Waves of Creativity Unto Death

Hokusai didn’t produce his internationally-recognized masterpiece “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” until he was in his 70s. You can track the evolution of the composition in the images below, which were created in 1797, 1803, 1805, and 1826-33, respectively — meaning the artist was in his middle 30s when he made the first, on either side of 40 for the next two, and in his 70s for the last.


These days, we want everything to be measurable. That is, we want instant gratification. If I practice poetry or a musical instrument for three months, I expect to get better. If I can’t see improvement, if I can’t measure it, I conclude I must have no “talent” and give up — because only those things you are “good enough” make money at are worth pursuing (a lie) and anybody who was ever good at something was good at it from birth (also a lie).

Imagine if we expected love to work that way, to have only commercial value and to rise linearly in proportion to time. There is some correlation between affection and time of course, but much like the chicken and the egg, it’s hard to define which comes first and which comes after. We don’t generally spend time with people we don’t like on the hope that it might change our minds.

Bill Murray captured this when noticing how odd friendship is. We go through life meeting all kinds of people, but every now and then for some reason we say “Yeah, I like this one” and then you end up doing stuff together.

Very few friendships, and almost no romantic relationships, proceed without trouble. Few us are born with an innate talent for them. They’re prickly fruits. They take work and experience to cultivate. Sometimes one goes backward before going forward.

Many artists experience a similar “flowering” in their work. For whatever reason, at some point something changes and they begin producing works of much greater beauty than they had in the past. (The reverse is also true.)

Hokusai dedicated himself to his craft. He practiced it his entire life. But not because he knew he knew at 33 that he would create a masterpiece at 70. How could he? But he still got up every day and practiced.

The rewards of dedication, especially to artistic endeavor, don’t grow linearly. They aren’t discrete, atomic, measurable. There is no calculus that says you are or are not wasting your time in pursuit of some craft. Wasting it by what measure? How much money it puts in your pocket?

It’s not that you should pursue art that doesn’t make money. It’s the the question of money is irrelevant. We should each have in our lives something that grows our soul. Of course, once we dedicate to it, we’ll want to create a masterpiece. Few of us will ever will. (That is true by definition.) If that’s why we do it — in other words, if knowing that would never happen means we would stop — then we’re probably going to fail, not just at creating a masterpiece, but at getting anything out of it at all.

It’s like trying to love your spouse’s flaws away. I love my wife inclusive of her flaws, nor did I marry her because she made a lot of money or ranked high on some objective measure of spousehood. It isn’t just that she means more to me than my job; it’s that she enriches my life more than any job ever could.

Your genes have you obsessed with status. They want you to increase your sexual circle so that you can make more copies of them. They want you to be popular, and they promise you it will feel amazing. But will it?

A few years ago, scientists asked a group of 100-year-olds about life and regret. Not one of them said “I wish I would’ve spent more time at the office” or “I wish I would’ve made more cash.” Not one. Any regrets they had seemed to be the exact opposite: spending more time with family, traveling, learning a musical instrument.

If we replicate that study in 80 years time, I doubt any of us will say “I wish I would’ve spent more time on social media” or “I wish I would’ve pimped my album more.” If that is the measure, then had Hokusai died at 69, a year before his masterpiece, we would’ve laughed and called him a tool.