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The Art of Progress

How to sculpt a better future

The late Steve Jobs once said that at Apple "we make progress by eliminating things." At least in this case, what's true for Apple is true for America.

There are two basic ways to approach progress. Progress is by nature a creative process, so we can think of each approach as a type of artist. One artist is a painter. A painter sits down on a stool in her studio and looks at the blank canvas resting on the easel in front of her. In order for her to make progress, she must add something to that canvas. She scans her color palette. She dips her brush and makes a stroke, then another and another. Stroke by stroke she adds new lines and colors and shapes to that canvas. She adds a red line here, paints a blue smudge there, accents the background with a happy little tree over there and so on. When it comes to progress the painter abides by the law of addition.

I think this is how most of us approach the act of progress. We select some project or goal—to be healthier, to grow our business, to reduce our debt, or to improve our relationships. That goal and the surrounding situation becomes our blank canvas. We then set about adding new ideas, goals, tasks, and committees to that canvas in the hopes of creating a masterpiece.

Now, imagine a sculptor. A sculptor stands in her studio in front of a slab of marble. For her, progress means something different than it does for the painter. Instead of adding something new to a blank canvas, the sculptor takes something away from the marble slab. She picks up her hammer and her chisel. She looks again at the marble slab and imagines what lies beneath. She places her chisel on the marble and pounds it with her hammer. With each swing of her hammer more of the marble turns to dust or falls onto the floor in scraps that she will eventually discard. The throw-away scraps of marble are not inferior in any way to the marble that remains. The sculptor removes the scrap pieces simply because the slab can never take its shape as a beautiful sculpture as long as the excess marble remains in place. Unlike the painter, the sculptor abides by the law of subtraction. For the sculptor, the masterpiece is already there hidden under layers of perfectly good marble.

In order to build and sustain progress, we should start approaching our lives and work as sculptors rather than painters.

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