Asking a business leader for the secrets to his success, as we often do in popular entrepreneurship culture, is like asking an artist for tips on painting her miniature masterpiece.
An empty canvas is a miniature masterpiece; only, before a million careful decisions to prime and stroke in the right ways. You take away from the blank whitespace, and you take away again, until what's left is the image shared between your mind and the evolving art before your eyes.
In that sense, the engineer seeking a good idea is like the apprentice looking for the perfect canvas and the right strokes. He fails to see that it’s not the master stroking the blank canvas. It’s the evolving canvas stroking the master’s imagination; every stroke retouching a part of his mind that recalls a story from his life, until the complete story is taken shape as a painting.
None of the single strokes are a masterpiece.
And none of the single days of our lives are the decisive day that turns our efforts into a work worthy of biographies.
All the single strokes of the canvas, together and building on each other’s constraints over time, make up the masterpiece. And in the same way, all the days of our lives, together and building on each other’s highs and lows, make up the masterpiece of a life worthy of inspirational narrative.
To become a master is to eliminate the thousand bad ideas that hide one’s core potential. Once you reveal your potential through elimination, the message in its audacious purity resonates with the world.
To be a leader, your haphazard days must sing to the tune of a mentally well-orchestrated miniature painting; one that makes sense to you and you alone.
A high level concept can leave you needing oxygen, so let me tell you a personal story:
Engineering is an empty frame
My father wanted me to become an engineer like him. It was a logical choice to aspire to be a force for reconstruction, especially for a worried eight-year-old who had seen eight years of war . And so for a decade, he devotedly filled his son's head with math, chemistry, physics, and all the rigidities inherent in an engineer's well-structured world.
Our upbringing is often filled with stories of grappling with conflicts like these. They are zero-sum games: one side has to lose if there is to be a winner. The black and white choices that presented themselves to me were to choose between creativity and engineering. The post-conflict scramble for economic survival manifested itself through the single-mindedness of my father’s mentorship style: No time afforded for play and creativity.
The luxury of a wide-open future to focus on drawing, painting, or learning music were not the social priority in my world. The age of post-war mass-unemployment was coming. It was to coincide with my adulthood; my father could see it; and if I wanted to survive, I was to become an engineer who could build for a country marred in destruction.
Rigid subjects, 18 hours a day for ten years, filled my days. The blissful experience of painting blue whales at the age of 6 (inspired by watching Pinocchio) gave its way to solving or simplifying equations of logical convergence and arithmetic confluence at the age of 16. The last memory of kicking a soccer ball faded under the new footprints of calculating the volume, pressure and temperature of a cylinder necessary to generate sufficient acceleration to kick a soccer ball across ten stadiums. In a word, a childhood defined by a sense of wonder slowly bowed out to a real life identity obsessed with economic survival.
Entrepreneurship is the painting inside the empty frame of engineering
If my father ushered me into the world of disciplined engineering, my mother left the door open for me to find the way out. She was the encouraging voice in the background, intriguing me to look outside the box. This very essay, perhaps, is the gentle reminder of my mother, re-crafted for boundlessness and immortality, to reach the ears of every aspiring child. In every one of us, there is a timid potential entrepreneur thirsty for encouragement.
You too, need to be reminded that you are a painter; even though you're not painting today.
My mother was among the first generation of career women in our little world, if not world-wide. While revolution and war had men struggling to reinvent their collapsed identities as bread-winners in an economically dysfunctional world, women were just beginning to move towards careers in larger numbers. They were marching towards their expanded horizons. She would probably have been a housewife had she been born just 10 or 15 years earlier, but her job as a Nuclear Medicine technologist took me many years to be able to fully understand.
She was from a generational movement that saw its horizons expanding, not closing in. And she didn’t see a life lived with the certainty of putting structured blocks together a life lived fully. On the 18 hour burn-out days of going to school and studying under the iron fist of my father, she would sometimes sneak me out of the house, despite her very long work days.
She would unofficially sneak me into art classes to play with clay pots.
She'd take me to language classes to learn English (thus the credit for this very article is owed to her)
And on a momentous day and completely unexpectedly, she took me to see a special person: Persian miniature painting grandmaster, Mahmoud Farshchian . I had never heard of him before. But I didn’t have to.
Ten steps into his exhibit, tears were welling up in my eyes. The paintings were so beautiful that anyone would kneel in absolute awe. What magnificent life lived, when one can present his story in a way that even without his presence, he shakes the visitors down to the core. What courage! To transform the pleasures of many thousands of hours of introspective story-telling in an electrifying instance! And what waste of human curiosity and wonder my life would be, if it was spent entirely as a subject constrained to the laws of predictable rigidity, structure and certainty.
The love of a mother taught me that becoming an engineer was only a means to stand on one’s two feet with certainty. But to reinvent oneself and to touch the horizon, one must embrace the uncertainty that cuts right through your core and connects you with everyone else in a single instant.
The next year, my family immigrated. And it took another decade of standing on both feet and building the courage for me to say goodbye to a career built on the back of engineering. The cubicle will not miss you when you step outside of it, and you will never look back. And every morning, once you get through the fears of personal transformation, the thought of living the uncertain life of an artist offers you a purpose to be awake.
Fear of the uncertainty never left my side once; and we know it lives with you too. Readers of these articles before you have shared with me as much. Many are concerned if they’ll ever act on their dreams; or if they’ll persevere through the difficulties of what they’ve already acted upon; or whether the price they have paid for success is right; and if success is indeed coming with any degree of certainty.
To your doubts and uncertainties, let it be said simply, that if you’re placing every stroke on the canvas that truly represents your life, nothing else really matters. Every stroke on your canvas chips away one more non-essential blank space. Every stroke is to be your decision, not lived through the thinking of others. And what’s left in the end is the core potential, the audacious purity of which resonates with an entirely new generation to come.
The entrepreneurial engineer is that who can withstand a thousand strokes, of the sharp miniature pencil of failure, on his self-image; and the person who still wakes up the next morning excited to discover what lies deeper within.
There is a painting worthy of worldwide display inside every entrepreneurial engineer; in the same way that there is miniature painting waiting to be evolved painstakingly and masterfully over a life time. Between a blank canvas and a lovingly inspired child.