Easy Isn't Interesting
Work ever beat you up so bad that you drive home the speed limit with the music off?
Michelangelo didn’t say that, but he might as well have. You see, one day in 1589, in the middle of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he wrote a letter to his friend, Giovanni. Here’s what it said:
I've already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).
My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's
pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
Remember, this isn’t some two-bit handyman with a paintbrush. This is Michelangelo.
It’s also reported that after gazing upon the finished ceiling months later, someone told Michelangelo, “You’re a genius,” to which he replied, “If you knew how much work it took, you wouldn’t call it genius.”
So what’s the lesson for us mortals?
Well, for one, we might need to lower our expectations of flow, bliss, and the nirvana of unrestrained expression. Because, as Michelangelo hinted, what starts out as you and your idea frolicking in the sunset, quickly shifts to a boxing match in an oil drum.
But I’d argue that this struggle is flow. It is bliss. The exertion, despair, and willingness to return leads to the fulfillment of doing something that wasn’t before.
When you pare it down, our job is to build skills, and practice dedication. Unfortunately, those two things do not equal ease and success. No, in the poker game of life, skills and dedication are not pocket aces, they are merely the ante to sit at the table.
But since that’s scary and ambiguous, we often lose ourselves hunting for tricks, tips, or inspiration to carve safe passage from “I want” to “I will.” And there spin the tires of “the same old story”; of us foolishly trying to solve a maze from the comforts of being outside of it.
The truth is, we want you to suffer. We need you to suffer.
Rights of passage. Break the rules. Pay your dues. Never give up. Against all odds. Against the grain. Odysseys. Pilgrimages. Sacrifice. Discipline. Belief. Grit. They’re the backbones of the hero’s journey.
No keynote speech ever began, “Everything always worked out for me.”
Bringing in the words of another famous painter, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” - Van Gogh
I try not to take too much life advice from people who have killed themselves, but Vincent was onto something here.
You don’t “do,” you “attempt.” Attempting something means there is no guarantee. Good, because easy isn’t interesting. If it was easy for you, you wouldn’t value it, and our jealousy of you would be unbearable.
Self-respect comes with perseverance.
Admiration comes after the toil.
That’s what makes it worthwhile.
Sure you’ll need luck, timing, and some sort of feedback loop of reinforcement along the way, but it always starts with you, contorted, high up on some scaffolding, when no one else is looking.
Take it from Michelangelo. He was most definitely a maverick, not just because he had paint on his brush, but because he had paint in his eyes.
Long before the masterpiece, it’s an albatross around the neck. May we be grateful for that opportunity.