Streaming through the leaves of the ancient twisted oak trees, orange morning light kisses the tall grasses below and illuminates my little brown-wood clapboard art studio in the distance. The string of party lights that trim the porch are glowing as if turned on.
The tops of the oaks sway gently with the welcome breeze on this otherwise oppressively hot morning. The dogs sit atop the deck, at high alert for chasable squirrels. And I’m blinded as the sun blasts my eyes, and ready to let the screen door slam behind me as I escape to the cooler air-conditioned indoors.
Now home for a week after my summer escape from reality, I’m still working hard to avoid it. The mere sight of a TV in a restaurant makes me walk out the door as I try to continue my vacation from news media. I suppose I have to ease into it slowly.
Tuning Out TV
Remarkably, the temptation is always there. I’m so used to turning the TV on when cooking dinner or sitting around at night that it’s a battle not to succumb, yet my stress melted away so much when I took TV out of my summer that I’m trying to keep it away as long as possible.
Reading Old Books
Since I have no TV in my studio, I make my way out there to start reading a pile of new art books I’ve recently acquired. I’ve also been reading Elbert Hubbard, a philosopher from the late 1800s. I discovered him through my friend Roy WIlliams, who told me Hubbard had created Roycroft, a commune for artists, writers, and musicians in East Aurora, New York. So Brady and I stopped there for a night and had dinner with artist Thomas Kegler, who lives minutes away (and who graciously kept the dogs, since the hotel wouldn’t).
Ahead of His Time
Hubbard, as it turns out, was the biggest-selling author and largest publisher of the time, yet few know of him today. His most famous book was A Message to Garcia, and he is known for starting the Arts & Crafts movement in America after a visit with designer William Morris in England. The campus at Roycroft is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Small, but quality — just as everything Hubbard published was done with elegance, high design, and quality paper. Though I did not know of him at the time I started publishing magazines, we appear to have shared that interest in quality.
Don’t Cheap Out
I’ve taken many a lesson from my parents, especially my dad, whose steps I followed into being an entrepreneur. He used to tell me how much quality mattered and to never give in to the temptation to go cheap if it affects the quality or appearance of your brand. It was one of the most important lessons I ever learned — because it matters. Even this week, a woman I met with picked up Fine Art Connoisseur for the first time and said, “This is one of the most beautiful magazines I’ve ever seen.” She even hugged it! You simply can’t get that impact with cheap paper and weak designers.
What if everything you and I do is done with the highest-quality aesthetics in mind?
What if everything you touch is done with excellence?
A Giant Turnoff
Someone once approached me about buying my magazines. Curious, I asked what immediate changes they would make, to which they said they would save by cutting paper quality and doing away with the thick paper covers and high gloss (all of which are expensive). It was then that I knew I’d never sell, and my instruction to my heirs is to never follow the temptation to save money when it comes to appearance.
I’ve been thinking about excellence a lot lately, and I’m trying to up my own game. How can I take what’s good and make it better? How can I improve on our publications, trips, retreats, conventions, and video products? Though people tend to say good enough is good enough, raising the bar makes you better. And others can tell the difference.
We need to always be asking ourselves the question … do I want to be good enough, or do I want to be better than good enough?
Done Well Isn’t Enough
I tell my kids that getting things done isn’t enough, and getting them done well isn’t enough. Getting things done to the highest possible standard is where you need to be with everything.
In my books by Elbert Hubbard, the quality of printing and design is impeccable. These things were clearly the best on the market at the time, and to this day few books approach his standards. Publishers over time have told themselves that cheap paper and poor design are OK. They’re not OK in my book.
What has this got to do with you if you’re not publishing anything? What’s it got to do with your family?
Striving for better is always a great challenge. I’m not suggesting buying better, though that’s OK if it’s meaningful to you, but making better. Taking the extra time to do things with excellence.
Replace or Repair
Our little summer cabin was built in 1898, and this summer, when an old fixture broke, I could have gone to Home Depot and bought a new, modern fixture that faked being old. But I wanted to keep the vibe, so I spent several hours over two days, with lots of trips to the hardware store, to repair the old fixture that dated back to the early 1900s. I felt gratified in taking the time to do something right. In the case of that old camp, new isn’t better. Original is better.
Take pride in doing things well. Take time to get them right. Go out of your way to make sure the design is excellent so others have a wonderful experience. Even if you’re doing something for yourself, make it the best it can be. Whether that’s a house you’re building, a report you’re making, the presentation of a meal on a plate — anything.
Our world is focused on cheap. They bark about high quality, but it’s rarely found. I’m not suggesting you do things expensively — quality is often unrelated to price.
Excellence matters. It makes others feel as though you care. Though some will balk and say it doesn’t matter, you can balk back and say, “It matters to me.”
PS: I just wrote a piece about the 10th-anniversary art trip we’ve created. It is truly a quality experience that is un-duplicatable. This year will top them all. (Read a letter I just sent out about it here).
We tend to believe that success is a signal that change isn’t needed. Though our November Figurative Art Convention & Expo is only three years old, we’re making some changes this year to make it better, just as we’re doing with the Plein Air Convention & Expo, even though it’s almost sold out and we don’t need to make changes. It’s just the right thing to do. Let’s all be the best we can be by pushing ourselves to be better than yesterday.