The principles of patience

“Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”
—Herman Melville

In Oliver Burkeman’s excellent latest book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, he outlines 3 principles for “harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life.”

1. “Develop a taste for having problems.”

Burkeman quotes the French poet Christian Bobin:

I was peeling a red apple from the garden when I suddenly understood that life would only ever give me a series of wonderfully insoluble problems. With that thought, an ocean of profound peace entered my heart.

The sooner you welcome uncertainty and not-knowing as normal ways of being, the better off you’ll be.

2. “Embrace radical incrementalism.”

People who work a little bit every day tend to cultivate the patience it takes to get good. These people also quit their day’s work when it’s finished: they identify what their chunk of time or task is per day, they do that and only that, and save more for tomorrow. (See: “Something small, every day” and the “Chain-smoking” chapter of Show Your Work!)

3. “More often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.”

To illustrate this point, Burkeman uses The Helsinki Bus Station Theory. (The original speech is here.) As the photographer Arno Minkkinen explained, Helsinki bus lines start out traveling the same path but then diverge at different points in the route, spreading out to far and wide locales. When you find your work resembles someone else’s, or you’re on someone else’s bus, traveling someone else’s path, don’t try to go back to the bus station at the very beginning and completely reinvent yourself and start from scratch, keep working and “stay on the bus!” At a certain point, your path will split off into something new. (I wrote a book about this called Steal Like An Artist.)

In going through my “patience” files, I found this lovely thought from a piece about helping students develop “the power of patience”:

The art historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experience—“time batteries”—“exorbitant stockpiles” of experience and information.

This is one of my favorite ideas: that art contains embodied energy that we can unlock, activate,  and tap into with our attention. Our energies unlock the stored energy.

We must assume the same is true of our own work: that we must take the time to stockpile enough our own energy in the work so it may be worthy of the energies of others. But the energy in the work won’t just consist of the time we spent actually making it, it will also consist of all the time we spent leading up to the work… all the days we thought were going nowhere…