Consistently Great Work Consistently Changes
Claude came from a traditional home. His parents expected him to take the usual path many of us imagined we’d take, though we likely didn’t control that image. It was built in our heads for us. You know the one: finish high school, attend a good college, declare a safe major, and, upon graduation, receive our neatly packaged box labeled “Career.”
Everything in its place. Everything under control. But what do we actually control in this work we do?
As a young boy, Claude wasn’t hearing it. He wanted to go to art school, not study economics, nor manage the family business. His mother, as mothers so often are, was strong for her son, defending his artistic aspirations to Claude‘s father and pledging to support the budding painter should he enroll someday.
A few years later, when Claude was 16, his mother died. The boy began thrashing. Wouldn’t you? When we feel helpless, like we just don’t control a thing, that seems to be the only logical response. And so, Claude ran away from home to live with his aunt. Four years later, something else he didn’t choose: He was drafted into the army.
He spent seven years abroad, seeing the world, experiencing the sort of vibrant colors and cultures that could inspire even the most timid of artists to paint. Claude was no timid artist, and yet once again, he didn’t paint, because once again, he didn’t control the circumstances. While in the army, he grew too sick to stand, much less serve, and so he returned home to his aunt. She agreed to watch over him if he agreed to finally enroll in art school once he felt better. And when he did, he did.
Finally, at long last, everything felt in its place. Everything felt under control.
Of course, it’s worth asking: What do we actually control in this work we do?
Just a year into his schooling, Claude couldn’t stand how instructors chose to teach their subjects. It all felt so traditional and staid. But what could he do? That was how it was done. They believed in painting carefully posed objects, people, and scenes. Everything in its place, everything under control. But Claude wondered, what do we actually control in this work we do? So he left campus, found a mentor, and began experimenting. He went outside, to the real world, where the messy effects of time tends to warp the world around us. There, he captured this reality with broken colors and rapid brushstrokes. Most notably, he studied and documented the effects of time on a given scene, painting the same thing over and over and over again, using a new canvas for each moment the light — and his emotions — changed what he saw. He painted a bridge. He painted a sunset. And of course, he painted some water lilies.
Nothing stayed in place. Nothing was under his control. Because, really, what do we actually control in this life?
So often in our work as marketers, when we try to create something consistently great over time, we ignore the effects of time on the work. Instead, we prefer to find THE thing that works, then set it and forget it. We want to find the “correct” solution and put it on repeat. I agree that when we identify something successful, we should lean into it, but “leaning into it” shouldn’t simply mean “more of the same.” Instead, it should be a continual process of discovery to create an ever-improving version of that thing. As time marches forward, changing the world in small and sometimes big ways, we need our work to do the same. This means relinquishing the need for precision, because it’s a false sense of control. The absolute, final, perfect solution doesn’t exist, once we move out of theory and into reality.
“Paint what you really see,” Claude once said, “not what you think you ought to see; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadow.”
Factors outside our control will forever effect our work. No matter how successful something is right now, it’s at risk of growing stale. We don’t control that, and so we’d better get busy reinventing our work over time. Consistently great work consistently changes.
Nothing stays in place. Nothing is under our control. Not really. Because what do we actually control in this work we do?
Fortunately, there is at least one thing we control. The story of that young artist Claude seems to offer us that much. While we can’t control all the variables that change and twist and warp the world and thus our work, but we can indeed control how we see the world. Namely, we can learn to see it through different lights. Sure, we didn’t ask for THIS set of circumstances. We wish we had more, better, or different. We face boring tasks, repeat tasks, stale tasks … and we can’t control that. But we can absolutely control how we view them. We can choose to view them in different ways, new angles, small but meaningful shifts in perspective.
Claude did exactly that. He learned how to look at the same things as everyone else but see them in slightly different ways. Whereas his peers would want the absolute perfect bridge to paint, Claude painted that bridge as it actually exists in the real world: ever-changing. As time passed, the sun moved, and Claude would see that bridge as it really was: in new and different lights. That’s how he painted every bridge, and sunset, every water lily.
If the world is ever-changing, and we plan to put something out into that world consistently over time, then our work must also change over time. What we create doesn’t exist in theory. It exists in a specific yet ever-changing environment. Maybe start with that reality before searching for answers in theory.
“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment,” Claude said. “But the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”
Later in his young career, when Claude and a few friends wanted to showcase their art capturing the ever-changing world, the traditionalists turn them away. As a result, the group set up their own, independent exhibits. They showcased their in-the-moment paintings documenting how both the artist’s emotions and the light could change each version of something. Claude in particular would paint and exhibit the same scene three, four, sometimes eight or nine different ways.
In the end, we are all doing our best to create something that makes sense for the here and now, but this is a fool’s errand, as the here and now is ever-changing. The only thing we can do is to act like Claude and create versions of the work. We can keep evolving, keep refining, keep reinventing. Sure, we can create that one thing in a way that makes sense to us right now, but the real key is to do it again, and again, and again, allowing the effects of time to creep into our work. The real key is to master the art of reinvention — small innovations implemented consistently over time. The goal isn’t to create a masterpiece without flaws but an ever-changing, constantly improving body of work.
Nothing stays in place. Nothing is under control. But what do we actually control in this work we do? Answer: We control how we view things.
With each piece we create, each episode we publish, we can evolve our thinking on the topic that we cover. We can change the form, the contents, the people, the process, all in subtle ways. We can choose to view the same-old, same-old stuff from our work in refreshingly different lights — and by the way, given that time marches forward whether we want to embrace it or not, this isn’t really a choice. If we’re to succeed, we must reinvent the work. Stagnation is the enemy.
In his art, Claude captured the need to reinvent in a literal sense, painting the same scene repeatedly to show the passage of time. But he also reveals this figurative lesson, the we need to be open to seeing the same thing from our daily work in slightly different, ever-changing lights. We may have done the thing seven or 70 or 700 times before. It doesn’t matter. We can choose to see it in subtle new ways, to reinvent and refresh what we create over time. Creating an original series, like a podcast or a video show, is by definition an exercise in proactive reinvention, but this applies to everything we do as marketers. Continual reinvention — that process of constant discovery to deliver ever-more innovative solutions — is the lone way to succeed over time.
Of course, the traditionalists may not be happy with us. They weren’t happy with Claude and his friends. In a fateful twist, one art critic dubbed Claude‘s independent showcase “the exhibit of impressionists.” This isn’t true art, he claimed. It’s so imprecise, so free-flowing and rough. It’s a distant impression of the real thing.
Isn’t it all?
The critic delivered his review as a rebuke of the young artists’ work, but they turned the tables on the writer. So in April of 1974, when Louis Leroy published his critique, that young artist in love with the changing light merely smiled at his friends. He knew: everything we create is an impression. It’s our attempt to capture a moment, which is now gone. The only way to get closer to reality is to mimic reality, creating version after version, change after change … because change is what “reality” actually is. The sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can get on with the work. And so the young artist and his friends did what so few marketers seem willing to do: They embraced it. They accepted that the lone constant is change, and that the work is an exercise in constant improvement, not shipping a final masterpiece, ever. In fact, that group of artists took a negative term from Leroy and made it their moniker.
You may not know the group’s name — they called themselves the Impressionists — but you’ve definitely heard of the young artist. He’s the man who always tried to see the world through an ever-changing light, because in truth, the light is ever-changing. So he kept painting version after version of the bridge. And the sunset. And, of course, the water lilies.
Consistently great work consistently changes. Does yours?
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m a believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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