The Ingredients for Making Something that Lasts

Making something that lasts

In the Sixteenth Century, Michelangelo was more than a sculptor. Like Leonardo and his beloved Dante Alighieri, he did much more than his art.

Director Andrey Konchalovskiy shows “Michelangelo working alongside the masons in a marble quarry, dangling over an abyss on ropes and designing systems for moving mammoth blocks of stone using nothing but muscle power and rudimentary machines such as pulleys.”

Three creators, centuries apart. Their works inspired entire generations. Their work is the culmination of skills, ingenuity, talent, insights and elbow grease. But it endures because it's embedded in a vessel—a statue, a fresco, a book—and embodies all the human qualities of intellect and the energy of work.

Computer scientist, essayist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist Paul Graham discovered the power of creating lasting impact. He didn't articulate exactly the mechanism that creates that transfer of value. But he figured out the vessel.

In a recent essay Graham describes the moment of realization:

In this dissatisfied state I went in 1988 to visit Rich Draves at CMU, where he was in grad school. One day I went to visit the Carnegie Institute, where I'd spent a lot of time as a kid. While looking at a painting there I realized something that might seem obvious, but was a big surprise to me. There, right on the wall, was something you could make that would last. Paintings didn't become obsolete. Some of the best ones were hundreds of years old.

Dissatisfaction is a sign common to many creators who went to to build something important. It's a valid operating mode at many levels. Because it starts you off on a journey of self-discovery and character building. They're both useful ingredients for making something that lasts.


Become one with the work

Forget about your feelings and become one with the work, said Bruce Lee. He was right. And he found a less jarring and more compassionate way to communicate what it takes. Just do it or simply do” are modern slogans that are all about action. They forget the prime mover: work.

We forget that there's physical work involved in knowledge work, too.

That we learn with our whole bodies and not just with the head. And it works both ways.

If Michelangelo didn't exert himself physically and mentally in finding and transporting a huge block of marble, we would not have Moses. If Bruce Lee hadn't been a diligent student of philosophy, he wouldn't have created his open style.

Work endures when it creates positive change. But it's as much about output as it is about inputs. The following readings are good examples of these principles at work.


Bruce Lee Striking Thoughts by martial arts champion, actor, director Bruce Lee

Thesis: A teacher is never a giver of truth—he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst.

Through 72 topics and 825 aphorisms—from spirituality to personal liberation and from family life to film making—Bruce Lee offers food for thought, and practice. He lived and practiced these ideas.

We could all use some being in the now.

Listen. Can you hear the wind? And can you hear the birds singing? You have to hear it. Empty your mind. You know how water fills a cup? It becomes that cup. You have to think about nothing. You have to become nothing. The Moment is freedom.

I couldn’t live by a rigid schedule. I try to live freely from moment to moment, letting things happen and adjusting to them. The Now is creative. If you are in the now, you are creative. The Now is inventive. If you are in the now, you are inventive. There is no anxiety in the Now. When you are in the now, you can’t be anxious, because the excitement flows immediately into ongoing spontaneous activity.

Questioning oneself is a good first step to knowledge. More Bruce Lee on how life is a constant process of relating, how barriers are the universal experience, and why seeking approval from others is at odds with individual evolution.


The Lessons of History by Pulitzer Prize historian Will Durant

Thesis: A concise survey of the culture and civilization of mankind.

This short survey of human experience is both companion and addendum to the more voluminous The Story of Civilization to 1789. What is 128 pages compared to 11 volumes? The Durant prove they are plenty to provide a wealth of insights on the way we were.

Some ideas that emerged:

  • Freedom and equality are diametrically opposed
  • The disparity of man’s abilities make inequality inevitable in a complex society, only unable men desire equality and able men are better at bending societal rules
  • societies get less religious as they get more educated, however, as long as there is poverty, there will be religion
  • man’s motivations haven’t changed much over the centuries, we just have the luxury of inheriting a richer set of culture

And about the last point, culture is a rich repository of energy. Because it contains the work of everyone since the beginning of time. But the point is that humans evolve. It's a choice we can make. And it's not about technology, it's about awareness.


Reality Is Not What It Seems by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli

Thesis: how the idea of reality has evolved over time.

This is also a compendium. Which reflects the main theme that to make something special and worthy of attention and study you need many contributions. Rovelli is a fellow journey-person in the breadth of knowledge that fascinates him.

I wasn't not going to suggest I'm a theoretical physicist. But his roaming, like mine, has purpose. I'm interested in the differences between belief and truth, and I'm also working on saying things better.

“You don’t get to new places by following established tracks.”
“Science is a continual exploration of ways of thinking. Its strength is its visionary capacity to demolish preconceived ideas, to reveal new regions of reality, and to construct new and more effective images of the world. This adventure rests upon the entirety of past knowledge, but at its heart is change.”
“This does not mean that science is just the art of making measurable predictions. Some philosophers of science overly circumscribe science by limiting it to its numerical predictions. They miss the point, because they confuse the instruments with the objectives. Verifiable quantitative predictions are instruments to validate hypotheses.
The objective of scientific research is not just to arrive at predictions: it is to understand how the world functions; to construct and develop an image of the world, a conceptual structure to enable us to think about. Before being technical, science is visionary.”

If clarity gets lost in the transfer from vision to article or product, it means we don't understand it well enough. But often the part that benefits from change is the way we look at things. Hence the importance of doing the work.


Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know by psychologist, professor Adam Grant

Thesis: keeping an open mind is a teachable skill.

In a way, all the dismissive teachers and many social media pundits have done me a huge favor. Because they prodded me to ask why. Why is a powerful question. It informed my drive to figure stuff out by going deeper.

Grant clusters the most common mistakes we make into three buckets: Preacher (entrenched beliefs), Prosecutor (hole-poking), and Politician (sophist). He suggests we assemble a challenge network of our most thoughtful critics to spot and hedge against overconfidence.

“When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles. We don’t preach from intuition; we teach from evidence. We don’t just have healthy skepticism about other people’s arguments; we dare to disagree with our own arguments. Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.”

“Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.”
I've totally missed my calling. I should have been a scientist. But the useful bit I practice is that I observe how much people have in common. And I start from there. My work is to take a scientific approach to communication and conversation.


Thesis: perspective is everything, especially when it comes to examining your beliefs.
This books teaches you how to think. And it provides the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were; to be intellectually honest and curious about what's actually true.
Galef's metaphor is useful. We’re often in “soldier mindset,” motivated to defend our ideas against threatening evidence or arguments. And scout mindset is an alternative to that—a scout’s goal isn’t to defend, but to go out and get an accurate map of reality.
When someone challenges you, “What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?” It's all about how we feel. Transcripts of Galef's TED Talk are available in 37 languages.

The book is available for pre-order. Which is an important time for broad distribution (and publicity). So if you feel thinking better will help you, consider ordering.


In conclusion

Wayne was perennially late for company check-ins with the executive team. As the head of global sales, he was a key executive at the table. He often finished a call, or attended to something else right before every meeting.

Those steps in the process were important, of course. And so was our check-in. So we used to say, in conclusion” every time he walked in. It would startle him to attention every single time. But it was a fake move. He and we all knew: “conclusions” don't hold any special status.

They are stages in a process of inquiry. Just like our work produces objects and ideas that are reflections of the stages in the process of our becoming. To make something that lasts, our ingredients are all human—curiosity, skill, practice, intuition—and so is our awareness of the context—reality.

To do his work, Michelangelo had to learn to navigate the constant rivalry between the political and religious powers. Like many artists, his services were at the caprice of the temporary winners. But he could still put so much of himself into the work to connect with us and transmit emotion across the centuries.

In an article about the making of the clock for the Long Now, Alexander Rose says:

One of the more surprising strategies for longevity is actually to sacrifice some part of the object itself. We see this in nature where a lizard’s tail can break off when attacked, allowing the lizard to escape alive.

Values and ideologies can be the strongest enemies of work that stands the test of time. How do we make something of value and cultural significance that will not at some point be stolen or destroyed?” Asks Rose.

He also found that, “The longevity of a material is often less about the object itself, but much more about the environment it is in. We have limited ability to control the environment. Though not for lack of trying. But we can work to make more things that last. Depth is our salvation. Human depth.