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Surround Yourself with Great Work

January 2, 2019

From the exhibit “Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector”

If craftsmen didn’t busy themselves with making their wares, then they would probably all be hoarders, because they are obsessive collectors—of tools (working and broken), materials, sketches, books, newspaper articles, photographs, fossils, animal figurines, scraps from abandoned projects, skulls and skeletons, masks, tourist kitsch, aspirational quotes. (A few years back there was an exhibition at the Barbican museum in London called “Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector,” which featured the bizarre collections of famous artists such as Andy Warhol to Damian Hirst.) <AW>  Most importantly, craftsman create lovingly curated collections of great work in their field. They’re always on the lookout for examples of functional ingenuity, technical mastery, design sophistication, and creative whimsy, and when they find it, they bring it home.

Take for example my friend Bobby, who is a writer and performing artist. In the upstairs studio in her Mendocino cabin, the side walls are covered with shelves chaotically stuffed with her favorite books and manuscripts. Ask Bobby to find a prose example of just about anything—breezy dialog, nostalgic rumination, fisticuffs, pastoral landscapes—and she’ll have a fitting passage in hand in a heartbeat. When she’s working on her novellas and plays, Bobby pulls out a handful of books related to the day’s topic, and then ever so quietly “breaths them”—as she likes to say—while sipping a cup of Compassion Darjeeling Tea. By exposing herself to the structure, cadence and vocabulary of outstanding prose, she can quickly sort out the technical considerations of her writing task (e.g. how to use foreshadowing to build narrative momentum), as well as place herself in a resonant mindset to encourage her best writing.

Another example is Alondra, a real-estate developer and interior designer who has overseen the renovation of exquisite homes in San Francisco, Napa, Rome and Manhattan. Over the last three decades she has created an archive of her favorite design articles, photographs, blueprints and brochures, all cross-referenced by building type, style, color palette and materials. When starting a residential renovation, she’ll assemble a folder of inspiring designs that she references throughout the project.

Then there’s Marty, a CTO for a consumer electronics company. Things Marty keeps close at hand include: well-crafted business partner contracts; brilliant technical white-papers; compassionate and comprehensive employee reviews; cleanly worded emails on topics such as corporate initiatives and product challenges; a shelf of superbly designed electronic products (including a security camera, internet router, and portable charger); videos of outstanding leadership presentations in industries ranging from manufacturing, to gene therapy, to NGOs; high-quality employee training manuals; and zingy business pitch decks. Each day, Marty takes a few moments out of his hectic schedule to mindfully appreciate some of these exemplars, to protect himself, as he says, “from the dreaded descent to the mean.” 

With these examples in mind, let me propose a question: Suppose you’re working on a challenging creative project: you might be drafting an environmental policy paper, fabricating a custom motorcycle gas tank, or building a walnut end table. How would it impact your efforts if you studied three high-quality work examples before you got started? It would be helpful, right? You’d more quickly recognize the technical challenges and potential solutions; you’d have a better sense for how beautiful design could be employed; and you’d be nudged towards doing your most inspired work.

Given how useful it is—technically, stylistically and motivationally—to have high quality work examples close at hand, I encourage you to get fanatical about building your collection of greatness. Always be on the lookout for inspired work in your field, and when you do come across it, find a way to get it into your workspace. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Identifying the central work products related to craft. Ask yourself: What are the key things that I make or do? What characteristics are associated with excellence?
  • Have fun collecting examples of brilliance. They can be physical artifacts, as well as photographs, videos, or other representations.
  • Arrange a workspace exhibit. Have a place in your workspace dedicated to organizing and displaying your collection of greatness.
  • Regularly steep yourself in greatness. Spend time each day observing and appreciating fantastic work—especially when you’re starting a new project.

<AW> Amy Wong. Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector by Amy Moorea Wong. Life.Style.Etc. February 18, 2015.

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