In 1877, James McNeill Whistler exhibited a new painting at a London gallery. This was six years after Whistler had painted “Whistler’s Mother”, known today as the Victorian Mona Lisa. The new painting was inspired by the London pleasure resort Cremorne Gardens. See the painting here. Leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin was at the gallery. Ruskin saw Whistler’s work and wanted to vomit. Ruskin published a scathing critique. He accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Even worse Whistler charged a ridiculous price of 200 guineas for the painting. Whistler sued Ruskin for libel.
On November 25th, 1878, the trial took place. Whistler was on the witness stand that day. He was questioned:
Attorney-General: Can you tell me how long it took you to knock off that nocturne?
Mr. Whistler: … Two days.
Attorney-General: Oh, two days! The labor of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
***According to the UK’s National Archives, a skilled tradesmen earned 1 guinea for ~3 days of work. Whistler’s price was worth the daily wages of 618 skilled tradesmen. Or ~$17,000 in today’s dollars.
Whistler’s response was: No! I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.
Yes. You can create a masterpiece in two days - after years of woodshedding. Delayed Gratification Works.
Fast forward 140 years. Alex Honnold did the impossible. Alex climbed a 3,000 foot vertical slab of granite free solo. That is without a rope or harness. Normally the climb takes 2 to 3 days with a rope. Alex did it in 3 hours, 56 minutes without aid. 1 Alex’s feat is the equivalent to: Climbing the Empire State Building twice. Or Climbing the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, one time. Without any safety equipment!
To Honnold the climb “felt as natural and comfortable as a walk in the park.” Immediately after the climb Alex said:
Kids, that thing takes about four hours to climb by yourself - after years of effort.
How The Greats Prepared
Delayed Gratification Works. Both James Whistler and Alex Honnold did things ordinary skilled mortals couldn’t. Neither possessed natural ability. Nor were their achievements the fruits of blind labor. Both mastered the key tenet of intelligent fanaticism: delayed gratification.
Proper pre-payment, or woodshedding, gave them ability. Their preparation was eerily similar. Honnold prepared his climb for years. He memorized every single hand and foot movement for the whole 3,000 ft. ascent. That was thousands of motions. Each action was so deeply ingrained that each was automatic and effortless.
Whistler spent years memorizing scenes. For example prior to painting his Nocturnes, he’d go to the scene at night. He’d memorize every single detail he saw. Then, turning around, he’d recite to whomever was with him every detail. The listener corrected errors. The following day if Whistler couldn’t see the completed picture on the untouched canvas, he passed another night looking at the subject. This prepayment is found in all intelligent fanatics, regardless of field.
As Alice Schroeder described Warren Buffett:
Most people learn by seeking information on an as-needed basis. Warren is always looking for fuel for pattern recognition before he needs it.
Buffett had read everything he could find about business by age 6. Since he has gobbled up everything he can find on the subject. It helps he retains what he reads. That immense filing cabinet of business data in his head is a huge advantage. It allows him to make a decision automatically and immediately. His preparation has created the most incredible deal sourcing engine in the world.
Other business titans mastered delayed gratification. John D. Rockefeller, known as the richest person in modern history, was a tough nut to crack in his day. He rarely ever gave an interview to a reporter beyond a few words. This was especially true after Rockefeller built Standard Oil. B.C. C Forbes easily got 78-year old Rockefeller to “spill his guts” in many interviews. Forbes described his copious amounts of preparation here.
Magic Johnson is the rare athlete who has thrived after sports. He prepared to be a CEO exactly like he prepared to be a Hall of Fame basketball star. He learned from the best. He acquired business mentors such as Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and many others.
Jeff Bezos easily rode through the Dot Com bust because he delayed gratification . He vacuumed up details from history. Most viewed the internet’s boom and bust as akin to the gold rush. Bezos disagreed. He believed the evolution of the electric industry as a better analogy. He was correct.
John Patterson dominated the cash register industry at every step. He properly prepared by reading and reflecting on (auto)biographies, history and other books. Learn about his preparation habits here.
Steve Jobs was a masterful presenter because he prepared. Bill Gates once said:
I was never in his league. I mean, it was just amazing to see how precisely he would rehearse.
Before his 2005 Stanford speech, Jobs walked all around the house for days, reciting it over and over. And before MacWorld presentations
he would rehearse on stage for many hours over many weeks prior to the launch. He knew every detail of every demo and every font on every slide. As a result the presentation was delivered flawlessly.
Musicians and authors pre-pay their way to virtuosity, too. Charlie Parker, jazz saxophonist, changed jazz music. Parker delayed gratification. He woodshedded. He practiced 11 to 15 hours a day in isolation. He did it for 3 years. He memorized every single note Lester Young, saxophonist for Count Basie’s Orchestra, played. Kenny Clarke, jazz drummer, described how Parker sounded “like Prez, like Lester Young.”
Later Parker developed his own style by utilizing ideas from other musicians. All other musicians pay their dues by woodshedding.
Ray Bradbury became one of the most celebrated American authors of the 20th and 21st centuries because he delayed gratification . He didn’t go to college. He went to the library 3 to 4 times a week for 10 years. He didn’t begin writing novels. He wrote a short story every week for 10 years. Finally, he wrote his most famous novel Fahrenheit 451. It sold more than 10 million copies.
Making Delayed Gratification Work
Delayed gratification isn’t all about marshmallows. Nor does it apply only to money. It is about resisting the temptation of any immediate reward. It is to find the smallest pleasure in doing work for works sake. It is to do the reps. To be ready for that once in a lifetime opportunity right around the corner or many years down the road.
Delayed gratification works, but it is not easy. Properly preparing is hard.
It Takes Courage & Discipline
As James McNeill Whistler said, “It’s the pain of giving birth!”
Peers and family might label your copious hours of woodshedding as weird & wasted time. It takes courage to stand up against OPT (other people’s thoughts). Screw them. Only you know what your time is worth.
There will be internal challenges along the way. Obstacles will make you question your decisions. It takes guts to follow your curiosity and willpower to stick through curveballs & plateaus. You can be your own worst enemy or your best cheerleader.
All the above individuals accepted the challenge. They found courage & joy in the work. They knew the return would greatly exceed the cost…sometime.
For Alex Honnold each move could have meant death. All his preparation equaled confidence in climbing El Capitan.
It felt much less scary than a lot of other solos I’ve done… Probably all of them. Because I put so much work into this one… I knew exactly what to do the whole way. A lot of the handholds felt like old friends.
Prepare on an as-needed basis and risk falling “to your death” at every obstacle. Don’t rely on mere luck to bail you out. Prepare correctly. Take the right path. Work smarter. Woodshed.
Be so prepared that Lady Luck has no choice but to choose you.
Stand on The Shoulders of Giants. Every intelligent fanatic does it. You can be confident to work as hard as you want. Otherwise, you’ll waste precious time and never achieve your goal. Understand the paradoxical art of simultaneously doing and not doing.
One More Thought
There are a sea of ways you can spend your time. Not all of them will fit YOU. Your inborn talents and experiences, up until now, have set you up to excel at certain paths relative to others. Your goal is to hone in on those best paths.
Your optimal path might be much different than you originally thought. I thought my path was music. I found that my brain is better suited to business, investing & visual arts. These things come way more easily to me than music.
At The Woodshedd my goal is mastering delayed gratification. To possess the ability to keep up with the fast tempo of business/investing, adapt to the quickly changing harmony or moving landscape, and make it look effortless. It starts with preparation.
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