Projects and Explorations

| January 22, 2012

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.

Colorful Chaos by Guy Tal

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

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  1. Aspen on the Awapa Plateau | January 31, 2012
  1. Richard Wong says:

    I think most of us can relate to your story about the corporate life vs. personal life. I’ve worked with people in the past that were unable to leave their work at the office and are pretty much glued into their corporate work every day all hours of the day even when not necessary such as sending work emails off on Saturday nights or Monday morning at 5:30 a.m. The thing I never understood was that it never seemed to make them a more productive or better at what they did so why? Get a life outside of the office and it could lead to greater things like the direction you’ve taken, Guy. Taken to an extreme, I’ve read stories of corporate execs that have committed suicide over work related stresses. Clearly they probably measured a great deal of their self-worth by their work, and paid dearly for it.

  2. Boyan says:

    @Richard, sustained high level of achievement is, IMO, impossible without immersion in whatever you have chosen to do pretty much round the clock. After many years of observing and managing people I have come to the conclusion that those that are able to leave their work at work rarely achieve much beyond what is merely expected. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid lifestyle choice, but not one that leads to great accomplishment at work. Despite all the lip service to work-life balance, it is my opinion that we must choose to be good at one and strive to not be terrible at the other. Guy has said as much about his own style of work. Just because he does not CONSCIOUSLY impose goals and deadlines does not mean that he drifts along and merely takes whatever course he chooses to at any given moment in time. Yeah, there are corporate execs who commit suicide because of work stress, but there are also artists who commit suicide because they hung around the house too long without “getting inspiration”. Being good at anything requires drive and focus, whether one realizes it explicitly or not.

  3. Very, very true. How is an artist expected to perform on command? True creativity comes from a passion within, and that is definitely something that should be nurtured and explored, not just allowed to come out on the weekend. All of your posts resonate with me and deserve an applause!

  4. Michael Hill says:

    Absolutely superb photograph to accompany this thoughtful article!

  5. Margaret says:

    Guy, this is a very thought provoking article. And, I love your AWAPA photos. I’ve been through that area but never “seen” it until viewing your photos. Beautiful as the Paloose!

  6. Tom Mangan says:

    Conviction for your art and passion is what it boils down to I believe. I can relate well to the situation you describe in your previous corporate life. It’s become trendy for us to be told that we should be measuring our self worth based on how hard we work and how much personal time we sacrifice for the good of the team and company. All of us compartmentalize differently, and I’m sure there are some ‘task masters’ that can navigate between these two different worlds somewhat successfully. I find it difficult at best to turn the switch on and off and find the process of attempting to do so draining and shallow. Ironically, it was an intro to a team building ‘True and Best Leadership’ seminar that my teammates and I were read a quote from civil rights activist Howard Thurman. It read, ‘Don’t do what the world needs you to do. Find out what keeps you alive and do that. For what the world needs is you, alive!. After this, I then had the privilege to sit through 3 more days of teambuilding and leadership ‘training’.

  7. Another thought provoking article Guy, and one that is easy for me to agree with. For me, the desired outcome, whether it be called a project or exploration, is the actual journey, the realizations that come from tromping through the woods or beach, absorbing the beauty of the moment and trying to capture it on my CF card, the feeling of fulfillment that comes with a successful day out, and the occasional frustraion when the day isn’t so successful. In short, it’s all about the journey, for that what life is.

  8. Carl D says:

    Hey Guy

    You’ve articulated (well) what’s been bouncing around my head for a long time. I’m going through some similar processes with my own ‘project’, and I’ve never really been able to communicate how I feel about it as well as you have here.

    I do wish you hadn’t referenced the corporate culture …. I get what you’re saying, but I think, if I’m reading this correctly, that’s merely one illustration of something; yet I kinda wonder if it steers a lot of readers to miss the point.

    That or maybe I’ve missed the point completely. :)



  9. Russ Bishop says:

    Another very thoughtful post Guy.

    As for projects and creativity, I agree that as artists we won’t be completely finished until we take our last breath. This theory is not nearly as quantifiable as with corporate projects, but much more rewarding. Kinda makes the left brain hurt, but the right brain is smiling.

  10. Steve Sieren says:

    For me a project is simply a plan, with out much planning. It is usually a focus on an area with out any time restraints or limits. “Project” is just a word probably taken too harshly if it has cause a person too much stress in their own lifetime. Anything with a deadline is closely compared to a job to me. I don’t think I could work as an artist with any kind of pressure, limits or structure.

  11. Michael Frye says:

    Very well said Guy. In photography you have to follow your heart and your instinct or you become lost.

  12. Brian Rueb says:

    “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.”

    That paragraph sums up my life right now perfectly…good stuff as always.

  13. Michael says:

    As a project manager for decades: bravo and thank you for your thoughts, pictures and inspiration.

  14. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you, Michael!