When I am almost done with a painting, I give it a time out. I let it hang out on the side of my studio while I begin work on a new one. Every time I walk by it, I sneak a peek at it, trying to pretend as if I’ve never seen it before.
I’m not trying to make it jealous; I’m trying to look at it with new eyes.
The goal is to figure out if it really is finished. I’m always doubtful that it is, but sometimes I struggle to find anything to fix.
A recent painting I’d been working on had a couple of areas that I knew would be tough going into it, particularly the water in the swimming pool, which I’d never painted before. In the end, I was happy with how the challenge areas turned out, and when I looked at the painting, it was with a sense of pride at my accomplishment. But I couldn’t shake the sense that the painting wasn’t finished.
Then I came across a quote by the novelist Samuel Butler, who said,
“Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it, you are lost.”
Aha! I had found my answer. I looked again at my painting, this time as if my enemy had done it. Immediately I found a few things that could be improved. Yes, the water was good, but the palm trees were boring because the colors were too uniform. And a shadow under the whale would give it more depth and serve to better connect it with the little girl. Twenty minutes later, my painting was finished…and better.
Although I hesitate to suggest it, this is a good strategy for anyone looking to improve.
My hesitation comes because most of the time, we have enough critical voices in our head telling us we’re not good enough. That’s Adultitis at work. But in an instance where you already know you’re strong at something, this is an interesting filter to try on when you feel stuck about how to advance to the next level.
Think of something you’re currently working on that’s turning out pretty well and you’re quite proud of.
Perhaps it’s that proposal you’ve been working on.
The curriculum you’ve created for this semester.
That event you’re helping to organize.
If it was being worked on by your enemy, what would you criticize about it?
I believe that we have all been given certain talents and gifts, and we are called to utilize those the best of our ability.
Enlisting your enemy to help your cause might a good way to start.