Steve wrote a fine blog post the other day, in the wake of a conversation the two of us had recently about how great creative works get made:
... there are not techniques to Greatness per se. There are things you can learn from those that made Great Works, principles, and sets of philosophies and goals, that if you hold them, increase the chance of doing something Great. None of the people out there that made amazing things are the same, and none of them are the same as you, but there’s probably a rough set of principles and philosophies you can find that’s common among many people you admire.
A couple of things bubbled up out of that discussion. One is that it's way, way too easy to take the wrong lessons from things you admire, or things widely considered to be admirable. The real lesson of '77 Star Wars was not that we needed more pastiches of science fiction, fantasy, and genre filmmaking (because we got a torrent of them after the fact, most of them pretty crummy); it was that unabashed optimism and good spirit were a delightful cultural tonic after years of cinematic cynicism.
This is a problem I tangle with constantly, and I have yet to come up with a good way to counter it. The best I've been able to come up with is that your first and most immediate take on why something is good, or good for you, isn't likely to be the accurate one. You have to be willing to set aside your own love of something to be able to see the truly important things in it -- not that your love is irrelevant, but that it can be misleading. The hottest takes are often the least useful ones.
The other is, as Steve puts it, "Greatness is lived, not had." That is to say, it's something best not aspired to directly, just made the by-product of whatever it is you choose to sink into. One of the most succinct record reviews I ever read went, "Talent wasted in trying to make it, instead of trying to make something."
Being great at something is like being a genius. It's something that only other people can say about you. Forcing it wins you nothing. Most people hyper-conscious of their anointed genius status end up being sabotaged by it.
Maybe the biggest paradox of all this stuff is, by the time you end up fully embodying your intentions, and just letting greatness fall where it may, you don't even notice it anymore. You're too busy with the doing of it to worry about such trifling things.
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