Horse Head or Masterpiece?

When I was 13 years old I painted a horse head with a paint by numbers layout. I thought it was pretty good, but now that I’ve seen some real masterpieces I realize it was pretty amateurish. The paint was clumpy where I tried to stay inside the identified lines. It didn’t look real; it just looked like I did a good job of painting. My wife Joanne, on the other hand, has drawn some amazing pieces – always starting with a blank canvas and then allowing her imagination to direct her brush or pencil.

I realize now that life’s opportunities are presented to us in much the same way. If we paint by the numbers (take the first job, put money in CDs, buy a Ford car, purchase shirts at J.C. Penney, and have two weeks vacation every year) we will see predictable results. You know what it’s going to be – and it might be good, but it will never be amazing to you or anyone else. The only way to get a masterpiece is to start with a blank canvas. Of course, with a blank canvas you could also end up with a disaster that you decide to throw away. But the very next one may be the masterpiece that will make the world remember you.

While you may think this is about willingness to take “risk” or that it’s a reflection of “personality style” I think it’s more about dreaming, imagining and taking action. And this is not just a business or career decision – it’s more a question of the kind of life we want to live. Think of Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Bono, Oprah, Rick Warren, Howard Schultz or Billy Graham. Their personality styles cover the entire range of possibilities and no one would consider Billy Graham a risk-taker. But all of them had big dreams, started with a blank canvas and then took action to create their own unique masterpieces.

Here’s what experts are telling us we will have for the remainder of 2009: uncertainty, chaos, turbulence, turmoil, confusion and insecurity. Sounds like a paint by the number life is going to be hard to find anyway.

So you get to choose what you are creating today – a horse head or the Mona Lisa?

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“Success is never an accident. It typically starts as imagination, becomes a dream, stimulates a goal, grows into a plan of action – which then inevitably meets with opportunity. Don’t get stuck along the way.” Dan Miller

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2 Responses to “Horse Head or Masterpiece?”

  1. Anita Says:

    Dan, thank you for the powerful analogy. I will be thinking this week about the safety of “painting by numbers” vs. taking the risk of starting something brand new. The quote you end with is equally thought-provoking. I would venture to say that our society is somewhat lacking in imagination. It would seem that in order to improve our opportunities, we could begin with improving our imagination!

  2. Joe Hafner Says:

    Dan – your comments dovetail nicely with my thoughts after reading the current print edition of Inc. magazine, featuring an interview with Jim Collins. The interview was truncated, but he spoke articulately on the difference between tolerance for risk versus tolerance for ambiguity. Powerful thoughts indeed for these most turbulent (and ambiguous) times.

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