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The Finisher’s Paradox – Love Your Work, Episode 267

October 28 2021 – 07:30am

Finisher's Paradox

When Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he designed and built his own scaffolding. But, it only covered half of the ceiling. So he painted the first half of the ceiling, then removed the scaffolding. When he finally got to view his work from the floor, seventy feet below, it was as if he were seeing it with new eyes.

After two years work, he didn’t like what he saw.

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Michelangelo faced what I call “The Finisher’s Paradox.” There’s a contradiction that happens when you try to ship your creative work: By the time you’re done, you can already do better. You learned in the process.

Michelangelo learned on the job

As I talked about in episode 262, Michelangelo “aimed left” when he started painting in the chapel. He had little experience as a painter, and even less experience in the wickedly-difficult “fresco” method. He knew the first panel he painted wouldn’t be his best. So, as art historian Ross King explained on episode 99, Michelangelo started in an inconspicuous part of the chapel. It was the last place the clergy entering the chapel would see, and the last place the Pope would look when sitting on the throne.

Michelangelo did have at least one false start. A few weeks into painting the first panel, he wasn’t satisfied with his work. The salty sea air in Italy was staining the mixture of plaster he had chosen. There were probably also some things he wanted to change about his painting style.

Once the plaster on a fresco dries, it’s literally set in stone. But, like stone, you can get rid of it if you destroy it. And that’s exactly what he did: Michelangelo chipped away three weeks of work and started over.

If Michelangelo learned a thing or two in the first few weeks painting the Sistine Chapel, you can bet he learned even more painting the rest of the 12,000 square-foot fresco – which, in total, took him four years.

Michelangelo faced the Finisher’s Paradox

So after Michelangelo removed his scaffolding from the first half of the ceiling, he was faced with a dilemma: There was something he didn’t like about his work. Since, while painting on his scaffolding, he was very close to the work, the work looked very different from the floor. He realized the scenes he had painted were too complex. There were too many people on each panel, and, as a result, the people were too small. You couldn’t make out very well, from the floor, what was going on in the paintings on the ceiling.

The dilemma then was that he was two years into the work. His patron, Pope Julius II, was a nasty man, known for going on tirades and beating people who disagreed with him – perhaps even worse. He’s gone down in history as “il papa terribile,” or “the terrible” Pope. He had probably even beaten Michelangelo by that point. Additionally, the project was taking a toll on Michelangelo. His back was killing him, from literally bending over backwards to paint the ceiling.

So, would Michelangelo do as he did when he first started the project? Chip away all that work, put the scaffolding back up, then start over? Or, would he keep going and ship the work?

Michelangelo was faced with the Finisher’s Paradox. He had learned a lot throughout the project, and he had learned even more by finally seeing his work from a distance. Would he fix what was wrong with his work, or would he just ship it as it was, flaws and all?

The tale of two (Sistine Chapel) ceilings

Since the Sistine Chapel ceiling has lived on as one of the greatest masterpieces in art, it’s surprising Michelangelo saw something wrong at all. It’s even more surprising that what he saw is still there in the final product.

If you look closely at the Sistine Chapel ceiling today, you’ll notice something different about the two halves of the ceiling. On one side of the ceiling, the scenes are complex. There are lots of people, and the people are small. On the other side, the scenes are simpler. There are fewer people in each panel, and the people are bigger.

When the first half of the ceiling was unveiled, it didn’t seem to matter to others that the people in the paintings were small. Raphael was so impressed by what he saw, he went back to one of his own fresco’s, The School of Athens, chipped away a spot, and in its place painted a likeness of Michelangelo.

But Michelangelo, himself, made some big changes to his approach. And these changes seem to have paid off. The very first panel he painted on the second half of the ceiling is one of the most famous paintings ever. In The Creation of Adam, you see God himself, giving life to Adam, from fingertip to fingertip. Like other panels on the second half of the ceiling, there are fewer main figures – in this case, two – and, as a result, they’re bigger, and easier to see from the floor.

Do the best you can until you know better

In the process of doing your creative work, you learn. This is especially true because nobody can teach you how to do your creative work, with the unique style and idiosyncrasies that make it yours.

Yes, there will be creative waste. Much of it goes into building the underwater part of your iceberg. As you get shiny object syndrome and switch from one project to another, as you scrap iterations by throwing them into the fire, and as projects simply fail (for now), there will be delays in achieving success, as you build your foundation. But just because waste, false starts, and failures are a part of the creative process, doesn’t mean you can hide away forever, toiling on a “perfect” masterpiece you will one day unveil.

Shipping is a skill, and learning new skills is sometimes scary. Remember from episode 265 that one of the sub-skills of shipping is overcoming perfectionism. Perfectionism is a “humble brag” of a quality. It’s far easier and more comfortable to say you’re still working on your masterpiece, than it is to put it into the world and see how it’s received.

But as Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” In other words, beware the Finisher’s Paradox. When you work on a creative project, you learn. Once it’s time to ship, you can already do better. You can’t ship your work without some small part of you saying, “this sucks.”

It is better to build in enlightenment than to daydream in darkness.

Image: Concert by Louis Marcoussis

Thank you for having me on your podcasts!

Thank you to Chris Parker at Easy Prey, and Joyce Ling at The Abundance Podcast. You can find every podcast I’ve been on

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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