My Commencement Address on How to Lead a Boring Life
Why Van Gogh went years without painting before he started to paint.
Posted June 4, 2018
In 2015, I applied to give the student commencement address at the UCLA department of psychology graduation ceremony. To be considered, each applicant submits a draft of what they would like to say. A committee then reads over all of the proposals and chooses their favorite. So, I put together a draft.
Here’s the thought process behind my composition. Most commencement addresses focus on highlights. They consider the biggest, most impressive events in a successful person's life. But such a curated selection isn't representative of what that life actually looked like. Even for the most auspicious life, the highlights—winning the championship or the big prize—comprise a small percentage of the total. Most of life is about trudging through minor and inconsequential work. And that’s what I decided would be the thrust of my commencement address.
I began with the story of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. In May of 1910, Russell published a work called Principia Mathematica. He and his intellectual partner, Alfred North Whitehead, had worked on it for ten years. They constructed Principia with the goal of providing what they called "a logical foundational for mathematics." Essentially, they were not satisfactorily convinced that 1+1=2 and thought someone ought to do some digging to see if the math, so to speak, really adds up. It’s not like this was a side project, either. For three of those ten years, Russell and Whitehead worked eight to ten hours per day, eight months of the year. And for their efforts they received, upon publication of their book, a resounding negative fifty pounds. It cost them money to publish it.
The upshot is that a guy named Kurt Gödel came along and mathematically proved that not only was all of Principia Mathematica totally wrong, but any attempt to create a logical foundations for mathematics was doomed to fail on principle. This is Gödel's famous Incompleteness Theorem, and it nullified a decade worth of Russell’s work.
Of course, that isn’t how the story ends for Russell. He went on to become one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, even winning the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature, "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” If you were going to summarize Russell's life, it'd be tempting to just talk about the highlights. But, when considered as a whole, most of it would look more like trudging through his work on Principia rather than winning the Nobel. Even the most exciting life is still one that is mostly boring.
You will find broadly the same commitment to triviality in any successful person. Take Van Gogh, for instance. There was a period early in his career and lasting a few years in which he refused to paint. He only composed sketches with pen and pencil. He felt he had mastered the basics before moving on to the good stuff. In order to become one of the world’s greatest painters, you have to do a lot of things that are not painting.
The reason I felt that this was an important message for my colleagues and I to consider was that we were about to embark on the not-painting phase of our painting careers. I thought it’d be worthwhile to survey the landscape in front of us. Our first reaction, when faced with the prospect of investing a lot of time into menial tasks, is to assume that we're falling short of working toward our larger goals. But that's not necessarily true. Those periods of low-level execution are, in fact, a crucial step in the process. Or, as I put it in my draft, “Attaining greatness, in any field, amounts to, above all else, minutia, tedium, and monotony.” I thought someone had to say it.
But the selection committee apparently didn’t see it the same way. In the end they elected—probably wisely—not to give me the speech. They picked someone who wrote their draft about highlights.
Whitehead, A., & Russell, B. (1910). Principia mathematica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press