Every time I’ve sat down to write this I’m never quite sure where to begin as I’m being half-sarcastic, half-dull witted, and half-serious, pick any two. In every life there seems more than one person who gets you do something you thought was the impossible.
Sometimes it was your parents. I hated swimming lessons, but now I’m thankful mine forced me to learn at their own great embarrassment.
It could be your spouse. Mine has endured 29 years of my rapier like wit and she still laughs at my jokes she’s heard a thousand times before. I need new material.
Or maybe, like it is in this instance, it was a friend who got you to do something that changed your life. My friend changed the course of my life. As with most good stories it started on a dark and stormy night. Actually, it wasn’t raining that day but it did start with a simple yet profound question.
My friend, started out life having been born a baby. As he grew up he became much taller. Eventually, he came to work in the Instructional Design (ID) field. Luckily our paths crossed and I like to think I got the better end of the stick even when he was hitting me with it. He encouraged me in the most peculiar way possible: He challenged me. He forced me to dig deep. He didn’t let me accept the surface answers. If 10 people were running for the door he wanted to know why. He wanted to know if there was a better solution, like say, jumping out the window, perhaps. He was the kind of guy who annoyingly did the NYT crossword puzzle in ink, on a Friday. Probably still does.
It was near the end of my Masters in ID. I pretty much knew the sum total of the known instructional universe. With all of the smugness I could muster, I handed him my thesis paper. About 30 minutes later he threw it on my desk, stood there and said something along the lines of, “If you should want to talk about it, I’ll be waiting at my desk.” With abject horror I saw red ink dripping from the pages, staining my desk. Having one’s pride kicked to the curb in such a high handed manner and with relative ease, didn’t set well with me. With more youth than wisdom I charged into his cube to reiterate how smart I really was. Couldn’t he see that?
And I was met with one simple question that set me back on my heels. A question that still pokes it’s head up to this day when I’m about to get the cart in front of the horse. It really was, for me, the beginning of all knowledge. He simply asked, “Where’s your outline?” Time stood still.
There’s something in the bible about “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”, and yes, I fell pretty hard that day because I didn’t have one. All of my bluster couldn’t save me from myself and my choices made. I owned it.
Fast-forward 20+ years (gee, when did I become the old guy?) to me standing in a field getting ready to capture a scene. I so want to begin “writing” (aka, slinging paint) but there’s a question that bubbles up that asks, “Where’s your outline?”
You can paint “reckless” or you can paint “wreck-less”. Each time you step up to the canvas you get to make that choice. I try to avoid the wrecks by walking through the process of thinking things through. Yeah, I may still end with a wreck but I’ve at least increased my odds of success. Here are the things I try to think through as I am setting up my easel. It’s a discipline (not emotion) to think through:
- My story. What story am I trying to tell?
- The star. What or who’s my star of the story? (Focal point or area), Do I need a supporting cast?
- Have I figured out my notan structure?
- Will I use a dominant dark, light or middle value?
- What color scheme am I going to use – adjacent? complementary?
- Where is my darkest dark and lightest light?
- Where’s the sun now? Where do you think it’ll be in an hour?
The next time you start to do something whether it’s a term paper, a work report or your next painting. Remember the simple battle-tested question I got that fateful morning, “Where’s your outline?”
If you can answer that you have increased your potential success. Now that’s worth celebrating no matter if you are an artist, student or business person.
*If you’ve read to this point, let me tell you the rest of the story.
My friend has helped me through many things over the ensuing years. His wisdom has guided me when no one else could. I am proud he was “mean” to me that day. He changed my thinking. He also happens to be one of the most truly gifted cooks I know (Em, you’re a lucky woman.) When he invited us to his house for dinner – we went on a three day fast so we would arrive ready to eat because he’s that good. With all of that said, his legacy will be that he is the one who taught me how to perfectly poach an egg. This photo is my way of showing him (and you) that his advice still is a comfort to me and I’m in his debt. (And Bill, please don’t edit this.)
Thank you Bill Moore. Thank you my friend, you changed me and I’m the better for it.