At the Morgan Library, I found a collection of works of "genius", handwritten manuscripts and letters by people who shaped entire genres of writing. There were both finished products - books of bound vellum - and also drafts of works where lines were crossed out and replaced. And today at the Met, a hundred pages of Chinese calligraphy, the style and shape of each character depicts the author's own spirit and also the soul of the elite literate of the time. The ink gliding or pooling, soaking or stroking, pressed into satin or bamboo or rice. At the end of the day, I too am printing my own soul onto this website.
And like any conscientious reader I ask: How did this author create such a piece of writing? What stories were told and what stories were hidden?
In Chinese calligraphy there is something called the "Thousand Character Classic". Any true master of calligraphy must write this book of a thousand different characters to hone and demonstrate his or her grasp of the craft. And any true master of art has gone through the practice of a thousand sketches in many mediums before she or he produces the kind of effort we may see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It is easy to look only at the final product. To gaze upon The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Ugolino and His Sons, Washington Crossing the Delaware,...and to think "how talented one must be to have done this!" But that would be like looking at a top CEO and saying "how intelligent he must be to have gotten there!". Or even, to look at a homeless person and saying "how stupid he must have been to end up like that."
The truth is, the most straightforward narratives are the ones that have the most complex systems and histories behind them. The works of art which are breathtaking and easy to absorb are the ones that have the greatest technician at its helm, the ballerina who looks most at ease on the floor is the one with the deepest training, the best CEO is the one with the most experience. Perhaps that homeless person has been dealt the hardest life.
When I begin to see the construction of things, I begin to open doors to understanding and to a greater appreciation of the final product. Now becoming a great dancer or great writer, or great employee is not purely a matter of luck or talent or brains any more, but rather the striving of daily intelligent hard work and good information. And to see a great work of art is to appreciate the full humanness behind its "genius".
One of the best tools I ever learned in business school was the method of deconstructing failed projects - to know what actions led to the situation, and to see what might have happened differently. That is the flipside of success, as my partner reminded me the other day: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. How many manuscripts have been destroyed by an author before the final story emerges? How many sketches burned? In the end, this process has mattered, but what matters even more is what happens next.