Last week was the 3rd annual The Breath and The Clay Creative Arts Conference in Winston-Salem, NC. The Breath and the Clay is a multi-disciplinary gathering of artists from all of the world, dedicated to exploring the intersection of culture, faith, and art in modern living. Visual artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and other artists converge for a weekend to be encouraged, challenged, and inspired. This was my second year attending, and as usual, I’ve only barely begun to process all that I heard and experienced there.
As I’ve mulled over the conference this week, one aspect kept grabbing my attention. Saturday afternoon featured a panel discussion with several artists and creative entrepreneurs from different disciplines. There was a recording artist, an illustrator, a filmmaker, a sculptor, and a furniture designer. Their backgrounds were as diverse as their artforms, but a common thread ran through all of their stories. Each one had come from small beginnings, not hitting big until well into their artistic journeys. Stories of mundane day jobs and challenging life events were common across the group. They all suffered and persevered, but that wasn’t what captured my attention. The profound commonality that struck me most was their excellence in the midst of humble circumstances. In every case, these artists refused to let their small situations become an excuse for low quality, dispassionate work. They could excused mediocre work as a by-product of less-than-perfect circumstances, but they didn’t. They worked as if the success had already come, and each was prepared for the day when success finally arrived at their door.
I find their stories both encouraging and challenging. Their stories are a simultaneous pat on the back and swift kick in the tail. I’m encouraged to see creative people finding success in their chosen fields - it makes me believe I can do that, too. But I’m also challenged to pursue excellence in my own craft now. I’ve had to ask myself hard questions about why I excuse myself for accepting middling work. Here’s the answer I’ve come to: I too often mistake success as the place where passion and excellence reside. I think, “If I can just hit this ‘big time’ point, then I’ll really be able to work with passion and excellence. Until then, I’ll just have to make do lesser quality work.”
In my mind, success was like a grand destination that housed all the passion and excellence I’ve been hoping to achieve. It was the grand pinnacle, and getting there would elevate my work to its greatest potential. I was right that success was a pinnacle to be attained, but I had bought a lie that I couldn’t be excellent on the way there. In fact, the only way to be excellent at the pinnacle is to be excellent as I hike the mountain. I’m reminded of a quote from the movie, “Six Days Seven Nights.” Harrison Ford’s character is describing how people come to Tahiti believing that the island possessed a magical romance that would enhance (if not outright save) their relationships:
Excellence, like romance, isn’t a magical skill set to be found on island paradises or pinnacles of success. It’s an essential tool in your creative arsenal, and if you want to have it in your successes, you must practice it now and carry it with you to the future. The future is populated by the things you bring with you from the present, be excellent today. Don’t wait for some elusive perfection to come; do the best you can with the circumstances and resources available in front of you. Write, paint, sing, dance, film . . .whatever it is that you do, do it with excellence NOW. Practicing excellence in mediocre circumstances prepares you to make the most of successful times when they present themselves. So stop waiting until you reach the pinnacle, and be excellent just as you are, right where you are.
Sarah is the co-founder of Bright Ideas, a designer by trade, and an artist by passionate choice. She was born and raised in South, and delights in sharing Southern culture with anyone who cares to learn. Sarah collects creative hobbies; when she isn’t making art, you can usually find her on the dance floor. Follow her creative adventures on Instagram and Twitter!