way you do everything .”
I've come across this aphorism in different circles, from medical examiners to lawyers. Everything is a big word. For it to be true, we have to go beyond the literal because, of course, the way you organize your bookshelf need not be anything like the way you organize your laundry: success is measured by context. However, the way you do any one thing can be a good indication of your personal compass, your priorities, your personal values and standards . After enough observation, there forms a pattern to what you care about, what is important to you, what you will do, and at what price.
In particular, it’s not about what you can do, it’s about how much you care about what you are capable of doing. It's about an attention to detail .
Time and time again, artists and other creative professionals who bring a keen sense of attention to the detail of their work are seen and heard differently than their peers who produce medium-grade work, supported by mediocre ideas and a lukewarm attitude. It's an attitude that actually goes beyond just the work itself.
Years ago, as a young gallery director, one of the first things I had to tackle was the problem of artists arbitrarily showing up unannounced, asking for a critique or to have their work exhibited at the gallery. This happened about two or three times a week—the gallery was a non-profit that showcased young and emerging artists, so it was to be expected. They'd insist that I take a look and give them a show, on the spot. Because of my lack of experience, what I would try to limit to a half an hour sometimes turned into painfully longer conversations, most of which involved me hinting at needing to get back to work.
So one day I called a curator who had been at the gallery game longer, and I asked him what diplomatic thing I could do to manage this kind of surprise. “Oh that's easy,” he said, “just politely let them know that you can't just see the work, they need to come back with a resume, statement and slides so that you can properly review. Let them know you can give them a yes or no within 24 to 48 hours after they've come back with the stuff. That's all you have to do.”
“Ok, and what happens when they do come back? What do I do then?"
“They won't. Once in a while, one of them will show up with the right material, and that will very likely be someone who is probably serious enough to consider. But the rest of them simply won’t. Trust me."
An Attention to Detail governs the important parts of how you show up not just as an artist but as a credible professional. When people pick up on it in your thinking, it demonstrates your seriousness and your depth about the subject matter. In your craft, it signals expertise. Even for your reputation, the validity of your taste depends on it, and your ability to see the bigger picture in your field becomes clearer to your peers.
My curator friend was right. In the three years of my tenure at the gallery, only four artists ever did come back after the initial quick chat. Each turned out to be prepared with a body of work that was crafted appropriately, thoughtful, available to show and ready to go. Two made the cut for solo shows, two would be in group shows. Every one of them was ready to help out with press, had no sense of entitlement and showed up with a great attitude about everything from hanging the show to being prepared to do artist talks and whatever else. They had their act together, at every level and at every stage. It's a lesson in pattern I’ve never forgotten.
Developing an Attention to Detail is a skill as much as it is an attitude, and it can be learned and developed once there is a right mentality and commitment. My own practice is a work in progress, for which I’ve whittled things down to two major points:
Amassing every little piece of information for a subject is not possible, nor is it necessary. The goal is to develop a lean body of knowledge and to find the kind of material to develop my own framework and improve my growth.
In my favorite analogy for this, I think about how every student of the martial arts begins with the fundamentals, such as punching, kicking, and understanding the general idea of engaging in conflict. With kicking, for example, you’re taught that there's a right way to kick—a basic form—to produce a good, effective strike. Over time a good martial artist becomes more efficient and accurate, and will develop a good sense of timing with it. But for a martial artist to push toward excellence—one who plans to improve beyond just “good”—those criteria just aren’t enough. In developing the habit of training, a martial artist expects to throw hundreds of kicks a day in a training session, essentially putting the body through unusually strenuous activity and risking “repetitive motion injury” over time. But the more attentive martial artists know that avoiding that kind of cumulative injury is a matter of small adjustments in form, diet, rest and other criteria that are made through trial and error.
It's not just in the realm of martial arts. In any field, granular attention to the right specifics can make a big difference in both the short and long run. This kind of awareness and flexibility demands critical thinking and an ability to form your own way to do things.
The mentality at the beginning of a long journey for an artist is markedly different from the outlook at the midway point of one's life. Fatigue is but one part of the equation. Everyday commitments pile up, compromises become more “realistic” and a kind of creep sets in, slowly threatening to push my promise toward excellence off the board, out of range. It becomes easier to think that my standards are so high that others won’t notice a slight slip here and there. But I will. So for me it takes a kind of “problem-solving”, an open curiosity to new and more efficient ways to continually stay focused on my own true north, to keep working toward the grand destination, and to appreciate the journey and pick up as many points as I go.
An Attention to Detail trains me to be “last-mile ready” as much and as often as possible. In other words, getting to a destination is more than just having sufficient rations and gas in the tank. It’s adapting, managing problems before they begin all of which require paying attention to the small things that most people often don't realize as important enough to notice.
Ernest Shackleton, in his now-famous expedition of 1914-1916, had as good a recipe for success as anyone to reach the South Pole. But when his ship Endurance became trapped in the ice, it left him and his crew of 27 stuck on the ice to face two full Antarctic winters (temperatures would drop to below -90ºF in 24-hour darkness). It’s widely believed that, all things considered, the group managed to survive because Shackleton had interviewed and hired every single one of his men carefully, even though the candidate pool was relatively small (it’s not often you’re signing up for a journey from which you likely won’t return). He had obsessively made assessments of his men's credentials and experience, but paid particular attention to their character and how each man would do as part of a group under the worst conditions. Ultimately, it was the small gains of a team that gets along well and keeps morale up that helped them survive their fate. While Shackleton never did make it to the South Pole, he and his men were in good enough shape to come back to civilization on their own and tell the tale in good spirits (in sharp contrast, Robert Falcon Scott, who did make it to the South Pole perished with his entire crew. That story is immortalized in the very appropriately titled " The Worst Journey In The World. ")
When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER
On the other hand, it is important to know how to temper obsession with patience and grace. Take the time to do it right. It's easy to switch gears and allow curiosity and focus take the lead, make you more efficient, more effective: the work always seems worth the monastic fervor. It becomes easier for people to become so engrossed that they leave a large part of their sense of compassion and self-care behind in the process, turning into unrecognizable versions of themselves—sometimes even to themselves.
Wiser people than you and I have always developed a talent for managing it. While we wade through minutiae, looking for small things to improve and tweak to maximum effect, it becomes easy to get lost in the details, to be swallowed, to lose some important things of our humanity along the way. As I get older, I pay attention to those things a little more. My world shrinks, often by choice, to accommodate the fewer people and ideas I'd like around me so that I can be the most attentive to the things I care about. As I look around me, often that bargain seems like a kind of easily forgotten detail, and one that I wonder if we should be obsessing over far more often.