Artists, Writers & The Habit of Work | Achieving Greatness Podcast

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Today’s reading has been edited and adapted from the book entitled Work, by Hugh Black, published in 1903…..

THE place of habit in life can hardly be overestimated. Habit works a groove for us into which we fall easily, and in which we move swiftly, so that the great bulk of our actions are done automatically, and the whole trend of our life is established. Habit cuts a pathway from the brain through the nerve-centers, until after a time a thing is done almost mechanically.

We do not stop to think how we will walk when we want to go anywhere. We have laboriously acquired the art of walking, till it is done without any conscious attention. This law extends its sway over every region of life. We have gone on doing acts and making judgments along a certain line till it could be foretold what we will do on any.

No wonder that all moral philosophers make much of the importance of the formation of habits. It is the way character is formed, and life is molded, and destiny is fixed. What can match it for importance? It is by habit that the senses are exercised; by habit that the body is developed; by habit that the mind is colored and shaped; by habit that the soul communes and grows in grace; by habit that each of us is made the person we are.

Even natural disposition, of which we make so much when we speak of heredity, is only a tendency till habit takes it and sets it and hardens it and drives it to a settled goal. Habit is the process by which acts and thoughts and feelings are organized into life. There is nothing that is outside of this law in business or art or morality or religion.

The musician is not made otherwise than by playing music, nor the just person otherwise than by doing just deeds, says Aristotle. And it is not merely in such specialized lines that a habit reveals itself. It touches us all along the line, never leaving us at any point, but ceaselessly making its mark. Everything counts, registering its effects in the mysterious region of nerve-cells and fibers, and has its corresponding result on mind and character.

William James closes a chapter in his book on psychology with a passage which I cannot refrain from quoting, because for one thing he is speaking from a strict scientific standpoint, and because it presents both the hopeful and destructive sides of the power of habit.

He writes, “As we become drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no young person have any anxiety about the upshot of their education, whatever the field may be. If you keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, you may safely leave the final result to itself.

You can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning to find yourself one of the competent ones of your generation in whatever pursuit you may have singled out. Know this truth in advance. The ignorance of it has probably engendered more discouragement and faintheartedness in people embarking on arduous careers than all other causes put together.”

Apart from the ambition to become competent, the value of assiduous and faithful and regular work is that it accumulates moral force, which not only tells by success in a particular occupation, but gives steadiness and backbone to the whole character.

The beauty of this is that it does not matter what we are working at; in work we are creating habit which is sending a stream of healthy influence over our whole lives, and is strengthening the complete character. We are bringing training and discipline to bear on our entire self. It also aids all other good habits, and is an agent to fight against any bad habit that may already have taken possession of us.

There is a profound truth in the old fables, like that of the hare beaten by the tortoise, even in its own line of running. As the great English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds once said: “If you have great talents industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well-directed labor; nothing is to be obtained without it.

Not to enter into metaphysical discussions on the nature or essence of genius, I will venture to say that dogged determination and a disposition eagerly directed to the object of its pursuit will produce effects similar to the genius which some call the result of natural powers.”

There should be some necessary qualification here, especially in speaking about art. It might tempt some, who have no aptitude, to think that labor alone is enough for any branch of work. There is truth in William Hazlitt’s criticism that industry alone will only produce mediocrity, and mediocrity in art is not worth the trouble of industry.

Efforts of course may be misguided and end in inevitable failure. Dogged hard work can never take the place of the initial gift, without which high art is impossible. But allowing for this, Sir Joshua’s praise of industry and the persistent habit of labor may well be taken to heart.

Careless slovenly work is responsible for more failures in art than any other cause. Blindly trusting what they call their genius, many a gifted artist has never come to success because they have never learned to toil. It is one of the subtlest temptations in all productive work, whether it be painting pictures, or writing books, or pursuing any subject of study, to simply rely on happy inspirations, with the result that casual efforts alternate with long spells of indolence.

There is no finer lesson from the lives of many scientific workers than that of the patient investigation and tireless labor with which they pursue their branch of truth. Darwin refers to this as a necessity if we are to advance any science at all. To accept our work as part of our duty, to cultivate it as a habit, is to safeguard our lives from many a mistake and error, and even from many a sin.

We are traitors to our opportunities and gifts unless we make them the servants of habit. Many illustrations could be culled from the lives and writings of great men and women, showing how they cultivated this habit till it was ingrained both in their work and in their characters.

Every individual must bring themselves into discipline before they become a perfect instrument for their work. No great work of art is possible without previous training in the art of work. When the habit of industry is ingrained in your nature, you have mastered the art, although your methods of working may be peculiar to yourself.

Illustrations from literature are especially valuable in treating of this subject, because it is a sphere in which a person is usually thought to be altogether dependent on intuition and inspiration. We speak vaguely of “genius” as explaining any great achievement in writing; but we only need to know a little of the inner literary history of any time or country to see what toil lies back of what we call genius.

Even those forms of art which appear most spontaneous, such as poetry and music, are not struck off at a flash, or if any single piece of work seems to be so struck off, that is made possible by years of past training.

To speak of any person as a careful artist does not mean that every piece of work needs to be retouched and gone over again and again with painstaking industry; but that the capacity to do anything with finish and delicacy, however easily, has come from previous years of training.

In all great art we are deceived by the appearance of ease, with no joints and no marks of the file anywhere. We see the artist’s finished work, but we do not see the hundreds of sketches made for that work, and all the training of eye and hand and taste without which the work would have been impossible. The capacities have been brought into efficiency by intense and persistent labor.

When we look on a great completed work, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, or Michael Angelo’s Last Judgment (to take great achievements in different spheres) we are inclined to forget all that led up to them. We think of them as a kind of miracle outside cause and effect, and at- tribute them vaguely to the inspiration of genius.

An unremitting habit of work was one of the secrets which made such achievements possible. This is not to say that if any person will only persist in similar intense toil they will rival Milton’s epic; but it does mean that without such toil the epic would never have seen the light of day. Only through habit will the intellectual concentration needed for any high work become part of a person’s endowment.

In the whole matter of habit, decision is the master-key. We must learn to act on the spur. The hardest thing is to begin, to overcome the inertia and mental sluggishness. Some people are always preparing for work, which usually means postponing any serious effort and ends in a mere waste of time. There are many ways of deluding ourselves about our industry, and ministering all the time to our innate indolence.

Especially in intellectual work it is easy to put off beginning a task with the excuse that we are not ready for it, that we have not read and thought enough, that we are not in the mood at present, or that we need to make more preparation. We go on improving our implements for work which is never attempted, as if an artisan were to be perpetually sharpening his tools and never putting them to any practical use. The worst of it is that indecision like this has an effect on the character, and weakens the whole capacity.

No new habit can be begun without a hard struggle, or continued without constant effort. It will be all the better if there is at the beginning some enthusiasm, a definite resolution to pursue some task in worthy fashion; but watchful and jealous care is needed before the habit is formed. Later on, when the apprenticeship may be said to be completed, it works almost automatically. The laboriousness of any work is lessened by the dexterity which comes from habit.

As we accustom ourselves to the work, we gain power not only over our material, but over ourselves. This at least is certain, that nothing is permanently secured to us till it passes into a habit.

A good rule is to do one’s work for each day, realizing that sufficient for the day is its evil and its good. If we look too far ahead at all the work that lies before us, we lose courage and are apt to despair of ever being able for it. This is particularly true of any large subject we have set before ourselves to master. If we see too much we may give up heart; whereas the day’s work can be done, and with daily progress even the longest journey is accomplished. The triumph is the habit, not the goal to be reached.

One of the great lessons of life is to learn not to do what one likes, but to like what one does. Habit creates this liking; for when we do a thing well and easily we cannot be robbed of a certain pleasure and satisfaction.

Another principle of the art of working is to accustom oneself to take advantage of portions of time that seem too small for serious work. The concentration which habit induces makes it possible to use even scraps of time for some intellectual interest or for some useful service.

Success in the art of working depends very much on method. It is not possible, however, to dogmatize about what are the right methods, as here more than any- where else one person’s food is another person’s poison. There have been men and women whose whole capacity to produce good work would be destroyed if they had to conform to someone else’s methods.

The right method for you is simply that which will enable you to do your best work. The one important thing is that you should have a method of your own, and learn the lesson of industry. All types of success, achievement, and happiness are available to you, if you but learn the habit of work.

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