Doing Work that Lasts


Doing work that lasts

“We're like blocks of stone, out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men.

Nigel Hawthorne was standing in front of me asking a very difficult question. “The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering in the world is not the failure of God's love for us; it is that love in action. For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial, is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.”

It was 1991, and Hawthorne was portraying best-selling author C. S. Lewis at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York City. Having met Mr. Hawthorne through work—he became interested in the neurological development methodologies spearheaded by Glenn Doman, who I had the fortune to translate for years—I got tickets to see Shadowlands

A writer, C.S. Lewis had been advocating the redeeming power of pain without direct experience of it. The play was about coming face to face with that pain through the suffering and death of someone dear to him. Success had not come easy to C.S. Lewis: he was turned down 800 times before selling a single piece of writing. Nor to Mr. Hawthorne, who had his turning point in middle age.

Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia was eventually translated into 47 languages, selling more than 100 million copies. Backstage, Hawthorne shared how he felt this role, 40 years into his career, made him aware of mortality and the need to enrich life every moment, not to waste it.

The mark of a good book, play, piece of art or work, is not necessarily whether it's an instant hit. Rather, it comes from a feeling, in however small a way, that someone reading, watching, or coming into contact with it has been changed by it. That is the hallmark of lasting work: its ability to transfer value.

 

Putting things into the work

Hawthorne confessed he put a lot of himself in the role that won him accolades on both sides of the pond: a Tony on Broadway, rave reviews in London. It was his commitment over the years that built the confidence he needed to go from theater to film later in his career (and life).

“Confidence in yourself” is a requirement we've understood since ancient times. Seneca added, “and the belief that you are on the right path, and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost, though some are wandering not far from the true path.”

The philosopher's motivation wasn't fame, it was the pursuit of reason, or the ability to account for facts and lies. That accountability comes from within, it's an inside job. Hence why morality was part of his work. Acting is an inside job as well, every role a new journey.

Every role we play in life is an inside job, we can decide if we want to take—things as well as energy—out of people and situations, or do the work it takes to put them into it. The more of yourself you develop, the more you can put into something through work, the more is in it to experience in the form of value.

 

Choosing where to put the time

With our time, we can aim for what everyone else is aiming for, endlessly checking industry charts and lists (or number of likes and comments), or we can choose to do work that lasts. Popular is not the same as lasting. In fact, if you're working on a new idea, most people won't recognize it at first.

But the conversations with the people who do will be priceless. You can lead into an important new field, inspiring others to build on your work. The people most focused on doing the work have a more realistic sense of proof. Thinking for yourself is earned through doing the work to understand something. Creativity without knowledge is stupid. Knowledge without creativity is sterile,” says physicist Carlo Rovelli. 

The point Seneca makes with his philosophy is the same Hawthorne learned with his life: it takes time to learn how to live. But how do we spend our time? Seneca:

“Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future.

But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining?”

To endure, the focus of your work should be on the things that don't change, or change more slowly.

 

Doing work that lasts

C.S. Lewis didn't stop writing after his work kept getting rejected. Nigel Hawthorne didn't stop acting and rehearsing after his first few roles. Leaders don't stop leading when the cameras are off and the press is gone. When the going gets tough, the tough keep going: refining their ideas, creating better drafts, and rehearsing their lines.

It's the process of tapping into your inner self that leads to a true understanding of what you're creating. There are no shortcuts or listicles that can replace doing this work. But that is what leads to work that lasts. Doing the work is hard. Often we need to steel ourselves through a poor draft of something for long enough to zero in on the form that is on the inside.

Michelangelo thought he had mastered his art. He had the ability to feel the form trapped inside a block of marble and chip away at the superfluous. Then, the Pope asked him to pain the Sistine Chapel. Doing the work now meant feeling from the inside out, from nothing to a form. It nearly took his life.

The hardest part of doing work that lasts is the understanding that it could outlast us.

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This is my work. I'm a cultural lens for reading the world. I do the work so that your work becomes easier, richer, and more satisfying. Durability comes from having a cultural link.

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