I’m actively working on a number of themes these days. Some involve specific subject matter, others result from a fascination with specific locations, such as a desolate volcanic plateau near my home, and some that at this time can only be described as “abstract concepts.” I was surprised, however, when a friend recently asked how my volcanic plateau project was coming along. I answered that I discovered several interesting areas I had not been to before, and that my resulting portfolio of images was coming together nicely. “When will you be done?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I answered instinctively, to my own surprise as much as his.
As soon as I answered, though, I realized that I actually did know. I’ll be done when I no longer feel like working on it; when the theme is no longer interesting to me, or when I feel I have learned and said all that I’m going to and find myself drawn to something else.
What threw me off was the word “project.” Projects are efforts aimed at achieving specific goals (or requirements) under a given set of constraints: time, cost, desired features, etc. A project is done when the goals are achieved or when they are no longer deemed feasible or desirable. These conditions directly translate into success or failure.
I am no stranger to projects. In my corporate career I was involved in thousands of them. For a period of time I managed a group of project managers and a portfolio often exceeding a hundred concurrent efforts. Each had well-defined goals, strict time, cost, and feature constraints, and measurable indicators of progress and probabilities of success.
My work on the volcanic plateau (and any number of other themes), by comparison, has none of these things. I have no specific goal or outcome in mind, and, since I am not driven by anything other than my own desire, it doesn’t really need to be complete by an arbitrary date. More intriguing: at this time, I can’t even say what “complete” means.
Certainly, I can come up with goals, constraints and metrics for such efforts, and turn them into projects, but why would I want to? There is no doubt in my mind that at some point I will feel I have worked on them enough and want to shift my resources to other things, but I have no way of determining that point in advance. A forced deadline is unlikely to perfectly coincide with it, meaning that I will either have to quit before I feel ready or be forced to stick with it when I’m no longer interested.
I realized I needed a new word to describe these ongoing efforts and decided on “explorations.” An exploration is sparked by a desire to understand something, to learn about it, to spend time with it, without defining a specific outcome in advance. Like a project, I know it will often result in something useful (images, portfolios, books, ideas, personal satisfaction, etc.), but, until I know what it is, I find ample and sustained reward in merely being engaged in something that interests and fascinates me: a journey that is more important than the destination.
When I shared these thoughts with my friend, he was skeptical. “Without a deadline and goals, you may never be done,” he said. “So what?” I answered, “Why do I need to be done if it continues to give me pleasure?” “Yes,” he said,” but it’s human nature to need something to motivate you to work on it.” “I agree, ” I said, “My interest is what drives me to work on it, and when I’m no longer interested, that’s when I’ll know I’m done.”
This exchange reminded me of a separate discussion, in which I explained some of my reasons for becoming a professional artist. Though I had an interesting and well-paying corporate career, and I could work on my art for a day or two each week, I realized I could no longer turn it on and off. I could not spend my week working in “project mode,” and switch to “exploration mode” for a weekend before going back. The more passionate I became about my creative work, the more I realized it was not something that I do, but something that I am, and that I could not temporarily suspend it any more than I could suspend my breathing for a few days each week.
I still work on the occasional project — be it an essay, a book, a workshop plan, or a presentation. In these times I am reminded how random creativity can be, and how many compromises need to be made in order to complete something under a deadline. When I worked in project management, we would often throw a party to celebrate the completion of a project. The “mission accomplished” moment, we tried to convince ourselves, made up for all the frustration and the compromises. Today, though, I’m happy at the completion of a project for different reasons: being able to return to my ongoing explorations and finding joy in simply working on them.
The most important aspect to a project is to finish it. The most important aspect of an exploration is to engage in it. Productivity and accomplishment come with both. The difference is that with projects, accomplishment is conditional and dictated in advance, and may turn the effort itself into a frustrating exercise. Projects may succeed or fail. Explorations, on the other hand, are always successful, even if they result in no immediate tangible outcome.
It used to be that employment was about making ends meet, so that time and mind can be freed to engage in more meaningful personal or social pursuits. The competitive need to always earn more and beat the “other guys” gave us a corporate culture where leisure is associated with sloth rather than personal growth. Mass media enforce the stereotype by providing excuses to engage in mindless entertainment when the “real work” is done. The more successful employers even go as far as to convince their employees that their accomplishments on the job, personal growth and self-worth are one and the same. Do you believe that they are? Some do, and can maintain a happy existence within that frame of thought. But what happens if you realize that you don’t?
Explorations should not be managed like projects because meaningful living dictates different priorities than employment. Those who can successfully compartmentalize and accommodate both will thrive in both. Whether it is my own shortcoming or a more general truism, I became an artist because I realized I couldn’t reconcile them into one life.