Wednesday, July 1, 2009


There are few things as frustrating as being quite good at something. When you're quite good at something, you're good enough to recognise truly outstanding work and to know why (or, really, how) it is outstanding -- but also good enough to know that you will never match it. It merely rubs salt in the wound also to be able to tell how very far from being outstanding so much highly-praised contemporary work actually is. Discerning audiences are generally made up of people who are quite good -- keen amateur musicians and artists of modest but real accomplishment.

Most observers agree that a large percentage of the difference between being quite good and being outstanding is drive, not talent. Unless you are supremely gifted (a problem in its own right) you really have to have a need to excel to the exclusion of all else. Partner, children, friends, even money and food -- all must be secondary to the work. If you're not convinced, and think this is a romantic myth, just read a few biographies. It's shocking how often, given the ultimatum, "It's either me or the writing/painting/politics/(insert chosen career) -- choose!" a high-achiever will respond, "What, are you still here?"

Above all, obvious as it may seem, you need to do whatever it is you have set your sights on, all day every day. Life, as such, has to become for you an unfortunate distraction. I was amused to read today in the TLS of one great lexicographer of the 16th century who restricted himself to just three hours of study on his wedding day. Our problem is that we think that's funny.

Talent minus drive leads to neglect. All amateurs know this feeling: in the end, it's why a lot of guitars, pianos and paints are gathering dust in the homes of the members of the discerning audience. For example, one of the nagging minor guilts in my own life is a neglected talent for wielding a pencil. Having being brought up as a Baptist, the parable of the talents (one of the stranger teachings of the Bible, with Jesus seemingly coming on as a neo-con) is never far from my mind. But although I have spells when drawing is fun, they are separated by much longer periods when I just can't be bothered. As a consequence (a) I never get much better, and (b) I have hardly any finished work to show worthy of the name.

Unfinished portrait of Number One Son, begun in 1993

Unfinished portrait of Number One Daughter, begun in 2005

I think a lot of the problem for me has been closing that gap between intention and result. Now, we all know what Samuel Beckett meant when he wrote "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." To "fail better" is the challenge laid down by any worthwhile path in life. But you have to get to the exponential part of the curve pretty quickly to believe it's worth the effort. I long ago realised that setting my sights on winning the Olympic 100 metres would be over-ambitious, not to say biologically improbable. It just doesn't figure in the list of my regrets. But, even though getting the eyes right in a portrait is only just out of reach for me, it simply doesn't matter enough for me to stay up all night wrestling with it. I do regret that.

Photography has been my saviour, in this regard. The beauty of it is that you can get an interesting result even with your eyes shut and swinging the thing round your head on the end of a string (use the self-timer!). Once "technique" is not an issue, it's all about choices, taste, selection and judgement, and those are things that can keep me up all night. As you will realise if you have been following this blog, I photograph nearly every day, and most days have something I consider worth sharing. You might, of course, ask: If you have the drive to photograph, then why are you not a better photographer? But that would be a cruel question, better left unasked and unanswered...

My other saviour has been my notebooks: I doodle and sketch while I work or endure meetings, to the annoyance of my workmates, and the absence of pressure and the cumulative practice have meant that I have become, over the years, an Olympic-class filler of margins.

Do you have any idea what she's talking about?

I do love a good meeting

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