Pictures don’t do it justice.
A vein is running along the young hero’s neck. The strap of the sling is hidden along David’s back, out of view of the warrior he is about to face. His right-hand looks as vivid as a high definition photograph.
Seeing David at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy is one experience that lives up to and exceeds lofty expectations. If "God is in the details," Michelangelo's masterpiece is near providence.
The size of the statue is astonishing. David stands 17 feet tall and weighs over 12,000 pounds, a tribute more fitting to the massive Goliath he would slay.
I am fortunate to have witnessed the statue of David twice in my life. On both occasions, one question kept popping up in my mind.
"How did Michelangelo know where to start?" Well, that and "Why is this kid taking on a giant, armored soldier buck-naked?" So, two questions.
Evaluate Your Foundation
The building block that would become the most famous statue in history was a discarded orphan for forty years before Michaelangelo adopted it. The massive, single slab of marble nicknamed "The Giant," was abandoned twice by previous artists.
One artist, Antonio Rossellino, believed the raw material had imperfections that made it too unstable. Indeed, researchers later found microscopic holes in a sample of David, proof that Michaelangelo was working with a mediocre foundation.
Taking the contract to work on "The Giant" was a calculated risk by Michaelangelo. The upside was in its size and prominent location on the cathedral. He knew that if he could keep it from crumbling, he would have a finished product that would inspire his entire country.
The downside was real. Imagine working seven days a week in a hot workshop for two years, only to see David's left arm fall off during the finishing stage. I picture a scene similar to that of Ralphie's dad trying to salvage his high-heel lamp with glue.
"One man's trash is another man's treasure."
~Guy with lots of trash
Michaelangelo's gamble paid off. He became Italy's artist of choice and soon would have contracts from the Pope to work in St. Peter's church in Rome.
Many of the best career opportunities also offer a high risk and reward scenario. Taking over a team that is performing well might feel like a low-risk decision, but what is your upside? If anything, the risk is all downside as performance is expected, and any step backward will be attributed to your less-than-stellar leadership.
The team that nobody wants might be the perfect opportunity. The foundation might be there but needs the right attention and care. There is nothing better in business than leading a turnaround with a great group of people that were written off. It is also how reputations are built.
Put First Things, First
Before Michaelangelo could focus on the finishing touches that make this work famous, he had months of work in front of him. He drafted his creation on paper and then made multiple models in ceramic and wax, which was dipped in hot water for continuous design tweaks.
The marble block was then painted with an outline before he started work on the torso. Initial tools were designed to remove more marble, leading to more delicate instruments and finally tools like the rasp, which works like fine sandpaper.
Michaelangelo had a method, and there were no shortcuts. The drawing needed to precede the models which came together before the first chisel hit the marble. He couldn't jump ahead and start working on David's fingernails, which would be pointless if the rough outline of the body was not proportional and aesthetically pleasing.
It wouldn't make sense to work for months on David's face and hair before knowing that the body was roughed out to spec with no significant breaks. Even at 26, Michaelangelo had a decade of sculpting experience and enough confidence to put first things, first.
As a new manager or startup owner, you have to understand what your business needs now. Too many people start with sandpaper when the chisel is required.
Rather than building the right product, they focus on minor tweaks to their website. They tinker with an effective product, procrastinating to avoid prospecting for new business. New managers meddle with the individuals on their team, rather than deciding what type of person they want and evaluating who should stay or go.
Draft your plan and decide on a logical order of steps to follow. No amount of tweaking will matter if you don't have the right team. Marketing will have limited effect if you don't have the right product. Start with the right tools.
Find Your Process And Replicate
Across the globe, there are hundreds of replicas of David. From Germany and India to Brazil and Buffalo, David flaunts his goods in every corner of the world.
Creating David once was a stroke of genius, requiring inspiration and perspiration. Re-creating David has proven to be much easier. The most famous replica resides in the Piazza del Signoria, an outside courtyard blocks away from the original in Florence. It stands as glorious as the original, even if subject to constant sun and weather.
The same can be said in business. A study led by Kathryn Shaw at Stanford University found that startups led by a serial entrepreneur were more likely to succeed than those started by a first-time founder. Given the success rate of a serial entrepreneur, they were also more likely to start an additional business after each new venture (see below.)
Shaw concluded that starting a business is a learned skill, with entrepreneurs taking lessons from each previous business and applying to the next.
The same applies to managers within companies. A first-time manager is likely to make many mistakes, but if they persist, their chances of success increase in each successive management role. Unfortunately, studies find that 60% of new managers fail and give up on leading people.
This group of people assumes that they are "not cut out for management," when in truth, they gave up before mastering the skill. Pairing this group of new managers with an experienced mentor can dramatically improve their likelihood of success. Often, this person works in the same company.
A great coach can help a new manager see that what they are going through is normal and help them find a style of leadership that works within their strengths. Once they see success, they can replicate their process when taking on any new team, in any industry.
With time, this process becomes easier to replicate. What took me two years in my first management role took 90 days ten years later. I built a process in writing and could replicate it, knowing what had worked or failed in the past.
Balance Is A Function Of Ambition
Nearly 1,500,000 people visit the statue of David annually, centuries after it was created. It is easy to frame Michelangelo as a genius with a gift, but this would insult the man's insane work ethic.
His mother passed away when he was six years old, and Michelangelo moved in with his nanny, whose husband was a stone cutter. From a young age, Michelangelo was exposed to hours of work in what would become part of his profession.
After showing no interest in formal schooling, his father set him up with apprenticeships with various artists. At the time, Florence was the center of the world for art. By the time he started work on David, Michelangelo had thousands of hours committed to his craft.
Working seven days a week, around the clock for three years, Michelangelo rarely showered and was hardly seen outside of his workshop. He sacrificed everything when he was working on a project, and he rarely took time off in between projects.
After devoting three years of his life to the statue of David, he gave four years to his work on the Sistine Chapel. Laying on his back in miserable conditions every day of the week, Michelangelo went through a dark period while working for the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica. The result was another priceless work of art that is more popular today than ever.
Success was not handed to Michelangelo, nor did it come quickly or easily. His ambition was extraordinary, and he sacrificed everything to reach his goal. When he died at 89 years old, he had never married or raised children. His life was his work.
If that seems intense, it is. The lesson is that nothing extraordinary comes easy. If your goals are ambitious, your work ethic needs to match. This requires sacrifice. If you want to prioritize your personal life, this is a choice. In this case, you need to dial back your ambition or you will be disappointed.
Art And Business Are Very Much Alike
I once thought of creative work as mutually exclusive from business. I mistakenly believed that creative work required unique talent, and you either had it or you didn't. I was wrong.
Creative work such as art, music, writing or acting is no different than professional work.
Hard work creates a skill, so long as you have the right teacher. Great works of art require a process, following a specific order that can't be cheated. Artists can replicate the previous success with an effective method, which is why one success typically leads to the next. Lasting art starts with the right foundation, choosing the right project that fits an artist's unique skills.
The same rules apply to building a career. The lessons are right in front of us if we stop and pay attention.
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