Saturday, 8 August 2015

The crucial importance of having a constant purpose

Imagine that you have been born with amazing talents that allow you become anything you want. On the one hand, your unparalleled mechanical abilities can serve you to start up an engineering company whose innovations would be sold around the world. On the other hand, your extraordinary knowledge of anatomy can secure you a place amongst the best physicians.

The end result

In addition, your talent for drawing and composition can allow you to become an internationally-renowned artist and produce hundreds of paintings that would be avidly purchased by collectors. All doors are open to you and the whole world is at your feet. Powerful men seek your friendship and everybody respects you.

To make things even better, Nature grants you a reasonably long life so that you can accomplish as much as possible. You get to live 67 years and enjoy an overall good health. You are born in a country that offers wide opportunities and your family encourages your initiatives.

How much would you achieve in your lifetime? Would you concentrate your energies on one field? Or would you rather change occupation every few years? Which goals would you set for yourself? Would you choose a profession or business that allows you to accumulate a quick fortune?

Two weeks after your 67th birthday, your time is up. You find yourself terminally ill and look back on your life to see how much you have actually accomplished. When you count your material assets, you realize how little you possess after decades of work. When you review your output, you feel shame about how few tasks you have actually finished.

Persistence and creativity

At that point, you cannot help thinking that you have wasted your life. What will remain after you are gone? Why did you squander your talents in conjecture and speculation? You have started many projects, but abandoned most of them half-way.

With trembling voice, you dictate your last will. Since you never married nor fathered any children, your few possessions are to be divided amongst servants and friends. The house where you are about to die is not yours either. When you close your eyes for the last time, you beg for extra time to complete all that you have left unfinished, but now, it is too late.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) died in a house that the King of France had lent him. His last will, which was published after his death, names his meagre possessions. His wealth amounted to a few books, a small estate in Milan, some money, and a few paintings. Not much for someone who many regard as the most talented man who has ever lived.

Except for a few dozen paintings, Leonardo da Vinci rarely finished anything he started. He made copious notes about inventions that never took off the ground. He spent two years making drawings to illustrate an anatomy book that was never published in his lifetime. He also made designs for churches that were never built.

Clarity of purpose

If you have a talented son that leads his life in imitation of Leonardo, your patience won't outlast your disappointments. You will come to regret your son's inability to focus on a specific field and advance his career. You will also have to endure the sight of your son's being surpassed in honours and wealth by others who possess less talent but more determination.

Reality is structured in a way that rewards constant purpose. Zigzagging can be psychologically rewarding, but seldom leads to extraordinary achievement. Even highly talented individuals need time to acquire expertise and establish themselves in the market. Customers pay for finished products and services, seldom for preliminary designs.

When you study History, you will hear great things about Leonardo da Vinci. Art teachers will tell you about his genius as a painter, physicians about his prodigious knowledge of human anatomy, and engineers about his visionary design of a flying machine.

Fair enough, but if you look at all those projects with the eye of a tax accountant, you will be forced to classify most of them as "work in progress." My point is that, if Leonardo da Vinci lived today, he would probably attain only modest success.

In our century, innovation and competition are fierce in every field. Artists, scientists, physicians, and inventors never rest in the age of internet. The global economy guarantees that someone, somewhere is about to overtake your achievements or your company.

There is so much to learn in every field that contemporary professionals rarely engage in unproductive ventures. The market wants reliable products and services. Nobody cares if you are a genius. What counts is whether you are able to deliver value to paying customers.

More often than not, zigzagging slows you down and wastes your opportunities. The difference between Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporary Raphael da Urbino (1483-1520) provides a striking illustration of this principle.

A sense of direction

Raphael, one of the most talented painters in History, only lived 37 years, but authored more than a hundred paintings. In contrast, Leonardo, who lived to become 67 years old, only produced a few dozen works. How many other brilliant paintings could Leonardo have created if he had focused on this line of activity?

Leonardo spent his life moving from one project to another. At 28, he interrupted his work on his painting "St. Jerome" and never found time to finish it. At 29, he went to Milan and abandoned in Florence his half-way completed painting "Adoration of the Magi," which he never retook.

At 40, Leonardo obtained a commission for an equestrian monument in Milan, but the project also remained uncompleted. Leonardo did manage to produce a clay model of the horse, but by the time he was ready to cast it in bronze, his client decided to use the bronze to manufacture cannons.

Long-term achievement demands a consistent purpose. If zigzagging ever leads to success, it will be of sort duration. Personal efforts go farther when they are compounded by time. Each step of a career consolidates yesterday's accomplishments and prepares the next. Constant improvement requires a good level of stability.


Image by Richard0 under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under 

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

Rational living, rational working

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