09 Sep 2016
‘Nobody, ever once, pops to the top. You walk there. Step by step, each a failure until it's not.’
Seth Godin is a business thinker who delves in to the deepest aspects of human motivation, purpose and success. The quote that nobody pops to the top is from a post about Van Gogh. He discusses a picture of Ramsgate which the painter stitch when he spent time in England in the 1870’s when he was early in his career. Van Gogh’s paintings of Ramsgate are fine. They are functional and recognisably Ramsgate. But they are not high art, nor do they point to the future wild, magnificent brilliance. What, asks Godin, would have happened if the painter had stopped painting in Ramsgate? What if he decided he wasn't that great a painter? Well, the answer is obvious. The Ramsgate paintings were part of the journey to brilliance.
What Van Gogh was doing in Ramsgate was fine tuning his craft. And the outcomes were perfectly competent. But they were like a thousand other mundane representations of British seaside towns. In practicing at Ramsgate, he was training his eye, listening to the landscape and letting the process filter through the system of his artistic toolbox. The craft of every day work is what leads us to the potential for brilliant new insights down the road. That’s the point, it will be in the future, not necessarily today. So in keeping the craft going, finely tuned, day by day, is the stuff of being hopeful, not helpless. Now, the analogy with Van Gogh can only go so far because of course, his life ended tragically. But it is possible to argue that in the process of creating the Ramsgate paintings and others, it was the seedbed, grounded in hope, which led to the subsequent brilliance.
So how does the Ramsgate story translate into thinking about leadership? It’s about recognising that the fairly mundane stuff of today, is sowing the seeds for a brilliant future. The routines, boring stuff, become the material from which great things can emerge. It is simply not possible to do it without this. So wise leaders talk about how the daily practices of good, solid work, lead to big outcomes. But the two need to be held in mind at the same time. If we are only concentrating on the Ramsgate experience then we can become disheartened. Because frankly a lot of day to day stuff is routine. But the power comes when these routines are linked to and meshed to a bigger picture. One of greatness, of high outcomes, of a hopeful, better future. But there are no quick fixes and wise leaders know this. They do the right thing day by day and fire up the energy levels and imagination both for themselves and those they are working with by drawing on the bigger picture for where this work is heading. They paint the story of the journey from Ramsgate to the Auvergne, from the soggy seaside to the sunflowers.
And for children in the classroom, these metaphors hold true too. The Ramsgate paintings are the times tables, the spellings, the grammar, the rules of any subject area which must be mastered. They are the vital ingredients from which magnificent stuff can be made. But if children are only locked into the grammar, spelling, times tables without seeing where this might lead, then that is a pity. It is more than a pity as it can lead to feeling hopeless. It shifts from a depressing story to an inspirit story when children see the equivalent of the journey which Van Gogh made, figuratively, from his Ramsgate period to the sunflowers. The metrics of spelling, punctuation and grammar are the essentials for going on to do great stuff.
This is not to argue that we will all be aiming to produce work of the quality of Van Gogh. But it is to make the case that what appears pedestrian today, can open up new avenues for the future. But they will not be opened up without doing the boring stuff first. In fact, it is only boring when we don’t see the point. Which is the point of using analogies like the Ramsgate painting. Most of use are prepared to keep going with something if we can see where it might lead, if we can imagine where it might go and if we can have some inkling of the journey on route. However, it is hard to persevere when there is no wider landscape into which to sketch our own efforts.
There are similarities here with Austin’s Butterfly. When Ron Berger worked with two groups of students analysing how Austin might improve his original attempt at drawing a butterfly, they were participating in the equivalent of a Ramsgate process: namely, moving from the here and now to the future. They discussed the process of thinking about and providing feedback. They talked about how it is important to be specific, precise and kind. In doing so, they were developing their own self regulation as well as analysing the the work in hand. What Berger was able to show the children, was that the basics of any work can and should be improved. But that this will only happen when the conditions are both challenging and kind. ‘We were not mean about it’ said one of the children, when reflecting on the quality of the feedback they had given. In working with the children in this way, Berger was showing them how to be hopeful, not helpless about improving not just this piece of work, but any piece of work. And that this work takes place, step by step, with plenty of mistakes on the way. But mostly these are not life threatening, so we can live with them. Because it’s one of the principles of being hopeful, not helpless. That our work can always be better.
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