Always a Beginner
I have three degrees in the natural sciences.
And in the land of the sciences, Specialization is highly valued.
Specialization is what makes an “expert.”
To be successful is to know, intimately, the unique and highly individualized nuances of a particular plant species from a particular place in the world.
It’s to have spent hours and hours identifying microscopic algae, so that you can tell apart one blue-green blob from another, with inhuman ease.
I always thought I would be a specialist. I always thought I would get there. We start our education with general overviews, yes, but inevitably, we find that niche... right?
Alas… the allure of the general was too strong. I was always too interested in everything else, to focus on just one thing for very long.
The same holds true in most other parts of our lives, I think.
To be an “expert,” to be a “master” is the pinnacle of success. To have achieved mastery over one, focused subject is held in the highest regard. And I admit, I do admire those who devote themselves so completely to the investigation of one thing- whether it’s the morphology of mushroom spores, or the painting of sunsets. You may admit that, you too, have stared in awe at the many years of work devoted to painting clouds or sculpting human hands.
On the opposite end of the specialization spectrum, are those of us who are, if not necessarily “easily distracted,” at least often “enchanted.” While some would describe us generalists as “fickle,” or even “flaky,” I beg to differ with such negative terms. What keeps us from maintaining focus on just one subject of specialization is our ability to recognize the beauty and intrigue in all others.
It comes down to the difference between breadth and depth. And we rarely get to have equal amounts of both.
I’m sure most of us fall somewhere in the middle, balancing our limited human energies and attention between the breadth and depth of our interests. Whatever your personal equation comes out to be, I’m here to give you permission to be entirely unapologetic about it.
If we focus on mastery of one technique or subject, we’re told we’re stifling our growth. We’re told we’ve narrowed our choices, our potential, our horizons.
If we are interested in trying lots of different mediums, subjects, techniques, and themes, we get to hear how unfocused we are. We get to be told we’ll never master anything because we don’t spend enough time with one thing.
“Jack of all trades, and master of none,” they say.
You can’t win.
So don’t try to win.
You don’t have to “win.”
You have to stay motivated, inspired, grow, and make stuff.
And how that happens is up to you.
If you’re perpetually mesmerized by teacups and breakfast tables, and the way the steam rises through that early-morning sunshine (*raises hand), then do that.
And keep doing it.
And keep doing it some more until you’re sick of it.
And if you’re not sick of it, then don’t stop. So long as the inspiration is still there, the source hasn’t yet been exhausted. Aren’t you so lucky to have tapped a well so deep? In this case, you’ll probably learn a lot about teacups and tablescapes.
You'll always feel like you have more to learn.
If you hear about new techniques that inspire you to give them a try, by all means, dive right in! Take up woodworking, or glass-blowing, or paper quill. If hopping from subject to subject, idea to idea, is what helps things stay fresh and exciting for you, then congratulations! You, too, have found a way to keep the motivation tank well-stocked. You’ll probably learn a lot as you experience your artistic process through different media, and subjects.
And you, too, may always feel like you have more to learn.
A good rule to keep in mind:
If you always feel like a beginner, then you’re on the right track.
The most important thing is that you always have a reason to keep going- a reason to keep doing. Always discovering more to learn and new ways to grow is a surefire way to keep the momentum.
Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo, is said to have written, at age 87, "ancora imparo" which means "still I am learning."
Remember: "mastery" is in the eye of the spectator- never the one holding the paintbrush.