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