On a recent trip to LA, I was held captive in a quiet corner of The Broad by William Kentridge’s brilliant Second-Hand Reading. In six or so minutes of animated words, images and music, the work takes you on a magical journey which is both substantial and light-touched, heavy-souled and uplifting. I happily watched it again and again, each time sensing something new in the looping lyrical storytelling.
In a TEDx talk, William Kentridge describes how “ideas come into the studio and meet charcoal, paper, ink…” This fluid, handmade “thinking in material” is core to his art. And so, in turn, is the task “to find the less good idea. One knows the danger of confident men with their good ideas, and the damage this does every time. Give yourself over to the logic of the material… The main idea gets pushed to the side and other things emerge from the process of working… the less good ideas… This is key in the studio – to allow a space for this to emerge… to allow the studio to be a safe space for stupidity…”
So for anyone struck dumb by the terrors of the blank page, or indeed convinced of the perfection of their opening line, take a leaf out of Mr Kentridge’s book. Start writing. Be stupid. Goof about a bit. Get your hands inky. The less good ideas will emerge, and who knows – they may well prove to be great.
Riffing on New Year’s resolutions, the FT’s Andrew Hill explores how doing less, rather than more, could well be the thing. But as he points out, doing less is only half the story…
“Academic Morten Hansen … cites his compatriot Roald Amundsen, who won the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. … Prof Hansen believes Amundsen’s success came down to his obsessive focus on using only dogs and sleds to transport his team. Scott was better resourced …but the complexity of the Scott approach proved fatal. … Amundsen, who had concentrated on getting the best dogs, the best handlers and the best training, was far quicker. “By the time Amundsen reached the pole, he was more than 300 miles ahead,” writes Prof Hansen. “Amundsen had chosen one method and mastered it. He had done less, then obsessed. … You have to obsess because if you don’t you don’t have an advantage over the people who are doing more things.”
Prof Hansen studied the performance of 5,000 people and discovered that those who pursued a strategy of ‘do less, then obsess’ ranked 25 percentage points higher than those who did not embrace the practice. … The best performers in the study … matched passion with a purpose.”
How does this play out for writers? Sylvia Plath melodies the essence: “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life.”
From crafting poetry to reaching the South Pole – there’s a lot going for obsessively focusing on one thing to excel at it. Especially when you bring brilliant specialists together in teams to combine and amplify their excellence.
I’ve been a big fan of Edward Tufte, the doyen of information design and data visualisation, for many years. From Beautiful Evidence to Visual Explanations, his books embody his thinking, summed up for me in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: “Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency.” In this sense, it’s akin to the best poetry: brilliant distillations that strike home and stick with you.
It’s not simply about bare bones communication. The kind lauded by Lucy Kellaway, citing meat magnate Wan Long’s “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.” It involves something more than mere plain speaking, or plain designing – refreshing though that might be in a sea of guff and nonsense. Edward Tufte’s sadly recently departed kindred spirit, data visualiser Hans Rosling puts it well: “having the data is not enough – I need to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand.”
So yes, excellence is effective. But it is also, and above all, enjoyable.