“Scratchy” best describes the antique Pendleton blanket draped across my pajama-clad legs.
The caw caw caw of crows echoes in the distance, and there is hovering lake fog where cool air marries warm lake water.
My hot mug of coffee in hand, on the old lake porch for the last time. It was sweet sorrow as I sat nestled in the womb of quiet as the distant loons and the jumping fish performed one last time to say farewell for the season … not “goodbye,” but “see you next year” … if it’s God’s will.
In stark, face-slapping contrast, my blanket is replaced by the thumping of a ceiling fan on the back porch, trying to stay cool in the oven they call Austin, where we returned last night after a drawn-out drive seeing Niagara Falls, the cornfields of Indiana, and the friendships of a life well lived.
“Contrast” best describes this Sunday versus the last. Cool versus hot, rich pine greens versus dry scrub oaks. Each beautiful in its own unique way.
Contrast, as it turns out, is another gift of life. My quiet summers on an Adirondack lake would be less sweet without the contrast of my insanely busy life managing kids, schedules, travel, and business.
Why Do We Suffer?
People often ponder the question of why we have to suffer or struggle. Contrast provides the answer. How else can we appreciate what we had before the hard moments, or what we have when the hard times are over?
Moments of joy are amplified and more spectacular when they are appreciated in contrast with the struggles of life.
Though no one seeks or wants trouble, embracing it for the contrast it provides somehow makes struggle easier.
When I teach painting, people naturally want the fastest solutions and instant ability … yet my own success is sweeter knowing I’ve overcome many of the struggles after two decades of learning and more to come. For my artist friends, it’s the struggle that creates the breakthroughs.
After going on one of our art trips to Russia, my friend artist Scott Christensen told me he was not sure he could ever paint again after seeing the great Russian masterworks in person. He struggled for months, unsure he could ever be satisfied again. In spite of wanting to give in and give up, he powered through, only to have the biggest breakthrough in his painting career.
Contrast is a powerful motivator. As a young man struggling to make a living, I had to get sick of only being able to afford to eat peanut butter sandwiches to become motivated and figure out how to solve my financial crisis.
When I started my business, I had gone without a paycheck for seven years and come moments away from losing my car, my business, and my house. The contrast with the sweet moment of that first small paycheck made me appreciate that milestone more.
The tragic loss of a marriage made me appreciate love once I found it.
My friends who have lost everything in a fire or a hurricane eventually appreciate little things more once they’ve come back from having nothing.
With so much focus on what we want or what we don’t have, looking back at where we once were provides contrast to appreciate where we are.
The Cycle of Growth
Contrast is why it’s important to embrace change and avoid being stagnant. Change provides discomfort, and discomfort provides growth — while offering contrast.
Four seasons provide contrast. It’s hard to appreciate spring without winter.
Aging helps us appreciate wisdom, in contrast to the inexperience of youth.
If you pause for a moment and ponder your toughest moments, can you see the contrast?
If you are living through tough moments right now, you have my sympathy, yet contrast will come and sweetness will return.
A Sad Day
Last week I experienced my first birthday without the phone calls and cards from my mother. It was my saddest birthday ever, yet the contrast it provided made my time with my dad and family members on my birthday so much sweeter, reminding me how precious these times are.
And being at the lake alone, just me and my son Brady, made me miss the joyful energy of having my wife and the other kids around. Yet that same contrast gave me precious time one-on-one with Brady, including a road trip halfway across America, creating a lifetime memory for us both.
In Chinese culture, they speak of the yin and the yang, while for us it’s the positive and the negative. It’s heaven versus hell. Dark versus light. Sad versus happy. Tears versus smiles. Hot versus cold. Love versus hate. Sunrises versus sunsets. Success versus failures. One cannot exist without the other.
The world is filled with victims. “Why is this happening to me?” they say. Yet there would be no more victims if they would understand that the brightest light comes after the darkest hours. That the cycle of life requires dark and light. That you can’t enjoy sweet success without hard times.
Embrace the contrast.
PS: Scott Christensen will share his breakthroughs at the 2020 Plein Air Convention & Expo next May in Denver. We’ve sold out two hotels and exceeded the last convention’s registration significantly, and are likely to sell out soon. I hope you’ll join us.
Red-colored pine needles have fallen and now cover the old green hammock hanging between two majestic pines in front of the porch to my cabin. The ground below is cushioned with a pillow of needles, and the scent of pine is glorious. Walking on the soft needles in bare feet is one of my favorite experiences.
Years of Laughter
Sitting here in the 120-year-old octagon-shaped screened porch overlooking the lake, the porch filled with wicker and cane chairs now empty, reminds me of the laughter, the music, the discussions and debates that took place here all summer. Our first week here we had about 86 artists in the house, celebrating our week of painting together. Of course, there is a rich history of voices in this place, every summer for 12 decades.
The rest of the summer was filled with visiting childhood friends talking of old times, artists talking art history, family friends discussing trips together, kids talking about their lake friends, neighbors getting to know us, and Laurie and I pondering our future when the kids enter college.
The Sounds of Silence
The porch is silent now. An occasional boat goes by, but this weekend was the last hurrah for most on the lake, which will be empty tomorrow. My family is already gone, two kids in school while one son remains here with me, ready for our big drive back to Austin starting tomorrow morning. I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with Brady and the dogs, and stopping to see some friends and museum shows along the way.
Each summer here in this special place has been the best summer ever, and this is no exception. Yet tears well up, knowing I’ll be saying goodbye to my favorite place on earth tomorrow. My heart is filled with a spirit of gratitude for the ability to be so happy here. But if I lived here year-round it would not be as special, so goodbye is necessary.
Most of last week I had my executive team here with me, and I laid out some giant goals and initiatives for 2020. Though everyone was enthusiastic, there were concerns about how we can accomplish such big goals. Frankly, I hear the same thing from friends, readers, artists … how do you accomplish something that seems overwhelming?
Kick the Can
Our tendency is to look at something big as overwhelming. Yet big, overwhelming tasks are accomplished by doing small tasks. My friend Keith Cunningham calls it kicking the can down the road, just a few feet at a time. A small kick, then another, then another…
Small progress is the way to accomplish big goals.
The Tipping Point
Writer Malcom Gladwell said that mass movements don’t begin with a mass, they begin with a few. If you want to create a movement, all you need are the right 10 percent of the people to join your movement and you’ll tip things in your favor. He calls it “the tipping point.”
The same concept applies to goals. If you determine the very few things that will move you most toward your goal, you’ll begin creating momentum. Then focus on the next 10 percent that will take you closer.
Look at something you want to accomplish and ask yourself, “What’s the tipping point?” You don’t have to get everyone on board, just 10 percent. You don’t have to accomplish the goal … just kick the can a little further in the right direction.
Don’t Trim Back Goals
Most of the people I know are big thinkers, but they allow the size of their ideas to overwhelm them. Next thing you know they are reducing their big ideas to small ones because the smaller goals feel more within reach. Yet if you hang on to your big ideas and break them into small pieces, you’ll hit big goals instead of small goals.
No matter what you want to accomplish in life, set the biggest most exciting, most life-changing goal you can imagine. Don’t let anyone tell you why it can’t be done. Don’t let others rain on your parade. Dream it, believe it, and then start to execute it … one tiny step at a time. As long as you keep an eye on the goal, figure out the small steps, and kick the can in the right direction, anything is possible.
Do you have big goals? Big dreams that overwhelm you?
That’s not unusual.
But now you know the secret. Big things happen with tiny steps.
PS: Birthday wishes to my friend Alan Harvy, Jr., my friend Guy Kawasaki, my friend and travel partner Gabriel Hagazian (come with us on our France trip this fall), and to my Aunt Marylin, who turned 90 this week. And thanks to all the hundreds of e-mails and social media birthday greetings. I was sad not being with my kids and my wife, but I was blessed to have a wonderful party thrown by my dad, with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nieces and nephews. It was the best birthday yet.
To my friends in the hurricane zone: You’re in our thoughts.