Thinking About What It Means to Create a Masterpiece

lion kingEver since having kids, I’ve become obsessed with Disney movies. I love them. When you have kids, you have to watch kids’ stuff all the time, and a lot of it is terrible, but then you watch something like Moana and you’re still on the couch tuned in long after your kids’ attention span has expired. Why? What’s the difference between Disney’s Lion King and Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets? Or the difference between Beauty and the Beast, a great movie, and Despicable Me, a pretty good movie?

I think the answer is that Disney doesn’t just make movies. They also sometimes make masterpieces.

The Lion King is a masterpiece. The Secret Life of Pets is a decent way to distract your kids for 20 minutes. The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were a masterpiece. Sargent Pepper’s is a masterpiece. Tesla’s “Model S” might be a masterpiece (I don’t know what you call Musk’s idea to put a Tesla into orbit around Mars).

What does it mean to create a masterpiece? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Here’s what I’m thinking.

First, I don’t think you can create a masterpiece on accident. I think the intention to do something truly great has to be there from the start. I think you have to aim for the transcendent. And that takes some courage. Think about it. How competitive and confident (narcissistic?) do you have to be to want to create something that’s not only better than everything that’s out there in your field today, but also better than everything that’s ever been created before and will be better than anything that will ever be created hence?

Next, creating a masterpiece is the work of a master craftsman. A craftsman is someone who has actively practiced and experimented with a particular group of skills for a long time. This requires great sacrifice. A craftsman has to regularly forego what is expedient for his present in order to potentially create a better future. The master craftsman is someone who has achieved such proficiency with their group of skills that they can create something that evolves the entire field that they operate within. A master can set a new bar, and in doing so, inspire the next generation of master craftsmen.

Third, a masterpiece has to transcend the medium it is created in. In order to be transcendent, the work needs to have multiple layers of interpretation that can apply to different depths of the observer’s life. Think about The Lion King. There’s the surface layer of the movie, a fun children’s story about a lion who has an adventure. Then there’s a layer deeper, where maybe you imagine Simba is like a human, and you imagine how Simba’s adventure could be like a human adventure. Then you realize that you are Simba. You’re the child who inherits everything the light touches from his father. You’re the foolish adolescent who tried to take the easy way by shirking his inheritance. And you’re the adult who has to make the sacrifices necessary to save the future for everyone. And then there’s another layer (or more), where you realize Simba is a lot like Christ and the whole damn story is like the Prodigal Son story, or The Odyssey, or the Brothers Grimm Nursery rhymes, and that people have been telling this story for maybe 15,000 years or more, and then you snap back to reality and you’re a 35 year old sobbing in your armchair while watching a Disney movie by yourself.

Lastly, a masterpiece also has to stand the test of time. It has to be true and resonant today, tomorrow, in a generation, and again in 20 generations. This is a deeper type of truth, like a meta-truth, something that is true in across a wide set of possible interpretations and across time. This might be the hardest yet most alluring part of creating a masterpiece, that is, creating something that outlasts us.

Maybe I’d like to create a masterpiece. Maybe that’s a crazy thought. I mean, I’m not going to carve the next David, but maybe I can create my own kind of a masterpiece.

My profession or my craft is leadership. Can I practice and experiment and develop my skills to the point that I could do something meaningful that would be good for others now and also good for future generations? I don’t know. Maybe it’s worth trying. What would happen if that was what I was aiming for?

Are there other areas of my life where I could create my own version of a masterpiece? Maybe in being a husband or a dad. Think about the alternative. Being a terrible dad could certainly have an impact for many generations, so maybe the opposite of being terrible would help my kids and my kids’ kids have a better life. Wait a minute. Maybe this means my parents and their parents and their parents have already created their own masterpieces.

Maybe it’s not a privilege to aim for the transcendent. Maybe it’s our responsibility.

lion king

P.S.: What’s your favorite Disney movie?