Pursue Excellence. Strive to be Great. Oh wait. Those must be typed with exclamation points and more caps. Pursue Excellence! Strive To Be Great! Or. Follow your intuition. Let it happen. Michelangelo spent years painting the Sistine Chapel. A writer can spend a decade crafting a novel. And then there are signature songs written within minutes and iconic photos taken with auspicious timing. The amount of effort and depth of intent behind any work is no guarantee of success, and something done casually may have phenomenal and unexpected impact. Outcomes are uncertain, but even small efforts can generate world-changing results. That’s true in art, finance, and charity.
It is summer here in the northern hemisphere, and the temperature on Whidbey is finally getting into the 60s. Oo. Actually, that’s pleasant and excellent conditions for dancing, especially in open air. Yesterday, on the way to a barn dance, I talked to a multi-talented art market organizer, a photographer/printer, and a photographer/chef/gardener. Some bloggers probably plan their posts, write outlines, and sketch themes. I listen to those around me and hear common threads. Those three artists are capable of elaborate, detailed work, and each has also seen some of their simplest efforts reach further than they expected. The trick we’ve all learned is to let it happen.
I am not a belabored artist. My approach is more pragmatic because for me, the message is more important than the art. Receiving an Editor’s Choice award for my second book, Twelve Months at Barclay Lake, was an honor, but my first book, Just Keep Pedaling, remains my best seller. It’s been for sale for over nine years and sells better than any of my books, including the one that this blog is based on, Dream. Invest. Live. People come up to me and thank me for the story, or some inspiration that they got from reading about my bicycle ride across America. In my opinion, my writing has improved with each book, but I write to convey a message, not to improve my writing. If I had practiced my skills for years before writing my first book, it might not be finished yet, and no message would have been conveyed.
Diving in and writing a book helped me become a better writer. It is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching others about self-publishing (seminar/workshop July 16th). After enough rejections letters (anywhere from zero to ouch), self-publishing can keep a writer from being stopped by an industrial roadblock. Blogging is relatively easy for me because of the continual practice of writing while aware that mistakes will be made and conventions will be unconsciously ignored. These posts take me about an hour or two to write, including phone call interruptions, and hyperlinking. These are basically first drafts. If I took more time, they’d be shorter. Each time I publish one I think of a rewrite an hour later. But I’ve learned to let them go and use the lesson in the next post. There is no guarantee of striking a chord and outcomes are uncertain. Some of my favorite or overworked posts are rarely read. Some of my old forgotten posts find audiences months later, and I have to remind myself what I wrote. Fretting over posts that no one will care about takes time away from other aspects of life.
For me, one of the distinctions between a scientist and an engineer is that a scientist seeks the truth while an engineer seeks a solution. A truth is an absolute. A solution is a pragmatism. Both are necessary, but at different times. The more common and more inclusive phrase that captures the thought is that “sometimes better is the enemy of good enough.” “Paralysis by analysis” also comes to mind.
Personal finance is important, but only for those of us who live in modern civilization. If you’re reading this blog and are not part of modern civilization, tell me how you manage to do that. Such an important topic encourages people to dive into headache-inducing spreadsheets, eye-straining stacks of reading, and hours of contemplation. Warren Buffett and his portfolio may be the modern day equivalent of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, but sometimes personal finance can be as simple as making sure the deck gets painted with spare paint.
The most common approach to personal finance seems to be whistling with lots of procrastination. Ignorance is bliss, maybe, for a while, if you’re lucky. Another approach is to study, study, think, think, plan, plan. With financing though, time is money, especially if interest rates are involved. Delaying credit card debt reduction means interest charges are increasing total expenses. Delaying saving or investing means compound interest has less time to work. One of the most powerful financial tools is starting early.
To me, that didn’t mean become an early expert. I stepped into investing slowly with about $300. A few hundred dollars taught me about stocks versus bonds, what news to consider or ignore, the connection or lack between the market and a stock; and I learned about my interest level, emotional reaction, risk tolerance, and began building my confidence. Three hundred real dollars taught me some things that could be learned from books, but also deeper things that could only be revealed by commitment.
One artist had a windfall, a very nice commission that produced some extra cash. They were smart enough to decide to buy a cd (a certificate of deposit, not a compact disk). I wish I hadn’t suggested they check the interest rates and such. That extra bit of research is appropriate, but not as important as their positive decision to do something besides spend. Ignore what I said yesterday. Do what you feel is right. Doing is the best way to learn. It carries risk, but wasting time increases risk too.
Good enough now is more powerful than excellent later when it comes to work that needs to be done, as long as it truly is good enough. Good versus good enough is the difference between letting someone slip back into the water versus pulling them into the lifeboat. Good is thinking about saving money. Good enough is saving money.
For my art, good enough is an easy hurdle. I’ve learned the lesson that sometimes the art is there for someone else. A photo that wasn’t one of my favorites may be the image that produces serenity for one person. Another may conjure memories. I don’t restrict my exhibits to only my favorites. If intuition says include a photo, I do so. One person touched me deeply by telling me that my photos made her realize that she’d forgotten how to look at and enjoy nature. Wow. I didn’t see that coming.
So, I regularly remind myself to not worry as much. My deck needed painting, money was tight, and some contractor friends dropped off some paint that was headed to the recycle/dump station. It was obvious why some of the colors hadn’t been used. Mismix will happen. After a nice coat of grey I started to have fun. The results may look accidental, but I thank Jackson Pollock for inspiring the ensuing excellence (from my point of view).