The Science of the Art of Excellence

Take a look at this photo.

What is interesting about the photo is that it is not actually a photo. It is an acrylic painting with a realism that beggars belief: Big Self Portrait by Chuck Close.

What is also interesting about the painting is his artistic method and what it has to teach us about achieving excellence in our own professional or personal life.

Using a photograph as a guide, he adopted a technique employed in a lot of Renaissance artwork. He placed a numbered and lettered grid over the photo – thousands of pixel-like squares – to recreate the picture one square at a time. When you are looking at his Big Self Portrait all you are actually looking at is a precise mosaic of simple black, white and grey squares.

How does this apply to to us, and to excellence?

Big, magnificent, shimmering excellence, if you look closely at it, is nothing more that a carefully arranged mosaic of precise, simple actions. And by precise, I mean actions that are taken with intention, with a clear final goal in sight. Chuck Close’s intention was to perfectly replicate his photographic image, and this determined which exact paint shade he chose to use to fill in his very first square with, out of an array of possible shades that he could have applied. Then he chose which shade to use for the next square, and the next one and the next. Applying choice informed by intention to every single one.

So the science of the art of excellence is sublime in its simplicity. There’s just three parts to it.

1) Being extremely clear on your goal. What will excellence look like once you’ve achieved it?

2) Treating your time more like the way Chuck Close treats a canvas, i.e. like a precious resource out of which there is the potential to create something excellent.

3) Focussing on the very, many, very small choices for action that every day presents, and applying more intention to actions you choose, always with the end goal in mind.

For example when I am on a roll, I somehow manage to drag myself to the gym down the road and run 5k every weekday morning. I do it because I know I’m happier and work better that way and I feel pleased with myself when I do this. But! After thinking how I could take more of a ‘Chuck Close’ approach to excellence, I realised that the 45 minutes I spend running, is actually still in some ways an empty square I could be doing something with. So now instead of suffering the cheesy gym workout music they pump out, or even listening to my own tunes, I put in my earphones, harness the wonder of YouTube and learn a huge amount of useful stuff that I can apply to my work goals during that time on the treadmill.

45 minutes per weekday morning multiplied by 52 weeks is 195 hours of learning every year. That’s a third of a postgraduate certificate. It sets myself at a considerable advantage against the theoretical me who inhabits the parallel universe where I am still not making that particular intentional choice.

And the real beauty of it is that it is such a tiny adjustment, such an imperceptible choice that has been exercised that it doesn’t feel like any effort or work.

Getting better, inching towards excellence is, it turns out, as simple as 1,2,3.

Lucy Duggan

When Workplace Wellbeing Doesn’t Work

With World Mental Health Day putting workplace wellbeing in its crosshairs this year, it is worth asking  what workplace wellbeing actually is, as an agenda, as a practice and as an outcome that impacts on individual people’s lives.

Since our work at Light Box began back in 2009, the wave of public interest in wellbeing and mental health has consistently gathered pace. It’s now hard to open a Sunday supplement or newspaper and not stumble across another mental-health story.

The appetite to discuss wellbeing is now huge, along with the surge of initiatives to help people and organisations promote it.

It’s unarguably a sign of progress that some of the stigma that surrounds mental-health has fallen away as a consequence of this upswing in interest, and yet the sceptic in me is uncomfortably aware of how the wellbeing agenda is vulnerable to being hijacked and distorted, and worryingly, how it can be used to eclipse some hard realities that need to be examined.

Played out in the workplace, the wellbeing agenda can go one of two ways.

I’ve heard some great stories about staff teams being treated to wellbeing and resilience training, only to be handed their redundancy notices a few weeks later. Applied cynically, perfunctory wellbeing measures taken in the workplace can be a way of sending staff the message: ‘Can’t cope with unreasonably big workloads / long hours / low pay / scant annual leave? Hmmm, maybe you should be working a bit harder on your well-being, then.’

Done well though, workplace wellbeing can be the basis of thoughtful action for change – not least a change in organisational culture, led from the top. It can be the opportunity for increased self-awareness, assertiveness, improved relationships and yes, self care.

If you get it right, a focus on workplace wellbeing can ensure that the workplace is a source of camaraderie and a place that’s free of blame culture. That it’s a place where each person is allowed to be vulnerable in some way and is called upon to use their particular strengths to create shared value. When the workplace presents an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something and be thanked for your contribution, then it becomes a haven of security and a source of positive identity in an unpredictable and often difficult world.

In the UK, 11.7 million work days were lost this past year alone due to stress, depression or anxiety related sick leave, and studies consistently show that people are at their most creative and productive on the job when they are feeling happy. The science and statistics speak for themselves: workplace wellbeing is too important to get wrong.

Perhaps a good first step for any organisation with a genuine interest in this, is an honest, inclusive conversation about what works for people’s wellbeing in the workplace, and what works against it.


Two Ways of Working

When we are working well, it feels wonderful. Energy flows along, things get done, tasks get tackled one by one. There’s few things better than that feeling you get when the day draws to a close, that you’ve been productive and moved things on in one way or another.

When we are not working well, it feels very different. There can be a tinge of panic. And a masochism. It can feel like swimming against a current. Whatever we have done well, in the days or weeks before, it often seems like it is not enough, or worse, not relevant. It is as if all the productive, positive action that has gone before dissolves and has no bearing, and we are pushing the gas pedal down hard on an empty tank of fuel.

We might identify this second way of working as the necessary drive to keep going that all success depends on. A healthy no pain, no gain mentality.

But it is not. It’s an impatience, and ultimately it fuels discouragement and demotivation. This way of working quietly erodes our confidence in our abilities to solve problems as they arise and do well. And when confidence is lowered, we don’t approach opportunities in the same way, we don’t act in a bold, creative manner. Instead we shrink back and don’t do so well. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. A trap.

It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of this second way of working, and stay unwittingly trapped inside it all day until it spits you out at home time feeling pessimistic, stressed and useless. When this happens it feels so draning, and it so greatly undermines any gains that the first way of working accrues, that it is crucial to watch out for this psychological tendency more and to take its menace more seriously.

Perhaps next time you spot it taking over, consider going on strike against yourself for half an hour, have a walk and some self-talk reminding yourself that working hard is meant to feel good, not bad.

What’s Next versus What’s Now

Minds have a tendency to drift into the future, and the influence that the future tends to have on our mind-set is mixed. On the one hand it can give rise to hope. On the other hand it can bring on apprehension, even fear.

Whatever its effects, the main thing  to remember about the future is that it is a mythical place. i.e. it does not exist.

And it never will.

If you are dreaming of how next year things could be better – how the summer you have could be more fun than the one just gone, how your earnings could go up, how you could support my family and close friends in bigger, more elaborate ways, when you are preoccupying myself with what’s next – you are loosing sight of what’s now.

And what’s now is the one and only thing you will ever have any influence over. Whether it is your relationships, how you treat myself or your approach to work. It ‘s about the micro choices, the actions and inactions. Is there good music on in the morning when you get ready for work, or is there not? Do you hurry from meeting to meetings ignoring your surroundings or do you not? Do you text a friend on their first day of a new job or do you not? The more you turn your gaze away from the future, the more you will see the kaleidoscope of choices to be made in the now.

Each one tiny. Each one important.

When you look after the now the future looks after itself. 

Here’s a James Joyce quote to leave you with that says it all in just a line:

“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”


The surprising mathematical law behind successful working relationships…


Even if we like a person, it is difficult to predict whether we will continue to get on in the long run and make it through all life’s challenges with our relationship intact.  For example, few couples getting married anticipate that one day they fall out and yet 45% of marriages end in divorce.

To better understand why certain relationships endure and remain productive, researcher John Gottman studied the relationships of hundreds of married couples. And incredibly, he was able to predict with 94% accuracy which couples would get divorced and which couples would last the distance.


Using a ratio. He observed that in instances where the positive feedback the couple exchanged  exceeded the negative feedback they shared at a ratio of three to one or more, their relationships were resilient. Couples who fell short of this golden ratio of 3:1 however, didn’t fare so well.

John Gottman’s findings have been since been replicated in diverse settings. In businesses and colleges the same feedback ratio continues to be an accurate predictor of whether a group will succeed and flourish, or become weakened over time by disharmony from within.

In light of this research it is worth asking what feedback ratio prevails in your workplace and how that impacts on the team?