In New York City, sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century, a young art student sat for a portrait.
The artist who painted this portrait won a prestigious award for that portrait. The young woman who sat for the portrait suddenly became a sought-after model. She could actually earn money sitting for portraits.
She needed that money. Her family was poor, and art school -- especially art school in New York City -- was expensive.
But she decided to never model again.
The tough decision that made a good artist a great artist This young artist later recalled the moment she decided to stop sitting for portraits. She drew a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, so that there were now two columns.
At the top of one column, she wrote “yes.” At the top of the other column, she wrote “no.” She said, “The essential question was always, if you do this, can you do that?”
Here’s one thing that probably focused her attention on the question of whether or not she could keep modeling: She had skipped class to sit for that prize-winning portrait.
So, if she was going to model, could she go to class? If she was going to model, could she put in the work necessary to achieve her dream of becoming a great artist?
Her answer was, “no,” she could not keep modeling. And art history should thank her for it. Her name was Georgia O’Keeffe, and she lived on to become one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. One of her paintings was sold at auction several years ago for more than forty million dollars.
The unearned can hurt more than it helps I don’t want to assume that because O’Keeffe is one of my favorite artists -- not just for her work but also for her contrarian personality -- that you, too know who I’m talking about. You’ve seen her work: abstract close-ups of flowers and cattle skulls, paintings of the desert landscape surrounding the New Mexico estate where she spent most of her time.
This story about quitting modeling has one good lesson in it: That if you want to be great at something, you sometimes have to quit something else that you’re merely good at.
That’s a valuable lesson. It’s the obvious one. It’s not the lesson I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the unearned. That when you accept something you didn’t earn, it often hurts you more than it helps you.
Money you didn’t earn will make you foolish with finances. Flattery you didn’t earn will make you settle for mediocrity. Power you didn’t earn will disconnect you from reality.
If you want to become great at what you do, you have to be on the lookout for the unearned. You have to shun the unearned.
The unearned is an easy path to mediocrity When I tweeted about the dangers of the unearned, most people agreed. Some people were suspicious. “What about Universal Basic Income?,” they’d say.
I don’t have an opinion on Universal Basic Income. I haven’t thought about it enough. But this is not about Universal Basic Income. As I understand it UBI would be about getting your basic needs met. Do you have a roof over your head, and food in your stomach?
Having a roof over your head and food in your stomach is a good thing, especially if you don’t have to work for it. But beyond that, the unearned becomes dangerous.
When I’m talking about the dangers of the unearned, I’m not talking about the basics. When you have your basic needs met, it’s an easy path to mediocrity. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I happen to think it would be nice if we lived in a society where more people could get by being mediocre. That competition wouldn’t be so fierce that you need to be the very best in your field to have a chance at survival.
But, this isn’t about basic needs. This isn’t about mediocrity. The unearned is an easy path to mediocrity, and that’s fine. But if you want to be great, you