What You Can Learn From Garrison Keillor

“A straight path never leads anywhere except to the objective.” – Andre Gide (Journals, 1922)

Here’s an interesting question about focus and mastery.

A Garrison Keillor fan asked him: “As a young painter, I’m wondering if, in order to become a successful artist, I must whittle down my oeuvre to a single subject/theme. The most successful artist I know does only flowers. I look at her and think she’s so successful — and so boring. Will I have to give up all the other things I do (music, writing, crafts, etc.) and become a one-trick pony?”

Keillor replied: “To find an artistic center is not the same thing as being a one-trick pony. It is common for mature artists to find some focus that eluded them in life. They find out how short life really is and how hard it is to do one thing well. And so John Updike doesn’t sing in nightclubs and Woody Allen doesn’t make movies about folks in Nebraska.”

I don’t like Garrison Keillor. He’s just too homegrown and folksy for my taste. But he’s supposed to be a very smart guy, and his answer here fits my version of smart.

Keillor makes a point we all have to remember: It’s a very rare thing to master anything. It takes years and years of focused study. If you want to be great at what you do, it’s a much better idea to focus on doing one thing very well than on doing everything well enough.

Keillor admonishes the young artist not to deprecate the lady who does “only flowers.” She has apparently mastered her subject matter. Few artists can make the same claim. Keillor broadens the point by pointing out that many of us “have a relentless urge to attempt what we can never be good at and neglect our true calling. Photographers want to write, writers want to direct, directors want to paint, painters want to – I don’t know what they want to do, but they shouldn’t do it.”

There’s no question that if you want to get to the top of your profession you must be focused. Only by focusing will your skill levels and judgment rise to the point where you can outdistance your competitors and be recognized as great at what you do.

Yes, focus. But what do you do if you have wide-ranging interests? Can you be successful in life without limiting your interests? Is it possible to be a Renaissance person today?

The ETR approach is as follows: You can and should lead a balanced life. A balanced life includes at least four foci — your health, your wealth, your personal development, and your social development.

If wealth building is on your priority list, you are going to have to master a financially valuable skill. And that is going to take a considerable amount of time. You’ll have to allocate plenty of time for that on your task lists. The better you get, the less time you’ll need to spend learning your skill — and the more time you’ll spend practicing it (usually for a profit.)

So long as you get in the time you need to take care of your health and the time you need to master your skill, you can divide the time that remains between personal pursuits (educating yourself, being creative, etc.) and social pursuits (your family, your friends, and your community).

If you plan things right, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can be master of one thing and competent at many others.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]